Alfred Emanuel Smith in May 1920 during his first term as governor of New York

I was on vacation last week when I received a text message from someone who was himself away, sitting on a beach in Mexico no less, telling me that the New-York Historical Society had just acquired the extensive—200 linear feet—papers of Robert Caro. I told my friend that I remembered seeing Caro interviewed on C-SPAN 12-15 years ago and Brian Lamb asking the biographer where his papers might eventually go. Caro said at the time that he was not sure, but that he would not be giving them to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. He had had several problems with officials there over the years, especially in the early years of his multi-volume LBJ project when at least some officials then at the archive had been personal associates of Johnson himself and thus less than forthcoming. As it happened I was reading Terry Golway’s Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Unlikely Alliance that Created the Modern Democratic Party when my friend texted.

Caro’s papers include a great deal on Al Smith himself, one of the great and sadly forgotten figures in American history. Smith happened to enter the New York State Assembly 116 years ago this week in January 1904. Tammany boss Tom Foley, the man responsible for giving Smith his start in politics, gave Smith one piece of advice before his protégé headed to Albany that January nearly a century ago: “Don’t speak until you have something to say.” And so for that first term Smith sat as a back-bencher high above the legislative floor, taking in the proceedings and figuring out who was who and what was what. Roosevelt entered Albany politics seven years later. The word “alliance” in Golway’s title is fitting, for while Smith and FDR’s relationship was more than transactional the two very different men and never shared a friendship in any true sense. For reasons too complicated to go in to here and now, I would aver that it is not a stretch to say that without Al Smith there would be no FDR, at least no FDR as we know the man and his legacy.

I have some projects I’m hoping to accomplish involving Al Smith over the next few years and am hoping Caro’s research on the four-term New York governor and 1928 Democratic Party nominee will be available fairly soon.

(image/Library of Congress)