Archive for Sunday, January 27, 2002

s greatest mayor

January 27, 2002


I'm still trying to comprehend the ignorance of the Time editor who said in the cover story about Rudy Giuliani as "person of the year" that Giuliani was the greatest mayor in the history of New York, and that includes Fiorello La Guardia. The editor obviously is ignoring a lot of history in his zeal to glorify the "person" of 2001.

OK. Giuliani did a splendid job working to help his city recover from the World Trade Center chaos. He did what a good mayor should do. Time had scarcely glorified Giuliani before Sept. 11.

Now to La Guardia. He would have been all over New York City after the bombing. He was one of the greatest political figures in 20th century history. He was theatrical, he was flamboyant. Yes, he read "Dick Tracy" and "Little Orphan Annie" to the children. I cherish him for doing so. He loved to climb on fire trucks and go to a fire. He tried to conduct the New York Philharmonic. He voiced opinions on subjects from city schools and gambling to the food available in World War II.

La Guardia was a Republican, but many Republicans undoubtedly disliked him. He sounded too much like a Democrat, and was a friend of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, House Speaker John McCormack and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. He was a Republican because he loathed Tammany Hall.

Before becoming mayor he had been a long-time Congressman, and he co-authored the Norris-La Guardia Act that forbade the use of injunctions in labor disputes. He was pro-labor, and he joined the picket lines in garment workers' strikes. He was really a man for and of the people. William Manners, his biographer, says La Guardia "had compassion for the underprivileged and an ever-driving determination during his 12-year rule of New York City to produce an efficient administration of honest city government."

La Guardia had a radio program, and there he sounded off on all his favorite topics. The voters loved him, and he was an international figure. A Brooklyn sergeant in World War II took a picture of a wall in an Italian town. Huge letters read "LA GUARDIA, FDR and CHURCHILL."

His Italian-American background made him conscious of the problems of immigrants. He was pugnacious, and he really went after Tammany Hall. His administration, you know, followed that of the corruption of Jimmy Walker and his fellow-boodlers.

La Guardia was elected to Congress in 1916, but he wanted to be in the war (he had learned to fly) and he went overseas, returned, and was in Congress until 1933. The Depression made him angry about the big money boys. He was sure J. P. Morgan would boss the Reconstruction Finance Corp. The Bonus Army being driven out of Washington really set him off.

He became mayor. One time he entered a hall full of Tammanyites and yelled "You're thugs! Get out!" Nazi treatment of Jews caused him to install a 12-man, all-Jewish detail. He battled with William Allen White in the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies because White thought the committee was too interventionist. White later promoted La Guardia for the presidency.

La Guardia, the "Little Flower," campaigned for better health, better housing, better recreation, aid to the arts. He appointed judges right on his radio program. FDR made him head of the Office of Civilian Defense. How La Guardia hated the Nazis and the "master minders" who bombed Pearl Harbor.

He fought the gamblers, the crooks. Right on the air he gave to New Jersey the phone numbers of gambling bosses in that state. He smashed slot machines and had them dumped into the Atlantic. It rankled him that Newark had the main airline terminal for his city, and of course an airport would be named for him. When he read the comics he got in digs against corruption in his city. He worked for a better water supply for New York.

Time, big admirer of Giuliani, commented back in La Guardia's time on his "withering frankness and his relentless fight for honest government." When he left office, he headed up UNRRA. But he was failing in health, and cancer killed him. There was a service in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and mourners were everywhere, and there were loving tributes. And in 1959, the splendid Broadway musical, "Fiorello!," came, and it says much about the greatest mayor New York ever had.

Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.

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