On his deathbed, Thomas D. Clark admonished Al Smith to keep his memoirs from becoming a multivolume set. "Just one book, Al," Clark said. After reading Wordsmith, one understands why Smith labored to limit his autobiography to a single volume. He has experienced a remarkable life both professionally and personally, and he tells his own story with candor, humor, and insight.
Many Kentuckians know Al Smith as a fixture on the airwaves and in newsprint. Few progressive causes have escaped his support [End Page 125] or comment. While seemingly synonymous with Kentucky, it might surprise some to learn that he spent his formative years outside the commonwealth. Born in Sarasota, Florida, in 1927, his family faced difficult circumstances during the Depression. As a young boy he listened to FDR and witnessed firsthand the ravages of the economic catastrophe battering the South. "I didn't acquire my 'liberal' social conscience from books," Smith writes, "my parents gave it to me during the Depression" (p. 17). His family moved to Hendersonville, Tennessee, in 1940, and the precocious Smith won a national oratorical contest soon after Pearl Harbor. He attended Vanderbilt and Tulane Universities, admittedly more interested in a growing fondness for whisky than an education. Following a short stint in the army, he landed in New Orleans as a newspaper reporter for the Times-Picayune, a vocation for which he was well suited. "Journalism was in my genes," he acknowledges, "printer's ink in my veins" (p. 117). He aspired to be a crusading investigative journalist like his hero Lincoln Steffens. In locations not well-suited to his brand of politics, Smith fought for civil rights and economic fairness early on. Along the way, he encountered iconic Americans such as Robert Penn Warren, Earl Long, George C. Marshall, and Tennessee Williams.
Smith's fall from big city reporter to backwater journalist captures the central theme of Wordsmith. He bottomed out in Louisiana because of his alcoholism. Friends have heard Smith curse that "damned whisky bottle" but did not fully appreciate the toll of his addiction until this book. Sober for the first time as an adult in 1962, Smith soon began a new life with his wife, Martha Helen, and their children and became part owner of the Logan County newspaper where he had been working. He soon bought more newspapers, and with the support of KET director Len Press started his television career, and Comment on Kentucky became one of the primary centers of public discussion in Kentucky. Smith unabashedly used KET and his newspapers' editorial pages to influence many public-policy debates underway.
When President Jimmy Carter appointed Smith to head the Appalachian [End Page 126] Regional Commission (ARC), Smith understood how local and state politics worked as well as anyone. Smith served briefly under President Ronald Reagan but by the time he left the ARC, one would have thought he was a lifelong Appalachian. Demonstrating his new-found affection for the region, upon returning to Kentucky Smith purchased the London, Kentucky, newspaper.
The result of writing only one volume is that these later years are reviewed in less detail, including his efforts to revitalize one of his true loves, rural journalism. Smith has lived through the transformation of American journalism, experiencing firsthand the decline of print journalism in a digital age. All the while, he has remained the unrepentant New Dealer, convinced through experience that "government has to keep the economy strong, education accessible, the laws equitable, and a safety net to protect all citizens" (p. 391).
Brimming with stories both humorous and poignant, Wordsmith is a crisply written and honest testament to Al Smith's personal courage to rebuild a life when others might have given up. Kentuckians are the beneficiaries of his life lived well and full.
Tracy Campbell is a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and codirector of the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky.