Review: The New York Times

Alfred E. Smith
The Happy Warrior

The New York Times, 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.