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Fiorello’s Finest Hour
Once upon a time an honest man ran for mayor of New York City — and, naturally, lost
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
With a candidate it disliked, and committed to principles and ideals it did not relish, the Republican party prepared to meet a formidable opponent—flashy, popular, careless, and completely persona grata to Tammany Hall. For many years the city Republicans had preferred as candidate for mayor a colorless character who would not make it too difficult for his Tammany opponent, and who would thereby make it easier for their party to bargain with the Sachems for their indifference upstate. The Republican leaders were not so much interested in winning the mayoralty, which they considered well-nigh hopeless, as they were in avoiding the embarrassment that a slugging campaign of the kind La Guardia adored would cause them. Consequently the Republican clubhouses did not ring with cheers when La Guardia made it clear from the outset that, in the parlance of the prize ring, he was not going to “take a dive.”
In the course of his acceptance speech, La Guardia told the following story:
Many years ago there was a lull in the prize-fight game and Kid McCoy and Jim Corbett were out of work. The promoters wanted to stage a war. So they had someone throw a stone through the window of Kid McCoy’s store, and they told him it was Corbett who did it. When all the newspapermen were around they had the men clinch, and then they said they would put on a grudge fight. But it was all arranged for Kid McCoy to win. The men stepped into the ring and they came together and then Jim Corbett said to McCoy, “Sorry, Kid. This fight is on the level.”
Jimmy, this fight is on the level!
As if this were not enough, La Guardia had more shafts to bury in the hides of his half-hearted supporters: “The fact that I could survive an orthodox Republican convention, I want to assure you,” he said, “is the best proof of the coming success of the Fusion ticket.” And, concerning the platform, he told them: “Some of the planks are so progressive that they are quasi-La Guardian.” He promised that after January 1, when he expected to take office, “every Tammany commissioner and his deputy will be out of office.” Then he made a statement that rose to plague him throughout the ensuing campaign:
I know from more than twenty years of active work in politics the value of the district leader and the election district captain. I know that without the real work of the election district captain, no candidate can win. And I say to you now that I’ll appreciate your work, you election captains, and I’ll see to it that you’ll be recognized.
This enabled his opponents to say—and they did so regularly—that he was no better about the spoils system than the Tammany men he was denouncing.
Nor can it be said that the New York press, the next day, was full of praise for the new candidate. The Evening Post, then a conservative Republican organ, called La Guardia “semi-Socialistic” and claimed that he was as “undependable” as the incumbent Walker. The Republican New York Herald Tribune liked its party’s platform better than its candidate. In its opinion La Guardia, throughout his career, had “boxed the political compass in his efforts to win votes,” and it found his independence a symbol of “unstable convictions and poor judgment.” The Evening Sun, a Republican afternoon newspaper, came right out and accepted Walker as the lesser of two evils. The World, though Democratic, did not approve of Mayor Walker, but neither did it approve of La Guardia. William Randolph Hearst, alternately feuding and making deals with Tammany, was inclined at first to La Guardia and then supported Walker.
The New York Times, whose political affiliations were less formal and rigid than those of some of its competitors, did not like La Guardia’s nomination much more than the others. Its editorial writers rumbled that thousands of Republican voters would refuse to vote for him because he “has shifted his party allegiance as easily as he would put off an old coat....In his language he has often been violent and inflammatory,” the Times continued in its summation of La Guardia’s faults and disadvantages, “and has espoused political doctrines abhorrent to the substantial element of the Republican Party in New York.” The Times went on to pay its respects to La Guardia’s native ability, energy and enthusiasm, vigor and courage in the House of Representatives, his debating skill, and campaign cleverness. It looked forward to an interesting, colorful campaign.