Over the course of three decades of public service, Herbert Lehman dedicated himself tirelessly to advances the causes in which he believed. In Herbert H. Lehman: A Political Biography
(SUNY Press, 2017), Duane Tananbaum
describes his livelong public activism and the role Lehman’s relationships with key individuals played in shaping his political career. Tananbaum identifies the first of these as relationships as the lifelong friendship Lehman established with the social reformer Lilian Wald, with whom Lehman worked in a settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side. It was Lehman’s partnership with Al Smith, however that led to a career in elected office, as Smith was key in convincing Lehman to run for the lieutenant governorship of New York in 1928.
As lieutenant governor, Lehman labored closely with Franklin Roosevelt throughout the latter man’s tenure as governor. When Roosevelt became president Lehman succeeded him as governor, and for the rest of the decade worked with his predecessor to implement the New Deal in his state. Lehman was also concerned about the threat posed by Nazi Germany, and his efforts on behalf of Jewish refugees led to roles administering relief aid in the Roosevelt administration during the Second World War. While he left public office soon after the end of the war, Lehman’s election to the United States Senate in 1949 gave him a new opportunity to fight for the causes of civil rights and immigration. Though frustrated by the seniority enjoyed by the body’s more conservative members, Lehman’s efforts kept the issues at the forefront of the national political scene, with the legislative solutions he advocated passed soon after his death in 1963.