Trailblazers in Politics and Civil Rights

Alfred E. Smith votes in the gubernatorial race of 1918.

Two recent biographies may galvanize readers currently feeling cheated by a shortage of contemporary political heroes.

I, for one, can never get enough of New York’s 1920s governor Alfred E. Smith, whom Robert Chiles, a history lecturer at the University of Maryland, reanimates in “The Revolution of ’28: Al Smith, American Progressivism, and the Coming of the New Deal” (Cornell University Press).

In his distillation of the many volumes by earlier biographers, Mr. Chiles distinguishes Smith’s local progressivism from the national liberal agenda that Franklin D. Roosevelt labeled the New Deal and imposed in response to the Depression.

But in contextualizing the two, he writes that both were framed by the same collaboration of female social welfare advocates (like Frances Perkins) and enlightened Tammany proxies (like Robert F. Wagner).

“Smith is the first child of the new immigration who might be president of the United States,” Walter Lippmann predicted in 1927.

He won the Democratic nomination in 1928 and campaigned as “The Happy Warrior.” But he was soundly defeated, doomed as a Catholic from New York who regarded Prohibition as an intemperate anti-immigrant indignity. Herbert Hoover, who could justifiably campaign as a…

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