• U.S.

POLITICAL NOTE: Warrior to War

9 minute read

In the U. S. last week millions of citizens gathered to hear the man who might have been President talk about the man who was President. At the Mayflower Hotel in Washington only 2,000 listeners actually saw the speaker, but it was to the unseen audience of the air that his words were significantly addressed. Most of that audience remembered the 1924 Democratic Convention when the speaker had first been called the “Happy Warrior”— by the same Franklin D. Roosevelt whom Alfred Emanuel Smith was about to denounce. They remembered March 4, 1933, when Al Smith paraded with the New York delegation in honor of the man who had won the prize denied to him. That was the last day on which the two New Yorkers stood together. Hardly had the Administration established itself before Editor Smith was sniping at it in the pages of his magazine. But the New Deal was stronger than the New Outlook and Editor Smith went into a long retirement.

From retirement the Warrior was now returning to the war, mounted on a strange charger known as the American Liberty League and surrounded by such unfamiliar lieutenants as Banker Winthrop Aldrich, ex-Senator David A. Reed, Steelman Ernest T. Weir, Politicalite Alice Longworth.

Al Smith, 62, with deeply silvered hair, his once full face already growing hollow with age, is a Conservative. Those who in 1928 mistook the fact that he was a Wet for the fiction that he was a Liberal, had long ago seen their error. To Al Smith the New Deal was a Strange Deal, full of Socialism, Radicalism, Communism. In Washington he stood up before the du Fonts and the Raskobs not to speak to them but to his party. He spoke not as the statesman of eight years ago but as the New Yorker of 30 years ago in the solecisms of the Lower East Side. Not once did he mention the name of Franklin Roosevelt, but every long word that he twisted his raucous tongue around, every point that he drove home with platitudinous common sense, every uproarious poke at the New Deal invited comparison with the polished plausibility of the Squire of Hyde Park. He made no attempt to grapple with the New Deal in argument. His was what his friends would call an appeal to principle and his enemies an appeal to prejudice. A score of times he made his audience bellow with amusement, yet his address was delivered in a tragic spirit. To Al Smith, the Democracy was in danger, and Al Smith was sounding the alarm.

“At the outset of my remarks,” he began, “let me make one thing perfectly clear. I am not a candidate for any nomination by any party, at any time. . . . Further than that, I have no ax to grind. There is nothing personal in this whole performance insofar as I am concerned. … I am in possession of supreme happiness and comfort. . . . “When I see danger, I say danger. . . . What are these dangers that I see? The first is the arraignment of class against class. … Of course in my time I met some good and bad industrialists. . . . But I also met some good and bad laborers. This I know—that permanent prosperity is dependent upon both capital and labor alike. I also know that there can be no permanent prosperity in this country until industry is able to employ labor, and there certainly can be no permanent recovery upon any governmental theory of soak the rich or soak the poor. . . .

“Just let me quote something from the President’s message to Congress: ‘In thirty-four months we have set up new instruments of public power in the hands of the people’s Government, which power is wholesome and appropriate, but in the hands of political puppets, of an economic autocracy, such power would provide shackles for the liberties of our people.’ Now I interpret that to mean that ‘if you are going to have an autocrat—take me! But be very careful about the other fellow.’

“There is a complete answer to that. . . . We don’t want any autocrats, either in or out of office. We wouldn’t even take a good one. . . . “No Administration in the history of the country came into power with a more simple, a more clear, or a more inescapable mandate than the party that was inaugurated on the 4th of March in 1933, and, listen, no candidate in the history of the country ever pledged himself more unequivocally to his party platform than did the President who was inaugurated on that day. Well, here we are.

“First plank: ‘We advocate an immediate drastic reduction of governmental expenditures. . . .’

“Another plank: ‘We favor maintenance of the National credit by a Federal budget annually balanced.’ . . .

