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How WWII United FDR and Al Smith

In the fifth and final installment of our Frank and Al miniseries, Terry Golway explores how the political ambitions between FDR and Al Smith were set aside during WWII, with the country united behind a common cause. 

By
Terry Golway,
Episode #59
FDR signing bill

As Franklin Roosevelt embarked on his campaign for president in 1932, the only thing he had to fear was another Democrat. And that other Democrat’s name was Al Smith.

It was a virtual given that the incumbent president, Republican Herbert Hoover, would be denied a second term. The country was mired in the Great Depression and the Hoover White House seemed to be unable to cope with the catastrophe. Although only two Democrats had been elected president since the Civil War—Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland—it seemed certain that 1932 would be a Democratic year.

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Roosevelt launched his campaign in January of 1932. Then, in early February, came a bolt from the political blue: His predecessor as governor of New York, Smith, announced that he would accept his party’s nomination if it were offered to him. He wouldn’t campaign for it, he said, but he wouldn’t turn it down, either.

It was friend versus friend, and it proved to be the beginning of one of the epic feuds in 20th century American politics.

Smith had previously told friends, including several who worked for Roosevelt, that he would not be a candidate for president. His sons had lost a great deal of money in the stock market crash of 1929, and Smith’s job as president of the Empire State Building paid well. He couldn’t afford to run for president, he said.

And then he changed his mind, and the battle was on. Men and women who worked for both men, who considered both men friends, had to choose sides. The New York Democratic Party, the most important political organization in the country at the time, was deeply divided. It was friend versus friend, and it proved to be the beginning of one of the epic feuds in 20th century American politics.

Roosevelt entered the convention in Chicago with the most delegates, but not enough for the two-third majority required. Smith’s forces were determined to block Roosevelt, and after three ballots, they seemed to be succeeding. But two men in FDR’s camp who got their start in politics with Smith, James Farley and Edward Flynn, helped cut a deal with the Texas and California delegations who were backing House Speaker Jack Garner of the Lone Star State. Garner became Roosevelt’s running mate, and Texas and California delivered the nomination to FDR, crushing Smith’s dreams of another bid for the White House.

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