Sheen Center Looks at Al Smith, First Catholic Presidential Candidate

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Apanel at “Alfred E. Smith: The Man Behind the Dinner” at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in lower Manhattan Oct. 1 discussed the life of the first Catholic governor of New York who later became the first Catholic to represent a major-party ticket in a presidential election.

“Al (Smith) was one of the great political presences in our history,” Robert Slayton, history professor at Chapman University in California and author of “Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith,” told CNY.

Slayton, who is originally from the Bronx, was one of two historians on a panel of four with Terry Golway, senior editor of Politico and the author of the recently released “Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Creation of the Modern Democratic Party.”

Joining Slayton and Golway were Cardinal Dolan and Alfred E. Smith, IV, great-grandson of Al Smith who has served as director, secretary and dinner chairman of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner for 29 years. This year’s dinner is Thursday, Oct. 18.

The cardinal, introducing the evening’s program to the 200 guests, called Alfred E. Smith “a colorful and courageous man.”

After a video on Smith’s life was shown, Slayton and Golway each spoke for 20 minutes about Smith’s impact on Catholics, New Yorkers and people of the United States.

“I hope it’s the beginning of a process where we bring Al Smith back to life and where we remind people why that dinner is named for him and why the name Al Smith should be important, not just for Catholics and New Yorkers, but for all Americans,” said Golway, a graduate of Msgr. Farrell High School on Staten Island.

“By remembering the landmark election of 1918, hopefully we’ll begin a process to bring Al and everything he stood for back into our consciousness.”

This year is a centennial marker for Smith, who was elected to the first of his four two-year terms as New York governor in 1918. He lost the 1920 election, but regained the governorship by winning the first of three consecutive elections in 1922.

In 1928, Roosevelt ran for governor and Smith for president. Roosevelt became governor, and Smith lost 40 of the then-48 states, including New York, in the presidential election against Republican Herbert Hoover.

“In many ways, Al was the tutor and Franklin was the student. A lot of FDR’s biographers never understood that dynamic because they just figured well Roosevelt went to Harvard and Al dropped out of grade school,” Golway said.

“At least in my view, Franklin Roosevelt transformed himself to a consummate politician in some ways by watching Al.”

“In 1928, Al Smith asks him to run for governor. Roosevelt runs as Al Smith’s protégé and he never lost an election after that. I just don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

Roosevelt went on to receive the Democratic nomination for president over Smith in 1932, and their personal relationship suffered. Smith supported Republican candidate Alf Langdon in the 1936 presidential election.

Slayton writes in his book that Smith and Roosevelt reconciled to fight against a common enemy—Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Smith died in 1944, and Roosevelt died less than seven months later in 1945.

“FDR once said he never had the personal appeal of Al Smith,” Slayton said. “Over the radio he was the master, far, far better than Smith, but on a personal level, he never had the outreach to individuals.

“Smith had a very unique, distinctly personal outreach. People cried when he talked. They came up to him and just cried. They didn’t do it for FDR, who was very beloved. (Al) just knew this country was made up of different people and they should all be valued.”

The evening left Al and Toni Magnane, former New Yorkers who now reside in Connecticut, wanting to learn more.

“I did know about the rivalry…I never could understand the rivalry, which I will have to look into myself,” Mrs. Magnane said.

Her husband said the evening was “very enlightening, educational, humorous and certainly well sourced from the people who were on the stage.”

Jeff Vargas was an intern with the New York State Senate in Albany as a college student and remembered the 34-story Alfred E. Smith Building, which is located across the street from New York State Capitol. The 27-year-old decided to attend after learning about the event through an email from CatholicNYC.org, the archdiocese’s young adult group.

“He represented the city, and that’s what I took away from this evening,” said Vargas, a parishioner of Holy Family in New Rochelle. “He represented obviously Catholics but Jewish immigrants who came to this country and lived on the Lower East Side with him. It’s my first time here. I’m glad I came.”

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