“When I was Governor of New York, they said I borrowed a lot of money. That wouldn’t worry me. If it solved our problems and we were out of trouble, I would say, ‘All right, let it go.’ But the sin of it is that we have the indebtedness, and at the end of three years we are just where we started. . . .

“Here is another one: ‘We promise the enactment of every constitutional measure that will aid the farmers to receive for their basic farm commodities prices in excess of cost.’ Well, what’s the use of talking about that? . . .

“Another one: ‘We promise the removal of Government from all fields of private enterprise.’ . . . “Did you read in the papers a short time ago where somebody said that business was going to get a breathing spell? What is the meaning of that? . . . When the aggressor is punching the head off the other fellow, he suddenly takes compassion on him and gives him a breathing spell before he delivers the knockout wallop. . . .

“I am going to let you in on something. . . . How do you suppose all this happened? This is the way it happened: The young brain-trusters caught the Socialists in swimming and they ran away with their clothes. Now, it is all right with me, if they want to disguise themselves as Karl Marx or Lenin or any of the rest of that bunch, but I won’t stand for their allowing them to march under the banner of Jefferson or Jackson or Cleveland. . . .

“Now what is worrying me is: Where does that leave us millions of Democrats? My mind is all fixed upon the convention in June in Philadelphia. The committee on resolutions is about to report. The preamble to the platform is: ‘We, the representatives of the Democratic party, in convention assembled, heartily endorse the Democratic Administration.’

“What happens to the disciples of Jefferson and Jackson and Cleveland when that resolution is read out? Why, for us it is a washout. There is only one of two things we can do: We can either take on the mantle of hypocrisy or we can take a walk, and we will probably do the latter. . . .

“Now, this is pretty tough for me to have to go after my own party this way, but I submit that there is a limit to blind loyalty. … I suggest for the members of my party on Capitol Hill here in Washington that they take their minds off the Tuesday that follows the first Monday in November. … I ask them to read from the Holy Scripture the paragraph of the Prodigal Son, and to follow his example. ‘Stop wasting your substance in a foreign land and come back to your father’s house.’

“Now, in conclusion, let me give this solemn warning: There can be only one capital, Washington or Moscow. . . . There can be only one victor. If the Constitution wins, we win. But if the Constitution—stop! stop there—the Constitution can’t lose! The fact is, it has already won, but the news has not reached certain ears.”

Significance. Day after Al Smith’s speech. Washington enjoyed a guessing game: What did he mean when he said that he would probably “take a walk” when the next Democratic Convention endorses the New Deal? Would he turn his back on politics and retire until the New Deal blew over? Would he actively attack sew Dealers in the campaign? Would he support a ticket of anti-New Deal Democrats?

The political consequences of his speech last week were more important than the speech itself. The first reaction to the speech signally failed to show what those consequences would be. The comments of public men might for the most part just as well have been written before the Smith speech as afterward, so neatly were they divided by the line of pro and anti-New Deal feeling.

Said anti-New Dealers:

Pierre S. du Pont: Perfect!

Republican Senator Hastings: A devastating speech!

Republican Senator Vandenberg: The brave words of an honest man.

Said New Dealers:

Democratic Senator Byrnes: It was the voice of Oliver Street but the thought of Wall Street.

Democratic Representative Doughton: A loose harangue from a sour, disappointed has-been.

Republican Senator Norris: The natural expression of a man who has been disappointed. . . . The peroration . . . of a demagog.

Madam Secretary Perkins: He is my friend. … I believe he will come back.

How the public would divide was far from apparent. In Washington, amid violent clashes of opinion, three shades of reaction were evident:

1) Smith’s description of the New Deal as Communistic was a descent to Hearstian demagoguery. Bitterness and wisecracks ran away with him.

2) He took a sound position, but the speech was far from his best, since at times he stretched his argument to the nonsense point.

3) He took the measure of the New Deal with common sense few public men possess, and the New Deal will never be the same again.

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