Contrasting Mayor LaGuardia and Donald Trump

New York’s New Deal-era Mayor Fiorella La Guardia and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump both belonged to the Republican Party, lived in New York and showed self-confidence but their similarities stop there, writes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

One of the most awkward interviews I ever conducted in my life was with Marie La Guardia, widow of the late three-term mayor of New York City, the legendary Fiorello H. La Guardia. She was 86 at the time. I was researching a project about her husband and arrived at her home in Bronxville, New York, with several pages of questions about Fiorello and their life together.

Despite all those pages, our conversation was over in about 15 minutes because to each one of my many queries her answer was “Yes,” No,” or “I don’t remember,” even when I tried to follow up.

New York City's three-term Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia.

New York City’s three-term Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

One exception: I asked her if she remembered when she and her husband entertained Britain’s King George VI and his wife in 1939. “Yes,” she replied. “Can you tell me more?” I asked. “It was nice,” she said. And that was that. I left the house, dripping in flop sweat as I walked back to the car.

The New York Times spoke with her a year or so after my failed chat and seemed to have had much the same experience. But the reporter did elicit this comparatively voluble response from her about Fiorello: “I was always kind of crazy about him,” she said. “Oh, I don’t have to tell you what kind of guy he was. Everyone knows what kind of guy he was.”

The kind of guy he was and how she felt about him comes through loud and clear in a current revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Fiorello! Produced by the Berkshire Theatre Group from Massachusetts, it’s being staged here in Manhattan at the Classic Stage Company, but only through Oct. 7.

The cast is young and energetic and the songs, by the gifted Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick of Fiddler on the Roof fame (among other great shows) are tuneful and nostalgic for a time when a Republican — for that’s what La Guardia was — could be a progressive, powerful street-fighter for the people. He’s on the side of the angels, as one of the songs goes, and a supporting character says in exasperation, “He’ll help anybody!”

La Guardia’s father was a bandmaster in the U.S. Army who died from eating tainted meat sold to the military by crooked suppliers during the Spanish-American War, a tragedy that taught his son early on how business can corrupt government, getting officials to look the other way in exchange for bribes or favors.

He became a crusading lawyer, defending immigrants, striking garment workers and tenants fighting greedy landlords. Marie was his devoted secretary and assistant, becoming La Guardia’s second wife in 1929. In Fiorello!, his character shouts that “it’s time to get the garbage off the doorstep,” and rails against “heartless, misbegotten misters” and “the termites eating up our city.”

He was elected to Congress and in 1934 was sworn in as the 99th mayor of New York City. Despite his Republican Party affiliation, La Guardia was an ardent New Dealer who during years of desperate poverty and unemployment helped make possible public works projects across the city, generating jobs that (in most cases) genuinely improved the urban landscape with housing and highways, parks and playgrounds.

“You cannot preach self-government and liberty to people in a starving land,” he said. “Only a well-fed, well-housed, well-schooled people can enjoy the blessings of liberty.” He was pro-labor and urged crackdowns on Wall Street plutocrats and their abuses of power.

Supreme Self-Confidence

Like our present Republican presidential candidate, La Guardia was supremely self-confident and brash, a real publicity hound who chased fire engines and conducted city orchestras. He loved strutting his stuff on the airwaves. But the similarities end there.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Unlike our current tangerine nightmare, La Guardia backed up his big talk with action and genuine concern for his constituents. And La Guardia admitted when he was wrong. He didn’t try to put the blame on anyone or anything else (as in faulty microphones, biased moderators, rigged search engine algorithms, etc.). Fiorello readily confessed, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut!” and the voters loved him for the candid mea culpa.

Thinking of this lack of deceit or pretense, I particularly was amused last week when a member of Donald Trump’s team tried to explain away the possibly illegal purchase of a large portrait of the businessman by the Trump Foundation, a painting that hangs in a bar at the Trump National Doral resort near Miami. The team member said that in reality, Donald was doing the foundation a favor by storing it for them. Yeah, that’s the ticket, a favor.

David A. Farenthold’s account of this in The Washington Post bears repeating. He begins with a quote: “‘There are IRS rules which specifically state that when a foundation has an item, an individual can store those items — on behalf of the foundation — in order to help it with storage costs,’ Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn said on MSNBC. ‘And that’s absolutely proper.’

“MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson pressed Epshteyn. Was he really talking about the $10,000 portrait that was recently discovered — by an Univision journalist — at the Champions Bar and Grill? ‘You’re telling me that that is storage, for Mr. Trump?’ Jackson [asked].

“‘Right, of course, he’s doing a good thing for his foundation,’ Epshteyn said.” Farenthold adds: “Tax experts were not impressed by this reasoning. “‘It’s hard to make an IRS auditor laugh,’Brett Kappel, a lawyer who advises nonprofit groups at the Akerman firm, said in an email. ‘But this would do it.'”

