From the Critics
Reviews of "Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior"
New York Times, July 21, 2002
Alfred E. Smith (1873-1944) was one of the most engaging of 20th-century American political figures, and Christopher M. Finan does him proud in his well-researched biography. Smith was, indeed, the "happy warrior" that Franklin D. Roosevelt called him. Finan, in his first book, traces Smith's transformation from a Tammany machine man in the New York Assembly (1903-15) to a successful advocate for industrial safety codes and workers' rights. The shock of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, which killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women and teenagers, set Smith on the progressive path, and he stuck to it as governor of New York (1918-20 and 1922-28), as well as defending the rights of Socialists, Communists and left-wingers, targets of the 1919 Red Scare raids. Smith's efforts in behalf of the new class of city workers drew vicious attacks when he ran for president in 1928; his gravelly Lower East Side accent, brown derby, cigar and cane marked him as a city man, and his Roman Catholicism provided a handy pretext for bigotry. Finan writes well, but for an occasional lapse into anachronism.
From Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A rock-solid biography of the muckraking New York politician. Though he bore the sobriquet "the happy warrior," Al Smith (1873–1944) took anything but a lighthearted approach to politics. He harbored, writes Finan (president of the American Booksellers' Foundation for Free Expression), a "distrust of theory" in an age when big ideas abounded and instead was convinced that the "first step to solving any problem was to get 'the facts'." His careful, studious approach to politics was learned on the job after an unlikely elevation from his former occupation as a laborer at New York's Fulton Fish Market. Taken up by a Tammany ward boss, Smith soon became an integral part of the city's political machine, securing the support of fellow Irish Catholics. Populist but essentially conservative, he won the governorship in 1918, dismaying the social elite that ruled Albany. Around this time he became a valuable ally of Franklin Roosevelt, though FDR harbored his own ambitions and eventually turned on Smith, ostensibly in the interests of anti-boss system reform but in fact in the interests of the patrician, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic wing of the Democratic Party. Angry at Roosevelt's "dodging" on Prohibition, Smith endured a sound defeat at Herbert Hoover's hands in the presidential election of 1928, then became a prominent critic of the New Deal after FDR beat Hoover in 1932. For this supposed betrayal, he was shunned by his fellow Democrats and was subsequently all but forgotten by historians. That's all to the bad, Finan argues; Smith's mistrust of big government is a familiar trope today, his political accomplishments were many, and had he been elected, "he may well have become one of the country's great presidents." Well written, thoroughly researched: likely to stand as the definitive portrait of Smith for years to come.
Finan....has written an absorbing and provocative biography of a significant but frequently ignored political figure. Smith was often dismissed by his opponents as an amiable dolt. Finan convincingly asserts that Smith was an intense, savvy politician with a great gasp of how to manipulate the levers of power. Although he had been marinated in the Tammany Hall school of political patronage, he would prove to be a frustratingly independent thinker and operator. His break with Roosevelt, often dismissed as a matter of sour grapes, actually stemmed from an almost Jeffersonian suspicion of centralized power. Finan superbly examines the rise and ultimately sad fall of a difficult but admirable man. Jay Freeman
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