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Frank and Al: The Loss That Created FDR

FDR tried hard to become a New York politician while still working in Washington, battling the powerhouses of Tammany Hall and eventually succumbing to defeat. Part 2 of our Frank and Al miniseries shows how FDR's loss brought about an unlikely ally. 

By
Terry Golway
5-minute read
Episode #56

And he was a gifted politician who knew how to connect with an audience, keeping them entertained and charmed – once upon a time, when he was a younger man, he dreamed of being an actor. One thing was certain: He remained a consummate performer.

Smith defeated the incumbent governor by a slender margin and then set about building a government that would embrace the kinds of social reforms he championed as a legislator. Roosevelt noticed, and soon the letters started arriving, with advice, job recommendations, and invitations to Navy events. The Wilson administration would come to an end after the 1920 elections, and FDR was looking for his next opportunity. Having a friend as governor of New York might come in handy.

But together they could help reorganize New York’s Democrats.

At the 1920 Democratic National Convention, Al Smith had his name placed in nomination for president simply as a symbolic gesture — he was just a placeholder candidate. But Smith asked his new friend Roosevelt to give the seconding speech for his nomination. And when Roosevelt was unexpectedly nominated for vice president, he asked Smith to second his nomination.

The burgeoning relationship between these unlikely allies became deeper in the fall of 1920 because of mutual disappointment. Smith was defeated for re-election – the first loss of his career — and the Democratic national ticket of James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt was trounced by Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. It was Roosevelt’s second straight defeat, and both were electoral disasters.

In the days afterwards, the two men commiserated via letter. Smith suggested perhaps it was all for the better. But Roosevelt sought to buck him up. The two of them would probably never run for office again, Roosevelt said. But together they could help reorganize New York’s Democrats.

Roosevelt told Smith he wanted to work with him to help build a new party, but soon politics was the least of Roosevelt’s concerns. After a swim off the island of Campobello in the summer of 1921, he lost the use of his legs.

Picture from the Museum of the City of New York. Caption: From Albany, Smith followed the 1928 presidential convention in Houston viaradio. The new medium did not serve him well, but his successor as governor, Franklin Roosevelt, mastered it.

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