It was October 1944, and the pundits were busy analyzing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s bid for a fourth term. His opponent was Thomas E. Dewey, the former crime-busting district attorney of New York County and now governor of the state. FDR had lined up an impressive array of big names to support him in the state. My brush with history involves one of these.
I’m talking about Fiorello H. La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, the Little Flower. While ostensibly a Reform Republican, he was strongly proRoosevelt. In fact, the President had just appointed him director of the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense.
I met Hizzoner on a number of occasions. My father was assistant manager of the New York Philharmonic, and one of his duties was to oversee the summer concerts that took place in Lewisohn Stadium. La Guardia opened the Stadium Summer Series every year by conducting the Philharmonic in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I had attended many of these opening concerts and had met La Guardia at the receptions that always followed. But now I was to meet him one on one—in a CBS radio studio.
Just out of school, I had managed to get a job as an apprentice assistant director in July of 1944. By September I was a full-fledged assistant director. Among other things, the assistant director was assigned to all the noncommercial programs such as Sundaymorning religious shows and political addresses. Such an address was to be given by Mayor La Guardia. The Democratic party had bought time on the entire CBS radio network and had asked the mayor of New York to address the nation on behalf of the President. He was to speak from 6:15 to 6:30 P.M. —live. There was no tape in those days.
La Guardia arrived at 5:30. I introduced myself and was gratified when he said he remembered me and asked about my father. Then I introduced him to our technician and to our organist, Abe Goldman. I explained that if his speech did not fill the fourteen minutes and thirty seconds required for a fifteen-minute program, the organist would fill the remaining time with music.
The mayor smiled enigmatically. He sat down at the table, took out his speech, and read it out loud. I timed it. It was thirteen minutes long and, with the opening and closing remarks by the announcer, would time out perfectly. I told the mayor that everything was fine, and asked if I could do anything for him. He said, “No, thanks.” And then, reaching up to put his hand on my shoulder, he said, “But tell me again what happens if my speech runs short.” I explained again that the organist would fill the time until the next program went on the air.
Imagine my total surprise during the broadcast when, following along with my copy of the speech, I noticed that the mayor had made huge deletions. I could not for the life of me figure out why. It had timed out perfectly. When he came to the end, we were very, very short. The announcer read his closing remarks, and I cued the organist to start playing. Abe must have played for three interminable minutes. I was probably going to catch hell for not having timed La Guardia’s speech accurately.
His face wreathed in smiles, La Guardia burst into the control room. I said, “Your Honor, what happened? The speech was perfect for time. Why did you make all those cuts? My boss is going to think I don’t know how to use a stopwatch!”
“Not your fault at all, young man,” squeaked the mayor. “On the way over to the studio, I was looking at the radio listings in the evening paper and noticed that Dewey is scheduled to speak right after me, from six-thirty till quarter to seven. I figured if I finished early and the only thing going out on the air was organ music, people would either tune to another station or turn off the set entirely. I just wanted to do everything I could to reduce the size of Dewey’s audience. I hope it worked. You just tell your boss that. Tell him all’s fair in love, war—and politics.”