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This Week in ‘Nation’ History: What de Blasio Can Learn From His Model, La Guardia | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: What de Blasio Can Learn From His Model, La Guardia

“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.”

Gilfond continued:

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:

The very persons all through the country who are now being exploited by coal barons, monopolistic oil companies, and the power trusts would be the first to succumb to propaganda that the “Government should be kept out of business,” that such a solution is “socialistic,” and that it would be contrary to the Constitution. But these monopolies are becoming more powerful, more brazen, more greedy, and more defiant of constitutional law when it stands in their way. It will not be long before the American people will realize that something is fundamentally wrong and they will then be less impressed by oil favoritism, coal “economics,” and power-trust “constitutionality.”

La Guardia’s next article for The Nation, in the May 23, 1928, issue, argued that a lobbying law then before Congress (blocked in the House, but finally passed as the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act in 1946) would do very little to actually combat the sources of corruption in American representative government. “The honest legislator who votes according to his best judgment and conscience will never fear or be tempted by the most skillful lobbyist that ever infested Washington; the other kind of legislator will not be improved by the passage of the law.”

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La Guardia’s candidacy for the mayoralty in 1933 was enthusiastically supported in The Nation’s pages by the prominent civil liberties lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays even before the Republican nomination was secured. In July of that year, Hays wrote of La Guardia:

His lack of swank is one of his identifying characteristics. The Mayor of New York must avoid the rigidity, the self-righteousness, and the bungling ineptness of the merely good-government reformer. He must have in mind a “Who’s Who” of the grafters, chair-warmers, favorite contractors, and the vast and varied medley that prey on the city treasury. La Guardia has held office for twenty years. He knows New York City politics and its politicians.…

La Guardia as mayor can end the banker domination of City Hall; he can begin with federal funds to raze the dingy rookeries of the poor and erect in their place garden apartments; he can drive out the political parasites that drain the city’s blood; he can make transit unification a fact and not a shibboleth…. La Guardia has the personality, the integrity, the record, the program, and the philosophy. In addition he is more likely to be elected than anyone else in sight.

One month later, in the column cited above, Oswald Garrison Villard wrote:

What happens in the metropolis in the next two years will be enormously important and may even influence deeply the conduct of other municipalities. The city’s financial situation is critical. If times do not improve, the keeping alive of foodless and workless citizens will become a problem transcending every other. Never did New York more greatly need a statesman and a man with tolerance, broad vision, and a kindly heart in the mayor’s chair.…

I am heartily for the Major’s election because I believe that he will bring to the mayoralty what it most needs—a warm heart inspired by the opportunity to serve the common people. I hope he realizes that the city of New York is not going to be redeemed by merely giving it another good reform administration; there must be radical changes.

Just before the election, in the issue dated October 25, 1933, Paul Blanshard—muckraking journalist, former Nation associate editor and co-author, with Norman Thomas, of the 1933 book What’s the Matter with New York, discussed in an upcoming Nation essay by London bureau chief D.D. Guttenplan—commented:

From the long-range point of view the coming election in New York is important not only because the election of LaGuardia might bring new faith in the capacity of a city to use democracy intelligently, but because LaGuardia, with his social progressivism, could make out of New York a gigantic laboratory for civic reconstruction. Certainly his record indicates that his elevation to New York’s City Hall might mean a genuine new deal for a long-suffering metropolis.

Blanshard, it turned out, was appointed by La Guardia to become Commissioner of Investigations and Accounts, quickly achieving national prominence as “a critical outsider who has become a political insider,” in The New York Times’s description, and aggressively pursuing corrupt politicians and government officials leftover from the years of Tammany Hall.

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When La Guardia died in 1947, less than two years after stepping down from office after declining to run for a fourth term, The Nation devoted its lead editorial note to his memory:

The genuine sorrow at LaGuardia’s death reflected more than an appreciation of his color and his achievement, though they were great. The tireless, paternal, irascible, cocky, and often vituperative little man who raced to fires, delighted in surprise visits to city institutions, personally investigated the humblest citizen’s complaint, read the “funnies” over the air during a newspaper strike, and, back in 1937, suggested making Hitler a central figure in the World’s Fair Chamber of Horrors was without doubt, as one reporter describes him, “New York’s most colorful mayor since Peter Stuyvesant.” And his long record of accomplishments includes the breaking of Tammany power, the introduction of scrupulously honest municipal government, the unification of a fantastically scrambled transit system, and the building of enough parks, playgrounds, highways, housing projects, markets, and bridges to alter, to its vast improvement, the face of the world’s largest city. But beyond all this was a warmth, a homey informality, and an identification with the people who had elected him that gave LaGuardia the status of a public protector. His utter scorn for party loyalty and “clubhouse loafers,” on the one hand, and for the cold theorizing of traditional reformers, on the other, established a rapport with the voters that became the envy and awe of the professionals. LaGuardia’s mayoralty proved brilliantly that political machines are no more inevitably a part of the modern city than typhoid epidemics.”

Nor, for that matter is rampant economic inequality, as Mayor de Blasio, with La Guardia as his role model, now has the opportunity to show.

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