Al Smith Dinner, New York, New York, October 22, 1959

Actually the first Presidential candidate to conduct a nation-wide campaign was General Winfield Scott in 1852. But, although he made many speeches, he insisted that his only motive was to find a suitable site for a military hospital. “I do not come here to solicit your votes,” he said, “I come on a mission of great public charity.” I am sure tonight that Mr. DeSapio and the other political leaders gathered here know that I would not dream of coming to solicit their votes – I also come on a mission of great public charity – to aid the Alfred E. Smith Wing of St. Vincent’s Hospital. That great institution has truly been what Cardinal Spellman declared it always would be: “A house of healing wherein the sick and suffering, be they rich or poor, Negro or white, Protestant, Jew or Catholic, may find comfort, cure and refuge from pain and sickness.” No other cause is more worthy of our support.

But we are also here tonight to pay tribute to a great American, Al Smith. I never knew Al Smith. I can claim no association with his career. And so it is difficult for me to know just how to speak of him tonight – what memories to recall to those of you who knew him well – what qualities to bring back for their present day values.

It would not do, I am convinced, to speak of Al Smith only as a Democrat. To be sure, we in the Democratic Party are proud to claim him. And to be sure, he was attacked by his partisan adversaries in the past. But a different generation honors him now. – and he belongs to them as well. The presence here tonight of so many distinguished Republicans reminds us that Al Smith holds a place of affection in their hearts equal to the one he holds in the hearts of the party he served so long and so well – as Assemblyman, Sheriff, President of the Board of Aldermen, Governor of New York and Presidential nominee.

Neither would it be enough, I am convinced, to speak of Al Smith only as a New Yorker. To do only that would also devalue his worth. He was indeed, as his enemies claimed, up from the sidewalks of New York – the Fulton fish Market – and Tammany Hall. He was indeed rejects as strange and alien by many who lived in other parts of the country – who feared or sneered at the New York ways of Al and his Katie – declaring “They’re not our kind of folks.” But a different generation knows better. It knows that he made this state of New York a social laboratory, in which were developed for all America the laws of light which hurled back the dark age of industrial revolution.

Finally, I am convinced that it is not enough to speak tonight of Al Smith only as a Catholic. To be sure, that was his creed, his faith and his strength – and some say his political weakness. And that is how most political columnists refer to him and his campaign today. But to emphasize only this aspect of his life is to ignore the vast range of Al Smith’s intellectual horizons –his uncompromising devotion to America and its Constitutional values – his passionate belief in religious liberty and religious equality – his untiring efforts on behalf of the public schools – and his deep-felt dedication on other issues (including his party, and Prohibition) which were equally responsible for his defeat in 1928. It overlooks the kind of man whose speech to a group of intellectuals at Cambridge, Massachusetts held them fascinated for over an hour – one professor observing later: “How Aristotle would have liked that address!”

Yes – the party, the city and the Church he loved are all important parts of Al Smith’s life. But what is most important for us to recall tonight, it seems to me, is another quality that best sums up Al Smith’s career – and that was his passion for the hard, unvarnished facts, his sometimes brutal and sometimes humorous candor, his insistence throughout the years that the American people just “look at the record.” He was, at all times, a realist, a hard-headed, tough-minded fighter from Oliver Street and the Fulton Fish Market. He knew how to put the facts before the people, how to strip an issue of all pretense and how to unmask hypocrisy, double-talk and visionary schemes for what they really were. Using a phrase picked up from Fulton Sheen, he often said that “the world would be better off if there was more blarney and less baloney.” He could hand out the blarney with the best of them – the dialect jokes, the Irish songs, the stories and the praise – but he had no stomach for political “baloney.”

When farm income fell in the 20’s he criticized those who “promised relief – and gave nothing but three cheers.” When Prohibition became a farce and an evil, he spoke out with contempt for those who dodged this politically hot issue by calling it a “noble experiment.” When religious and racial intolerance was a whispering issue in the National Convention of his party, even before he was its standard-bearer, he brought that issue out into the open. “The Catholics of the country,” he said, “can stand it. The Jews can stand it. But the United States of America cannot stand it.”

Al Smith lived up to the principle first set forth by Carlyle: that the essence of true heroism is true sincerity. In vetoing those bills which rode a crest of popular anti-Socialist hysteria after the First World War, he denounced those who had built this “red scare” up out of all proportion, forgetting, as he said, “the traditional abhorrence of a free people of all kinds of spies and secret police.” When as an Assemblyman in the New York State Legislature, he was asked by the fish canners for an exception under his bill providing for a six-day work-week, he told them: “I have read carefully the commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy’; but I am unable to find any language in it that says, ‘except for the fish canners’.” And he laid another opponent low with the retort: “If bunk were electricity, that man would be a powerhouse.”

It was perhaps his greatest quality, the old New York Sun said – “his scorn of pompous pretense.” When the managers of his gubernatorial campaign asked him to wear his hat straighter – and less on the back of his head – he told them: “The people of this state don’t care how the outside of my skull looks. They want to know what’s inside it. If I’ve got to change the way I wear my hat, you can get yourselves another candidate.” When he started out on his tour of the nation in 1928, his council of strategy reportedly voted unanimously against his even wearing the brown derby – but he alone voted “aye” – and the brown derby stayed.

When his opponents in that campaign prophesied that the election of Smith would end prosperity to such an extent that grass would grow in the streets, Al replied that he could use a putting-green in Times Square. And earlier, when an engineer whom he wanted to head the Department of Roads said he knew nothing about politics, Governor Smith told him: “That’s one of the reasons I want to appoint you. We have had a good many political superintendents of highways – and now we want one who knows how to build roads.”

