Across a stretch of 36 hours in New York, circumstances are bringing together, for the first time in this campaign and amid apprehension about the November election, two political leaders who long eyed each other suspiciously and who disagreed so strongly, both publicly and privately:
Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.
Most of the language in that first sentence is stolen, but when we steal, we steal well. It comes from a classic speech that John F. Kennedy, as the Democratic candidate for president, gave in October 1960 at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, overseen by an institution whose political antennas are as finely tuned as any. That would be the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
With one deftly thrown stone, Kennedy hit two Republican birds who did indeed eye each other suspiciously that year: the party’s presidential nominee, Richard M. Nixon, and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York. The entire Kennedy speech was a gem, and it firmly established the Smith dinner as a pre-election forum for political banter by presidential candidates.
That is, if the New York archbishop invites them. Not all have been so blessed.
Usually, they have been Democrats out of sync with the church’s opposition to abortion rights. Somehow, Republican politicians who ignore the church’s condemnation of capital punishment tend to get a pass.
In any event, the annual Smith dinner will be held Thursday night at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Despite protests from conservative Catholics, angered by President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and his readiness to have employer health insurance cover birth control, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan invited the president to the shindig along with Mitt Romney. Talk about two political leaders — three, if you include the cardinal — who eye one another suspiciously and disagree strongly.
The dinner happens to follow by a day and a half the dedication of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, a long-awaited memorial to F.D.R. on Roosevelt Island.
Time was when Smith and Roosevelt had much in common. Both were Democratic governors of New York and both ran for president — Smith unsuccessfully in 1928, Roosevelt triumphantly in 1932 and beyond. But Smith became a scathing critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal, whose programs the present New York governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, lavishly praised on Wednesday at the memorial.
The Roosevelt-Smith antagonisms resound strikingly in today’s political wars, reaffirming William Faulkner’s observation that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.”
Smith denounced what he called the “cold, clammy hand” of New Deal bureaucracy. He was a leading figure in the American Liberty League, a short-lived organization that came into being in 1934 to rally public opinion against the Roosevelt agenda as a threat to freedom. At its founding, it pledged to work against “any measures designed to destroy the principles upon which our government was formulated and under which we have prospered as has no other nation in the history of the world.”
Social Security? The league, with Smith on its executive committee, said it would “mark the end of democracy.”
The new Agricultural Adjustment Administration? It represented “a trend toward fascist control of agriculture.”
The National Recovery Administration, which lay at the heart of the New Deal? Jouett Shouse, the league’s president, said he sympathized with some of its goals, but they weren’t truly federal concerns. “The prohibition of child labor, the maintenance of a minimum wage and the limitation of the hours of work belong under our form of government in the realm of the affairs of the different states,” he said.
In this era of the Tea Party, with Mr. Obama routinely demonized by many conservatives as alien to American traditions and as a menace to democracy, does this sound familiar?
Asked about the league days after its inception, Roosevelt laughed it off. Its basic principle, he said, seemed to be “love thy God but forget thy neighbor” — only “God” in this instance was property rights, he said.
Smith went on to support Roosevelt’s Republican opponents in the 1936 and 1940 elections. He died in 1944, long known by then as “the Happy Warrior.”
The same sobriquet might well be applied to Cardinal Dolan, whose public manner is one of good humor. Also the same is his disdain for core policies of the sitting president and his embrace of rough-and-tumble politics to oppose them.
E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]