Governing New York State: The Rockefeller Years

By Robert H. Connery; Gerald Benjamin | Go to book overview

The Governorship in History

DONALD M. ROPER

A great variety of men have served as governor of New York over the past two centuries, and personal charisma has often been offered as a reason for their political success. Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, are recalled as most charismatic men. Yet charisma can be overrated, as the jokes about Thomas E. Dewey's campaigns indicate. ("Smile for the cameras, Governor." "I thought I was smiling.") Herbert Lehman even lacked Dewey's skill at organizing a formal address to compensate for his lack of personal magnetism. The lack of public appeal, however, did not prevent Dewey and Lehman from succeeding at the polls. It was their image of positive liberalism rather than their personalities that, in the final analysis, was the critical factor.

As used here, "positive liberalism" is defined as the belief that the state should promote the welfare and protect the rights of as many of its people as possible. The use of a broad definition is advisable since it allows for adjustment to changing conditions of the past, such as shifts in the electorate. Moreover, what may not seem like positive liberalism to one age may to a previous one. The ultimate test of positive liberalism is the degree of social justice meted out to the politically powerless and unpopular elements of the population. This test marks the ability of a governor's political security to withstand attacks from groups with political clout when they disagree with him.

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It is to be noted that this paper is but a hypothesis. Only educated guesses will be possible until the completion of the long-called-for study of Al Smith's governorship, an examination of the Lehman years, and an updated study of Dewey's administration.

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