New York's Great La Guardia

BOOKS

FIORELLO H. LA GUARDIA AND THE MAKING OF MODERN NEW YORK by Thomas Kessner, New York: McGraw Hill, 700 pp., $24.95

THE Biblical injunction, ``where there is no vision, the people perish,'' haunts urban America, again.

On the threshold of the 21st century, the modern city looms ominously, less and less likely to offer the good life to those within its confines: a Hobbesian portrait where a permanent underclass plays out a hopeless struggle amidst violence, decay, and poverty while images of affluent suburbs flicker on television screens.

With the exception of television, the ``vision thing'' would hit Fiorello La Guardia right between the eyes. He instinctively knew that ``a government could not focus all its energies on its successful members,... and continue to demand the allegiance of its alienated.'' Thomas Kessner's sweeping, scholarly, yet highly readable new biography captures the greatest mayor of the greatest nation's greatest city.

Kessner portrays La Guardia's efforts, not so much ``over facts but over ways of seeing and where to look, and whom to favor. And the battle could be sharp even if the answers were not always clear.'' His book explains, how more than a half century ago, a ``little flower'' in full bloom brushed pastel colors on a similarly stark urban canvas.

Born of Italian parents in 1881 in Greenwich Village, New York, his mother half Jewish, his father a band major in the US Army, La Guardia grew up on Indian reservations in the Dakotas and Arizona. His character was shaped in the free and open spaces of the West, rather than in the close and teeming slums of Eastern cities. He saw his family denied living quarters on the Army post because they were ``dagos'' - Italian-Americans. They were forced to live with native Americans on the reservation. A lifelong passion for fairness ensued.

Kessner presents La Guardia's greatest accomplishment as that of administrative fulchrum, spanning the minimalist approach of government in the presidency of Calvin Coolidge to the interventionist role carved out by FDR in the New Deal. La Guardia midwifed the era's emerging federal-urban relationship. At a time when there was no plotted course to follow, he ``relied on his own feelings about what was politically fair and legitimate.''

The account of La Guardia finessing federal funding for the Triborough bridge over the crosscurrents of such towering egos as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert Moses, and Harold Ickes is a fascinating reminder of how precarious many of the intergovernmental programs we take for granted today were. It also shows how a life's labor can prepare a man to accomplish what is best for the people he seeks to serve.

Admiration for La Guardia does not keep Kessner from seeing his weaknesses, the limits in his quest for political power. Kessner makes clear that La Guardia was more effective in the executive than the legislative arena in his varied experience, which included being the first Italian-American Congressman. ``Gaining influence required patience, tact and a willingness to pay dues; hoard your favors, become expert in some few areas, and build power slowly. What opportunity existed then for an impatient, street-smart, strutting independent type like La Guardia?'' he writes.

One necessary comparison is Robert Caro's monumental study of urban affairs, ``The Power Broker,'' a biography of Robert Moses. Moses was obsessed with getting things built, the grander the scale the better to match an ego capable of envisioning such a project in the first place. La Guardia, as much an egotist, never forgot the people for whom he was building. His obsession was ``motivated by a large measure of idealism, by the pursuit of the good as he saw it. He knew the life of the poor, the immigrant, and the worker firsthand, and he wanted to ease it. And he wanted to make government fair and honest.''

Kessner gives us ``the fair and honest'' in La Guardia's life, more than the bridges and tunnels, parks and highways. He succeeds in the formidable task of accounting for the private and public life of an individual who embodied both the American ideal of good government and the urban ethnic quest for a better life in the first half of the 20th century.

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