Posted on September 22, 2008
In 1928, the Democrats nominated Al Smith, a self-identified Irish Catholic, to be their candidate for President. Smith had been governor of New York throughout most of the 1920’s. He was seen as a progressive politician, even though he owed his career to the famous Tammany Hall machine that ran New York.
I have been thinking about Al Smith a lot lately. Smith broke quite a few barriers by becoming the first serious Catholic Presidential nominee. He actually did pretty well in the South, because he put an Arkansan, Senator Joseph Robinson, on the ballot.
The election of 1928 was historic for another reason. It was the first to use radio for political advertising.
Herbert Hoover easily won, even though he had never run for elective office before, because of the three P’s, prohibition, prosperity and prejudice. Smith didn’t take a firm stand on prohibition, afraid of splitting his Democratic base. But by not taking a strong stand, he alienated those who strongly favored keeping prohibition in place, namely southern protestant conservatives. Many of those conservatives held their nose and voted for the Republicans (even though they still hated the party of Lincoln because of the “war of northern aggression” as some like to call it), because they didn’t like Smith’s papist origins, didn’t like his stand on prohibition, and didn’t like his connections to New York city politics.
Like Barack Obama, Smith came from a varied background. His grandparents were German, Italian, English and Irish. But despite this ethnic diversity, Smith identified himself as Irish, because it made good political sense. That is not unlike Obama’s decision to identify himself as a “black” politician, even though he is of a mixed racial backround.
Like Obama, Smith made peace with the dominant political machine. For Smith, it was Tammany. For Obama, it is the Daley political machine. Smith’s affiliation with Tammany hurt him in his run for the Presidency. Obama’s connection to Chicago corruption will hurt him in this election.
It is unclear what role racial prejudice will play in this election. As Obama himself has said, some will vote against Obama because he is black, and some will vote for him because he is black. I do believe that Obama’s connections to Chicago, his lack of experience, and his political philosophy will hurt him more than his race.
Obama does have one advantage, of course. Prosperity is not the advantage for McCain that it was for Hoover. But McCain’s reputation as a reformer and a maverick should serve him well in an election where both parties (and Washington in general) is held in such low regard.
At the end of the day, most Americans had too many questions about Al Smith to vote for him, and he lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover. Will history repeat itself? Will Obama be able to answer the many questions about his record, his philosophy, his experience and his affiliations? Or will he suffer a similar fate that faced Al Smth, a history-maker who became a historical footnote