La Guardia Gets Few Complaints

REVIEW: ‘I Never Did Like Politics: How Fiorello La Guardia Became America’s Mayor and Why He Still Matters’ by Terry Golway

Fiorello La Guardia (L) with President Franklin Roosevelt (Wikimedia Commons)
May 26, 2024

These days, few Americans know the name La Guardia beyond the moniker for New York City’s second airport. Yet Fiorello La Guardia, who served three terms as mayor of New York in the 1930s and ’40s, is widely considered to be one of the city’s greatest—if not the greatest—mayor of all time.

Those who want to learn more about La Guardia should make sure to get Terry Golway’s short and lively new book, "I Never Did Like Politics": How Fiorello La Guardia Became America’s Mayor and Why He Still Matters. Golway has made a career as both a journalist (New York Observer and Politico) and a historian, writing about New York politics, Tammany Hall, and the relationship between FDR and Al Smith.

Golway’s new book makes no pretensions about being a full biography; Thomas Kessner’s 1989 biography is still the gold standard for understanding La Guardia. Instead, Golway has tried to package La Guardia for younger generations of Americans, especially those who have grown frustrated and disillusioned with the state of American politics today.

At the heart of Golway’s book is the idea that La Guardia was an "anti-politician politician." Hence the title of the book. Although he spent more than half of his adult life as an elected official (as mayor and congressman), Golway’s La Guardia was ambivalent about politics, seeing it as filled with corrupt and self-serving leaders.

As American voters are faced with a dreary choice in the upcoming election between the two deeply flawed candidates for president (and an equally depressing third-party candidate), it seems natural to look longingly to the past for examples of political leadership that transcend party boundaries. If anything, Golway portrays La Guardia as a kind of "No Labels" politician of his time. Though nominally a Republican, La Guardia had little use for the wealthy or big business. His GOP affiliation was largely due to his disgust with the corrupt New York Democratic machine. As mayor, La Guardia was not beholden to either political party and could make decisions that he felt were in the best interests of the people of New York.

There is something captivating about Golway’s portrait of La Guardia. The former mayor was "peppery," "fiery," and argumentative, and at times a difficult personality, yet he possessed a sense of authenticity that seems lacking today when PR flacks and social-media accounts manipulate the public images of celebrities and politicians alike. During a newspaper strike in 1945, La Guardia famously took to the radio to read the Sunday comics to the city’s children. He was genuine and truly believed in serving the public good. (When he died of pancreatic cancer at age 64, La Guardia, Golway writes, "left behind eight thousand dollars’ worth of war bonds and a mortgaged home in the Bronx.")

La Guardia may have been a "No Labels" politician, but he was anything but nonideological. He long represented a kind of political progressivism that was not at home in either party before the 1930s. As mayor during the Great Depression, La Guardia was able to leverage New Deal money from Washington—La Guardia’s New York received one out of every seven New Deal dollars—to remake the city with parks, playgrounds, public housing, and even a new modern airport in Queens.

La Guardia’s progressivism looks somewhat different from our current variety. His was a bread-and-butter liberalism rooted in the city’s working-class and ethnic communities, not the kind of elite Progressivism we see in today’s politics and college campuses. Similarly, patriotism was an important part of La Guardia’s identity, having enlisted in the military during World War I—while a sitting congressman—becoming an aviator in the Army Signal Corps, serving in Italy, and eventually rising to the rank of major.

At the end of the day, La Guardia’s political progressivism is a kind of period piece belonging to a time when Americans had greater faith in government, political authority, and American institutions. Much has happened to erode that faith since La Guardia passed away three quarters of a century ago and it does not look like that faith will be returning any time soon.

It is not clear how much La Guardia’s story can teach us much about our current political problems. He was a longtime advocate for immigrants, working as an interpreter at Ellis Island, opposing immigration quotas in the House, and serving as a voice for the city’s ethnic communities as mayor. Yet today’s migrant crisis defies any kind of answers that La Guardia’s career could provide. Similarly, one wonders what La Guardia would make of the war in the Middle East. He was an early and vocal opponent of the Nazi regime (his mother was Jewish and his sister survived a Nazi concentration camp), yet he also took a keen interest in the plight of refugees as head of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration after World War II.

Golway’s terrific book should help introduce La Guardia’s life and career to a larger contemporary audience—few American mayors have had as great an impact. Whether La Guardia "matters" for our own troubled political world today is a far murkier question.

‘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, 304 pp., $30

Vincent J. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts Boston and is the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York. He is working on a biography of Francis Cardinal Spellman.