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Handlin Scans Al Smith With One Eye on 1960

AL SMITH AND HIS AMERICA. By Oscar A. Handlin. Little Brown, 207 pp.

By Adam Clymer

"Can a Catholic ever be President of the United States?" This is the question posed by this thin little book, which first appeared in serial form next to Senator John F. Kennedy's picture in the Boston Globe. Professor Handlin literally asks the question as he begins, almost answers it as he concludes, and wonders about it all the way through this "Whig history" written from a Catholic viewpoint.

Now Handlin did not set out to write a definitive biography of Al Smith. The omission of footnotes makes it difficult to judge the scope of research, but the length itself indicates that this cannot be the significant work on Smith. It is not quite clear just what Handlin did intend to do, but he has succeeded in writing a short account of the rise and fall of one American Catholic politician.

Handlin himself suggests that Smith was more of a politician than a Catholic for most of his life. Yet the author, not unmindful of Senator Kennedy, seems more concerned about religion than politics, for which he has little feel. The worst example of this nearsightedness on politics arises in contrasting Handlin on Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Everything Smith did that was a trifle unsavory but placated the machine is excused as "playing the game," and this includes a drumhead impeachment of an anti-Tammany governor. But when Roosevelt set out to win delegates in the South and West, and hedged on Prohibition, Handlin sides with Smith.

A good third of the book is concerned with Smith and Roosevelt, and though Handlin does concede, "in the last analysis, Roosevelt proved the abler politician--less scrupulous, more free to maneuver, and hampered by fewer enmities," the reader must put up with several pro-Smith absurdities for every analysis like this. For example, in March, 1931, "probably the thought crossed [Smith's] mind that he deserved another chance, but far more important was the insistence that the candidate, whoever he be, vindicate his own position and prove that the hatreds and prejudices of 1928 had been an aberration." This is at best a dubious measure of Smith's ambition.

One feels also that Handlin has over-emphasized Smith's Catholicism in discussing his 1928 defeat, and has paid inadequate attention to Prohibition as an issue. This fault appears not so much in the chapter on the election itself, but in subsequent references, as when he analyzes Smith's feelings about another nomination, or the position of the Catholic politician in America.

Handlin never quite makes up his mind whether he is writing this book as an historian or as Al Smith. Is a given judgment Smith's or Handlin's? It's often hard to say. When they are given in a pseudo-brogue, one would suppose they are Smith's.

Handlin has some good insights into life on New York's East Side. This part of his book is often fascinating, as he catches the flavor of Smith's early years quite well. Smith emerges as a cocky, jaunty politician, the man who reorganized New York's State government and gave it an honest and popular administration. He shows through as the Smith who in 1933 threatened to lick Tammany on "a Chinese laundry ticket," if it wouldn't back Herbert Lehman.

It would be appropriate to say more about this part of the book only if it were more important to Handlin. But regrettably he has subordinated this material, on which his studies have strongly qualified him to write, to his "Whig theory" of writing history in terms of the present. The view that Smith symbolized the high-water mark of Catholic political hopes may be correct; so may be the view that he was double-crossed by a vacuous F.D.R. But if these conclusions were valid they would stand more firmly on a better research and more detailed history, and one which did not announce its main object as a modern political problem. Smith's defeat came thirty years ago, and while it bears much relevance for Kennedy's ambitions and other present concerns, it can be best understood by reference to 1928, but he is thinking too hard and too obviously about 1956 or 1960.

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