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.
Smith eventually campaigned for Roosevelt in the fall and was supportive of the New Deal at first. But the bitterness of his defeat at Roosevelt’s hands — engineered in part by men who once worked for him — eventually exploded. He joined the Liberty League, founded by staunch opponents of the New Deal, and delivered scathing attacks on Roosevelt, practically calling him a communist. He campaigned for Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in 1936, Kansas Governor Alf Landon, who lost to FDR in a historic landslide.
Smith’s criticism puzzled Roosevelt. The president once said to his friend and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins that everything he had done in the New Deal had already been done by Smith in New York. Perkins didn’t have to be reminded – she had worked for Smith in the 1920s and helped launch innovative social programs under his administration.
Smith continued to assail the New Deal through the 1930s, but as war broke out in Europe and Roosevelt tried to persuade Congress to support efforts to aid Britain when it stood alone against Hitler, Smith defended Roosevelt in a series of speeches. The president ended their icy silence by sending a note of thanks. Smith campaigned against Roosevelt again in 1940, but once FDR was re-elected, he continued to support his old friend’s pro-Allies policies against Hitler. Smith compared the Nazis to the KKK that terrorized him and his supporters in the 1920s.
“And it’s our duty … to make sure that, big as this country is, there is no room in it for racial or religious intolerance."
Roosevelt was listening, and watching. In the spring of 1941, Roosevelt sent a message to Smith through their mutual friend, Frances Perkins: If he were ever in town, Roosevelt told Smith, he should stop by the White House and say hello.
The old friends turned rivals met for the first time in years that spring. Several more meetings followed in the next few months. Neither man ever revealed what they discussed, but surely they talked about old times in Albany, about the bridges they built between the Democratic Party’s rival factions in the 1920s, about the policies they embraced years earlier that were now implemented at a national level.
Smith’s wife Katie, who had formed a bond with Eleanor Roosevelt decades earlier, died in the spring of 1944. Roosevelt sent a touching letter of condolence, and Smith replied with equal sincerity. But Smith himself was failing. He was in and out of a hospital in the late summer. Roosevelt and his aides kept tabs on Smith, even as the president sought to manage the final stages of World War II.