Despite his illness, FDR proved a strong ally for Al Smith, and visa versa. In Part 3 of our Frank and Al miniseries, we see how these two political powerhouses rewrote what it meant to be a Democrat and an American.
It was no secret in New York that Franklin Roosevelt was ill. Newspapers reported that the one-time state senator and failed vice presidential candidate had fallen ill on Campobello Island and was taken by stretcher to a hospital in the city. Soon the diagnosis became public: Polio.
For New York’s ruthlessly pragmatic politicians there was no longer any reason to speculate about Franklin Roosevelt’s future. He had none. True, he tried to pretend otherwise, telling friends that it was just a matter of time before he regained control of his legs. He told an old friend from the Wilson Administration, former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, that he was getting better every week. McAdoo was glad to hear it — he had hoped to run for president in 1920 to succeed his father-in-law, Wilson, but was denied at the convention. Things would be different in 1924, McAdoo thought, and he was counting on allies like Roosevelt to help him.
Roosevelt and his friend Louis Howe kept a lively correspondence with prominent Democrats in the months following his polio diagnosis. He was hidden from public view, but hardly out of mind — or at least that was the point. And he saw an opportunity to play the role of power broker in the summer of 1922, when New York Democrats were looking for a candidate for governor.
The Republican incumbent, Nathan Miller, had defeated Al Smith in 1920 but was not especially popular. But Democrats appeared to have nobody to challenge him — nobody, that is, save for the wildly controversial newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, a former congressman. Hearst had made many enemies in New York politics, none greater than Al Smith, who had retired to private life but who remained the state’s most-popular politician.
FDR saw his opportunity: He wrote a letter to Smith urging him to return to public life, adding a nudge by saying that if Smith stayed on the sidelines, his old enemy Hearst might be the party’s candidate. Roosevelt then published an open letter to Smith, pleading with him to run again.
Smith agreed, and Franklin Roosevelt was given credit for persuading the former governor to return to the campaign trail. FDR was unable to walk and was invisible to the public, but when Al Smith declared his candidacy and then won election in a landslide, he was seen as a power broker in his home state. Mission accomplished.
There was more to come.