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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, October 17, 2003
 

William Randolph Hearst/Al Smith fight: the dead-tree comes through


A slam-dunk, really. Following my October 15 piece. I find I have a copy of Matthew and Hannah Josephson's 1969 Al Smith: Hero of the Cities - which has nigh on 40 pages (p242ff) in a chapter entitled The Duel with Hearst.

There's other stuff: but, in quantity alone, knocks the online information into a cocked hat.

Hearst, it points out, stood (or thought about standing) for virtually every important elected office in the state of New York. By 1919, he had succeeded in getting elected to only one: representing the 11th Congressional District (58th and 59th Congresses - 1903-7).

After a period on the outs with Tammany, he backed the successful candidate for Mayor of New York, John Hylan, in the 1917 election [1]; then attempted and failed to use his new-found influence to get the Dem nomination for Governor in 1918 - which went to Smith!

When, after winning in 1918, Smith spurned Hearst's (political) advances, a campaign of retaliation followed. The burning issue in the summer of 1919 was the high price of adulterated, unpasteurized milk. Under the heading of BABIES ARE DYING IN NEW YORK, the Evening Journal thundered to unsubtle cartoon accompaniment
Governor Smith! You have sold the babies to the Milk Trust as that other Judas, President Wilson, has sold the world to British tyranny.

Smith had no power to set milk prices, as Hearst well knew. Then - so the tale goes - Smith's mother, Catherine, took the Hearst rantings to heart, and her hitherto silent son decided to challenge Hearst to a head-to-head at Carnegie Hall on October 29 1919.

Hearst duly decamped to California (where Hearst Castle at San Simeon was in the planning stage) leaving Smith with a walkover. He let rip about Hearst stoking war in 1898 and fighting against it in 1917 [2]; and cataloguing the Hearst press's lies about him [3].

Smith rated his performance the beginning of the end for Hearst. But his papers still backed Smith for re-election in 1920 [4].

In 1922, Smith was a shoo-in for the Dem nomination for Governor. But Hearst was eyeing the job once more - he ran for it in 1906! - and had a cunning plan to garner votes in the state convention amongst upstate delegates.

Smith obtained testimonials from Judge Samuel Seabury [5] and polio-struck Franklin Roosevelt, and Hearst's goose was cooked.

His Plan B was to offer to run for the US Senate against Republican incumbent William Calder, in tandem with Smith. He threatened to use his control of the Hylan administration to do damage to Tammany in New York City - a bluff on which the boys were keen not to have to call Hearst on. Even Tammany old timer Bourke Cockran - who represented New York in Congress in Grover Cleveland's first administration - was sent to lay on the Blarney.

Eventually, Smith threatened to speak to the convention - and the prospect of their best hope throwing in the towel, or repeating his Carnegie Hall attack, was too much. Hearst was out - with how much encouragement from Tammany, the Josephsons don't make clear. And Hearst never came back against Smith.

Except at the 1932 convention - as mentioned in the previous piece. (The book has reached p439, so skimps on the story.)

[In my travels, I spied what looks like a useful paper (PDF) on the social history of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which perhaps is Smith's First Hurrah.]

  1. Smith was rather hoping to have the Dem nomination himself!

  2. He asked Smith to invite him to a reception for the return of the 77th Division from France, and Smith had turned him down - on the ground that he had opposed the war!

    Smith's Irish constituency were, of course, rabidly anti-British, and would have lapped up the Hearst rags' Brit-bashing stuff. But, so far as I can see, Smith did not pander to them on the war issue.

  3. There is no copy, so far as I can see, of that speech available online.

  4. He crashed to defeat: he was a Wet Dem in a landslide year from Dries and GOP men - and a Catholic, to boot. Apparently, Harding won 61 out of 62 State Assembly districts in New York City; even the legendary Charles Murphy's Gashouse District on the East Side went to Harding.

    However, Harding's winning margin in New York was 1.2 million votes; Smith's losing margin was just 75,000: a sign of the seismic shift that would lead to big pluralities in the cities for presidential candidate Smith in 1928, and Franklin Roosevelt's victory in 1932.

  5. The guy whose (colloquially) eponymous investigation did for Mayor James J Walker.


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