“Not a conventional person” was how Nation publisher and editor-turned-columnist Oswald Garrison Villard bluntly described the man who had just been named Republican and Fusion candidate for mayor of New York City in the summer of 1933. Villard noted La Guardia’s lack of polished sophistication, his flamboyance and tendency “to go off half-cocked” at times. “But Fiorello La Guardia will never for one moment be out of touch with or fail to understand the humble people of New York City and their needs,” Villard concluded, lamenting the absence of socialist Norman Thomas from the race while enthusiastically endorsing the Little Flower.
Asked in a September interview which predecessor he would draw inspiration from if elected, Bill de Blasio responded: “Unquestionably, I would model myself after La Guardia.”
As a tour through The Nation’s coverage of La Guardia’s career confirms, there is much New York’s new progressive mayor can learn from the man who showed that municipal government can be clean, competent and committed to improving the lives of the city’s most disadvantaged residents. Before his mayoralty and after, The Nation repeatedly held La Guardia up as the model of how powerful and progressive a mayor can actually be.
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In a March 1928 installment of the magazine’s recurring series of profiles called “Americans We Like,” the journalist Duff Gilfond wrote of then-Congressman La Guardia:
In spite of his earnestness and the disappointments which such a liberal program necessarily brings, the merry little Major (his title in Washington since the war) has preserved his sense of humor. He persists in introducing bills that cannot pass—for ten years. “They serve for educational purposes,” he says, puffing at his two-and-a-half-cent Manila cigar. “The function of a progressive is to keep on protesting until things get so bad that a reactionary demands reform.”
He attends all his committee meetings, dictates all his letters, and never gives his colleagues a chance to slip a bill through by absenting himself from the floor. If he is not making a speech or an objection his dark little rotund figure is at least conspicuous in the House. He is a great trial to some of his colleagues—especially the rabidly dry and Nordic—but just as great a comfort. One of the very few men who study every bill on the consent calendar, he can invariably answer the questions of his less prepared cohorts. He is the hated and beloved boy who does the homework. La Guardia has affected more bills in the House than any other member. There is not a branch of the Government, from the Shipping Board to the Department of State, that he has not attempted to reform…
He never attends a caucus; he gives White House invitations to the children; taunted with radicalism on the floor, he aptly retorts: “As long as a person talks about great American standards he is applauded; when he asks to put them into practice he is a radical.”
Just a few weeks later, La Guardia himself published the first of three articles he would write for The Nation. In “The Government Must Act!” La Guardia reported on his recent visit to striking miners of Pennsylvania and insisted it was the role of the federal government to establish better working conditions for the miners and better living conditions for their families, as “it is a matter of national concern that men be enabled to live decently and enjoy the freedom which the Constitution of this country guarantees to them.” He concluded: