Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Books: "I Never Did Like Politics" By Terry Golway, On Mayor Fiorello La Guardia


I Never Did Like Politics: How Fiorello La Guardia Became America's Mayor and Why He Still Matters

By Terry Golway

St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 304 pages; $30.00

Terry Golway was a senior editor at Politico, a member of the New York Times editorial board, a columnist and city editor of the New York Observer, a columnist for the Irish Echo, and the author of several works of history, including Frank and Al and Machine Made. He had a Ph.D. in United States history from Rutgers University and has taught at the New School, New York University, and the College of Staten Island.

Fiorello La Guardia is largely regarded as the greatest Mayor of New York City, known as much for reading the Sunday comics on the radio as his accomplishments. He served from 1934 to 1946, and represented an evolving city amidst the Great Depression and World War II. He was one of the twentieth century's most colorful politicians, on both the New York and national stages. 

La Guardia's story was quintessentially American, as he was the son of Italian immigrants, who rose in society through sheer will and chutzpah. Known as the Little Flower, he showed what an effective municipal officer, as he preferred to call himself, could achieve.

Golway looks at La Guardia's career through his four essential qualities, as a patriot, a dissenter, a leader, and a statesman. These were the qualities that drove him to battle the nativism, religious, and racial bigotry, as well as the reactionary economic policies of the 1920s. 

A big issue La Guardia took on was immigration, because he saw each side an issue that was as contentious then as it is now, which is partly what drove Golway to write this book. La Guardia's first experience with migration came when he landed a job as a clerk with the United States consulate in Budapest thanks to a friend of his father. La Guardia was 18 years old, and his boss was Frank Dyer Chester, whom earned his praised because he "was not a politician" and urged him to immerse himself in multiple languages, which helped him pass the civil service test required to be a translator at Ellis Island. LaGuardia then was a lawyer in New York City specializing in immigration cases, and he saw the difficulties and the humanity of the huddled masses who were hopeful, frightened, and mostly disappointed. 

This work led him to form a furious dissent as the United States drifted toward a Know-Nothingism during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The immigrants who came in to Ellis Island were treated as potentially dangerous aliens who threatened the nation's identity and possibly its liberty because it was thought they had radical and un-American ideas, often from their Jewish or Catholic upbringing. Unlike most politicians and those working in government, La Guardia listened to individual immigrants from the earliest parts of their migration experience. He saw their misery, listened to their stories, and gave a voice to their hopes and dreams while working from their point of departure to point of entry.

Another thing La Guardia was known for being was, Galway writes, “a master of the politics of the anti-politics. His professed distaste for his fellow politicians and for the general practice of politics knew no bounds." This goes back to his childhood in Arizona, when he observed minor federal agents who were assigned to work with Native Americans selling off government goods and food that were meant for the natives, worsening their plight. La Guardia then learned about the corruption of Manhattan's Tammany Hall machine from reading Sunday editions of the New York World that were sold in the local drugstore in Prescott. Of course, that came after he dove into the comics page.

La Guardia never wanted to be considered a politician, since he viewed them as hacks who lived large off the public payroll, took care of their friends, and put their private agendas ahead of the public good. He made clear early in his Mayoralty that his tenure would be different than his predecessors, starting with the fact that, even though he was elected as a Republican, he would put together a government where party lines would not be considered, and that to him there is no difference between a Republican or Democrat. As Golway writes, "In the coming years, LaGuardia never missed an opportunity to sneer at what he called 'idle, loafing, useless' politicians. He boasted of having 'eliminated politics from the city administration, much to the embarrassment of the politicians.' And he regularly condemned critics of all sorts as 'petty politicians,' a phrase that, in the mayor's vernacular, was the very definition of redundancy."

La Guardia also saw the rise of fascism at home and abroad in the 1930s before others, to the point he referred to Hitler as a "brown-shirted fanatic" just before World War II. That remark that led the Roosevelt administration to formally apologize to the Nazis.

In this excerpt, Golway writes of the essence of the greatest leader New York City has ever had: 'Fiorello Henry La Guardia was America's Mayor long before the term was coined. His outsize personality, gift for showmanship, superb leadership skills, and unquestioned integrity made him one of the country's most recognizable politicians in the 1930s and early '40s. 'I suppose the two best-known names throughout the entire world in this generation are Franklin D. Roosevely and Fiorello La Guardia,' wrote a friend of both men in 1938. It was a slight exaggeration, but perhaps only slight. Newsreels and photographs distributed around the world showed the short, squat mayor of New York forever in action: squeezing into the sidecar of a police motorcycle as he raced to the scene of a fire, smashing illicit slot machines with an axe, directing civil defense drills, and, most famously, reading the comics on his radio show during a newspaper strike.

He was a five-foot-two bundle of energy who wore out aides much younger than he. 'The mayor's a dynamo,' humorist Fred Allen said of LaGuardia. 'That's why City Hall has to be kept near the Battery.' A music lover who enjoyed guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic on occasion, LaGuardia once compared the job of running New York to that of an organist: 'You must keep both hands on the keyboard and both feet on the pedals and never let go,' he explained. He never did.

His work ethic knew no bounds, and neither did his personal integrity. He was simply incorruptible. And he had nothing but contempt for those who inhabited the gray spaces where right and wrong are allowed to mingle. He told cops to 'get out' if they didn't want to be held accountable for their actions. He accused other politicians - not always fairly - of moral if not of financial corruption. An infuriated colleague once demanded that somebody hit 'the little wop' with a gavel after LaGuardia delivered a particularly cutting remark. The ugly insult was commonly hurled at LaGuardia, who was the nation's first Italian American member of Congress. He generally replied in kind, in one of the five languages he spoke."

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