The Politics of Alfred E. Smith
On Thursday, the presidential candidates for both of the two major parties appeared at the Al Smith Dinner, an annual fundraiser for Catholic Charities which has been a frequent election campaign stop for presidential hopefuls since Kennedy and Nixon appeared there in 1960. The speeches given by the candidates at the Al Smith Dinner are, by tradition, supposed to be funny, and this year the candidates did not disappoint (video of both speeches can be found here). Both Senator Obama and Senator McCain showed themselves to be quite capable of poking fun at their opponents and at themselves which was, I think, all to the good.
One line in particular, though, struck me as odd. During his remarks, Senator Obama stated that he “shared the politics of Alfred E. Smith and the ears of Alfred E. Newman.” Now, obviously, the worst thing you can do with a joke is overanalyze it, but I had to wonder: exactly what were the politics that Barack Obama thought he had in common with Al Smith? Presumably he was not referring to his positions on social issues such as abortion or homosexual unions, which were not major issues in Al Smith’s time, but on which he no doubt would have differed from Senator Obama. Nor, presumably, was Obama referring to Smith’s opposition to Prohibition. Rather, I expect that in making this remark, Senator Obama was thinking that, as a Democrat, Al Smith would have approved of the economic proposals that Obama has put forward.
If so, then Senator Obama is almost certainly mistaken. While Al Smith was the Democratic nominee for president just prior to Franklin Roosevelt, after Roosevelt’s election he became a ferocious critic of the New Deal, saying of the Roosevelt administration: “It is all right to me if they want to disguise themselves as Norman Thomas or Karl Marx, or Lenin, or any of the rest of that bunch, but what I won’t stand for is to let them march under the banner of Jefferson, Jackson, or Cleveland.” Smith went on to become a major player in the American Liberty League (along with, among others, George Bush’s grandfather), which labeled Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration “a trend toward Fascist control of agriculture,” and said that the passage of Social Security would “mark the end of democracy.” Smith even went on to endorse the Republican presidential nominee in 1936 and 1940, making him the Joe Lieberman of his era. His politics had less in common with Barack Obama’s than they do with Joe the Plumber’s.