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

Image of I Never Did Like Politics: How Fiorello La Guardia Became America's Mayor, and Why He Still Matters
Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by: 

“Golway’s lively and insightful narrative does much to illuminate La Guardia’s enduring impact on New York City and the relevance of his grand and inclusive social vision a century later.”

Fiorella LaGuardia’s name remains familiar to the majority of those who know it today largely because of the international airport built under his direction that bears his name, and more whimsically, because he memorably (and dramatically) read the Sunday comics to a live radio audience on New York’s WNYC during a newspaper delivery strike in 1945. Widely acclaimed as “America’s Mayor” during his three-term tenure as New York City mayor from 1933–45, LaGuardia did much to earn the designation and little to make Americans want to rescind it, as later pretenders to the title have done.

In I Never Did Like Politics: How Fiorella La Guardia Became America’s Mayor, and Why He Still Matters, historian Terry Golway aims to capture all the multitudes La Guardia contained, and to situate him in the Progressive Era from which he emerged, the GOP-dominated 1920s in which as a Republican congressman he generally swam against his party’s tide, and the New Deal and World War II years in which the mayor broke Tammany Hall’s stranglehold on New York City politics and worked closely with FDR and key members of the Roosevelt administration to revitalize the city.

I Never Did Like Politics doesn’t apply the unlikely-bedfellows theme of Mason Williams’ City of Ambition: FDR, LaGuardia, and the Making of Modern New York or Golway’s own fascinating Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Unlikely Alliance that Created the Modern Democratic Party. Nor does it follow a strict chronology like most political biographies to tell La Guardia’s story and assess his historical impact. Rather, Golway organizes his narrative along thematic lines, focusing on four aspects of LaGuardia’s iconoclastic character and public persona: Patriot, Dissenter, Leader, and Statesman.

While this approach can prove jarring at times—such as when the “Patriot” section of the book jumps abruptly from the end of World War I to May 20, 1933, when LaGuardia delivered his first anti-Hitler speech, then a surprising and controversial act for a New York politician who didn’t identify as Jewish—it’s also quite effective. (La Guardia was, in fact, matrilineally Jewish, and spoke fluent Yiddish, but having not been raised in a secular household never considered himself Jewish enough “to consider boasting about it.”)

In Golway’s telling, La Guardia’s patriotism concerned as much what he considered “American” as “anti-American”: in World War I, military service by all able-bodied men was American, the Espionage Act and attacks on “hyphenated Americans” anti-American; in the years of fascism’s rise, “it was the duty of every American to speak out against dictators and murderous regimes, even those that did not necessarily threaten the United States.”

Golway traces in rapid succession the evolution of what he describes as La Guardia’s “deep patriotism” from a boyhood spent largely in Prescott, Arizona—where he both felt the sting of prejudice as the son of Italian immigrants and “fell in love with the freedom and the possibilities that the American West represented”—through his advocacy, as a first-year congressman, of subjecting to the death penalty contractors who sold rotten food to the army during wartime, to his insistence on a total U.S. boycott of German imports beginning in 1933, long before the Roosevelt administration was ready to go that far.

The jumps in time serve only to bring disparate events closer together and establish La Guardia’s complex patriotism as something well beyond ritualistic or jingoistic flag-waving. They portray a patriotism born of and inseparable from the mayor’s own hyphenated identity.

Golway chronicles, as other biographers have, La Guardia’s remarkable accomplishments as mayor, from pioneering public housing projects to his enormous success in securing Works Progress Administration funding, and his largely successful efforts to keep those projects from being hamstrung by Tammany Hall corruption and graft. Golway’s lively and insightful narrative does much to illuminate La Guardia’s enduring impact on New York City and the relevance of his grand and inclusive social vision a century later. It also provides tremendous insight into his striking partnership with FDR, and his fruitful if often perilous alliance with New York City master builder and power broker Robert Moses.

La Guardia’s opposition to the Immigration Act of 1924 and his alignment with FDR’s New Deal agenda (and much in between) often put him at odds with the Republican party of his day. For his last term in Congress, La Guardia actually had to run as a Socialist just to get on the ballot.

Golway points out, rather obviously, that La Guardia would have found even less common ground with the 21st century Republican party, and as a dissenter, he would likely have suffered much the same censure and exile as Liz Cheney did for her impeachment vote and her leadership role in the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 insurrection.

Golway also reminds readers that La Guardia fought many of the same battles progressives continue to fight today, particularly in defense of immigrants and combatting narrow definitions of American identity. “The ‘great replacement theory’ promoted in the 2020s by many of Donald Trump’s followers and far-right hate groups—the notion that global elites want to replace white people in the United States, leading to the nation’s cultural and political destruction—echoes the rhetoric of demagogues, white supremacists, and Klansmen of the 1920s,” Golway writes. “A century ago they took their lead from the likes of [white supremacist eugenicist Madison] Grant and other quasi-intellectuals, just as Tucker Carlson regularly delivered breathless updates about the impending demise of white America on his now-canceled Fox News program.”

Golway distances his take on Fiorello La Guardia from the common tendency among other biographers to regard him as a 20th century, Gothamite Napoleon, typically because of his dramatic rise to power and his diminutive size, as if some sort of Napoleon complex propelled La Guardia’s irrepressible ambition. Golway contends that La Guardia’s own hero Theodore Roosevelt provides better points of comparison, partly because they were both Republican mavericks with a strong progressive vision, and also because of Roosevelt’s and La Guardia’s intense identification with the American West, even as politicians with their power base in New York.

Theodore Roosevelt and La Guardia had different blind spots—Roosevelt’s distaste for Indigenous and “hyphenated” Americans, La Guardia’s tendency to play idle bystander as whites-only unions mostly excluded Black workers from the city’s massive public works projects. (La Guardia did much to redeem himself when he backed NAACP leader Walter White and Black labor leaders as they negotiated desegregation of defense industries with a recalcitrant FDR in 1941.)

They shared many virtues as well, as Golway describes, with heads generally “uncluttered with the ambiguities of theory and the rigid certainties of dogma.” Like Roosevelt, La Guardia “could lead because he believed he knew right from wrong and had the personality, energy, and ruthlessness it took to demand and win reform.”

Humorously, Golway also points out that like TR, who in his own daughter’s oft-quoted estimation wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral, “La Guardia wanted to be the chief at every fire, the general on every battlefield, and more than anything else, the mayor of the world’s most important city in the twentieth century.”

He’d be pleased and not a bit surprised to know how badly we could use him in the 21st.