He was, in short, truly the “Happy Warrior” – able to ridicule adversity, pomposity, hypocrisy and falsehood – but nevertheless determined to fight them all the way. And Al Smith was a happy warrior because, more perhaps than any other leader of his time, he lived up to these words of Pericles burying the Athenian dead. “The secret of happiness, said Pericles, “is freedom – and the secret of freedom is a brave heart.” Al Smith had a brave heart – and we need more such brave hearts and more such happy warriors today.

For the hour at which we are arrived in American life today is strangely similar to the one in which Al Smith emerged ready to do battle – against sloth and drift and decay, against hypocrisy and pomposity and prejudice. In a surface view, perhaps, life in our time – as in Al Smith’s time – is gay and careless, prosperous and contented. People come and go, more concerned with the good life than with the good society. They live by themselves, with themselves and for themselves alone, with no concern for the hard, rough road that lies ahead.

Pleasure is our goal – leisure is our ideal. Obligations, standards, old-fashioned devotion to “duty, honor and country” – these are all passé, neglected, forgotten. The slow corrosion of luxury – the slow erosion of our courage – are already beginning to show. Our profits may be up – our standard of living may be up – but so is our crime rate. So is the rate of divorce and juvenile delinquency and mental illness. So are the sales of tranquilizers and the number of children dropping out of school.

Nearly one out of every two American young men is rejected by Selective Service today as mentally, physically or morally unfit for any kind of military service. Nearly one out of every three American prisoners of war in Korea was guilty of collaborating with the enemy, in either a major of minor way. Nearly one in seven engaged in major offenses, such as broadcasting propaganda or spying on his fellow prisoners. For the first time in history, not one American prisoner escaped. And 38 per cent of our men died in captivity, the highest rate in all our history. And yet, on the other hand, among Turkish and Colombian soldiers taken prisoner – many of them injured and many of them poorly educated – not a single one died – not a single one collaborated in any significant way – and the whole group maintained a remarkable sense of discipline.

And that is why I say today we need Al Smith’s candor and courage, his sense of reality and responsibility. For in his day, also, the nation had seemed to lose perspective and drive. As F.D.R. said in nominating Al Smith in ’28: “The soul of our country, lulled by material prosperity, has passed through eight gray years.” The nation was fat contented to hold on to what it had – to keep out new immigrants and new ideas. It had lost its vision of far horizons. Its outlook was petty and nearsighted, following the words of Omar Khayyam: “Take the cash and let the credit go – nor heed the rumble of a distant drum.”

And then Al Smith emerged to lead the charge, in the best of all wars. It was the war of thought against matter, of reason against slogans, of the public good against private appetites, of responsible leadership against aimless drift, of moral accountability against moral indifference. It was the war to unmask the imposters, to replace the false with the true, to throw the money-changers out of the temple, to raise the inert mass of men to the dignity of an alert, choosing people, consciously and gladly assuming the burdens of advancing mankind.

“A great nation,” said Woodrow Wilson “is not led by a man who simply repeats the talk of the street-corners or the opinions of the newspapers. A (great) nation is led by a man who speaks a new principle for a new age; a man (to whom) the voices of the nation ... unite in a single meaning and reveal to him in a single vision, so that he can speak what no (one) else know, the common meaning of the common voice. Such is the man who leads a great, free, democratic nation.”

And such a man was Al Smith – not personally victorious in the end – but a great leader – an unusual man – an outstanding man. As Robert Moses reminded us in a perceptive article last year: “Fate tried to conceal him by calling him Smith; but as the brown derby brushed the stars, the anvils of a thousand Smiths rang out, and a great shout arose ‘Emanuel!’.”

We need that kind of leadership today. We need Al Smith’s kind of candor today – that willingness to tell the people the hard facts that face us. We need to be told that the next decade is not all peace, prosperity and progress – that we cannot take for granted our security, our liberty or even our future. We need his ability to ridicule the diplomatic pomposity that passes as wisdom. We need to recall – when sweet, seductive voices tell us to relax, that the Cold War is ending that no sacrifice is needed, that the future is going to be easier and more secure – that Al Smith would have said: “yes – but let’s look at the record.”

We need to wake up the young men who are born old, cowering in their ruts, afraid of the unknown worlds that lie beyond the map. We need to cut through the shibboleths of contentment and reassurance, and recognize, in John Boyle O’Reilly’s words, that:

“The world is large when its weary leagues two loving hears divide;
But the world is small when your enemy is loose on the other side.”

Al Smith himself warned: “In the height and glory of every nation, men are prone to forget their responsibilities.

We dare no longer forget our responsibilities – to our nation and its heritage, to all the free word, to all the generations yet unborn. We dare no longer neglect the fact, as Charles Malik has put it, that “Communism cannot be met by a mere nay; it requires a mighty yea.” We dare no longer ignore the fact that the world is changing – our cities, our maps, our frontiers and even our adversaries – all are changing. And in this era of change and challenge, we need the hard, tough leadership and the frank, fresh call of Alfred Emanuel Smith.

For legend has it that after the bloody battle of Thermopylae, the victor Xerxes prepared to spread a purple cloak over the body of his vanquished enemy Leonidas, out of admiration for his valor. But as he was about to lower the cloak, a strange voice out of nowhere called out: “No. Take that cloak from me. I will accept no favor from the Persians.” And Xerxes knew that it was Leonidas, speaking to him from the other world. And he called out into space: “But thou art dead, Leonidas. Why hate the Persians even in death?” And, according to the legend, back came the stirring reply: “The passion for freedom dieth not.”

Al Smith’s passion for freedom did not die with him. It is ours to nurture today. May we all be true to that great legacy.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 905, "Al Smith dinner, New York City, 22 October 1959." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.