Review: Kirkus Reviews

Alfred E. Smith
The Happy Warrior

Kirkus Reviews, 2002

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.