Is Donald Trump Really A New Yorker?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center, October 4,
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center, October 4, 2016 in Prescott Valley, Arizona. / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

In one sense, there is a straightforward answer to this question. The Republican candidate for president was born in Gotham, and does business here. His namesake building is a New York icon. So yes, he is a New Yorker. Technically accurate, but less so in terms of values. What in fact defines the culture of our largest city, and does Mr. Trump measure up?

I come by this analysis with some credentials, as the author of a biography of Alfred E. Smith, one of the state's great governors, and after Fiorello LaGuardia, I would argue, the quintessential New York City politician. How does Donald Trump compare to Al Smith, in representing the city they both claim as home?

The best place to start is with the issue of openness and transparency. On the one hand, Smith chose as his personal slogan, "Let's look at the record", his belief that a full and complete accounting of a public official's conduct would always clear the air. Trump, in contrast, has refused to provide many details of his life and work, most notably holding back his tax returns.

Equally important, to any true New Yorker, is a penchant for sharp humor, one of the hallmarks of the New York style of life. Al Smith frequently disarmed opponents, not with vicious labels, but by making people laugh. One time he was locked in debate on the floor of the State Assembly. The issue was a Workman's Compensation Bill, and Smith's opponent questioned it sharply, "What good..." would it be "to the... men out of work?" This was a red herring; whatever the merits of the proposal, it would only apply to those already employed.

Al did not denounce this diversion or its author. Instead, without hesitation he spoke, "Mr. Speaker, I was walking down Park Row one night and a man came up and hit me on the shoulder and said, 'Hello, Al. Which would you rather be, a hammock full of white door knobs, a cellar full of stepladders, or a piece of dry ice?' I said I would rather be a fish, because no matter how thick plate glass is, you can always break it with a hammer."

Smith's opponent was angry; it would be a miracle if he was not thoroughly confused. "I don't get the point of the gentleman's remark," he snapped.

Al calmly looked at the man and replied, "There is as much point to my answer as there is to your question." The discussion continued on a sounder basis. Thus, Al Smith personified the wit, the sense of outrageousness that is a hallmark of our city, which Trump has missed entirely. Smith's career was marked by a sense of humor and joy, instead of Trump's mirthless approach to life and to debate.

Above all Al Smith was a champion of immigrants, rather than their denigrator. Like Mr. Trump today, Smith's heyday in politics came at a time when immigrants were being widely condemned. The 1920s saw a peak of anti-immigrant fervor, the decade when we passed two fiercely restrictive measures, and the KKK was at its height. This approach fit with Mr. Trump's recent assaults on the latest wave of newcomers, his comments about groups such as Mexicans and Muslims.

Al Smith instead personified New York's tradition of openness to new peoples and new ideas. Over and over, he told audiences, "The flag stands for equal opportunity. It left open the gateway of opportunity irrespective of race, creed, or color." To this governor, it was not the immigrant who was besmirching our nation and our ideals, but instead the nativist bigot, who he branded as "unpatriotic and un-American." Regarding a person's faith, Smith told a hostile audience in Oklahoma City "that our forefathers...foreseeing such a sight as we look at today, wrote into the fundamental law of the country that at no time was religion to be regarded as a qualification" for citizenship.

In terms of who he is, how he conducts himself, what he stands for, Donald Trump is the exact opposite of Al Smith. In these lights, the Republican candidate is not a Gothamite; rather, he is the Anti-New Yorker.