Wow. Epshteyn’s rationale actually reminded me of a song from Fiorello! It’s called “Little Tin Box,” and musically recreates testimony before the Seabury hearings investigating municipal corruption and Tammany Hall, a probe that ultimately overthrew La Guardia’s predecessor as mayor, Gentleman Jimmy Walker.

When bought-and-paid-for city officials are grilled as to how, on their meager salaries, they’ve been able to afford lives of luxury, they have a raft of explanations. Here’s an example of one of the questions, asked and answered:

“Mr. Z, you’re a junior official And your income’s rather low, Yet you’ve kept a dozen women in the very best hotels, Would you kindly explain how so?”

“I can see your Honor doesn’t pull his punches, And it looks a trifle fishy, I’ll admit. But for one whole week I went without my lunches, And it mounted up, your Honor, bit by bit.”

Similarly, with each preposterous lie and excuse, the falsehoods mount up and Trump and his people dig a bigger, deeper hole. And while his supporters may buy anything they’re told, we all have to hope that a sufficient number of them, on top of the percentage of the country who already know better, will get a grip and realize they’re being sold a bill of goods as ludicrous as those proverbial suckers buying the Brooklyn Bridge.

La Guardia had a simple answer to such nonsense: “Let’s drive the bums out of town,” he’d shout. And he knew that the ballot box is a good way to show them the highway.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This story was originally published at ]

9 comments for “Contrasting Mayor LaGuardia and Donald Trump

  1. Joe Tedesky
    October 4, 2016 at 11:00

    To the Hillary supporters, don’t worry your girl is gonna win. I say this, because I believe the fix is in. Does anyone really take this presidential race seriously? It’s okay if you do, and you have every reason to believe the presidential race is on the up and up. Although, the establishment seems to prefer Hillary over Donald, and with that I feel this presidential election is rigged. Sometimes I get the opinion that Donald is a realistic plant, and yet at other times he comes off real due to his mean rhetoric, but then again it all could be a pretty good show being put on for us. Regardless fixed or no fix Hillary will be our next president, because she is the preference of the Wall Street MIC Establishment. So if trashing Trump makes you feel good, well then go ahead and do so, but there really is no need to do this since it’s a done deal anyway.

    Think of this, if the establishment is willing to assassinate a president they don’t like, then what’s a few key strokes in order to hack their guy, or in this case their girl into the Oval Office? Plus, the establishment needs to get something for their investment of the Hillary and Bill speeches.

    • Brad Owen
      October 4, 2016 at 12:11

      Do you remember, back in 2012, when Karl Rove, that ole “Turd Blossom”, seemed flabbergasted that Mitt didn’t carry Ohio?, and in fact lost the election? Did some covert operative forget to pay the hacker in Ohio? I’ve often thought about that moment. He acted as if some plan didn’t get carried out. Did an Angel put Her finger on the keyboard, so that lesser evil would prevail that day (sometimes we just can’t get to the Greater Good)?

      • Joe Tedesky
        October 4, 2016 at 13:18

        Kind of like when in 2004 John Edwards was reluctant to concede to the Bush Cheney win. That was all because Ohio had been compromised. I seem to remember a couple of people from the Ohio election board went to jail for that, not sure but I seem to recall that may have happened. There again my confusion is clouded due to the lack of proper news converge that gets loss when these elections fall out of the news. I’m pretty much convinced that Hillary will win because of the fix. In fact today in the news the Democrate’s are outwardly claiming their fear of the Russians and the Trump people putting the fix in Pennsylvania. That is a Rove tactic, to blame the adversary for the same thing you are doing….to create the reality is the name of the game. Sorry folks I just don’t believe it’s all on the up and up.

    • David Smith
      October 4, 2016 at 13:42

      Bravo, Brad Owen for your anecdote that reveals how The Machine functions. Turd Blossom doesn’t understand that both 2004 Ohio and 2012 Ohio went exactly according to plan. It wasn’t a clever Republican hack in 2004, as nothing is done without permission, and it wasn’t an Angel in 2012, but you are close: it is Living Breathing Gods that decide these things, as they decide will it be a Purdey, or Holland and Holland, perhaps the Boss, or the Woodward, yes today it will be the Dickson Round Action, Skeletonized……

      • Brad Owen
        October 5, 2016 at 07:29

        What I particularly enjoyed about that upset victory of Obama’s, is that the man with the impeachable record got to face immediate impeachment for his unspeakable savagery against the citizens and the world, and we wouldn’t have to suffer 4 years of Romney’s unspeakable savagery to earn his impeachable record. Alas, the Repubs didn’t come through…why would they, Mr. O is their man, a Wall Streeter. Right then and there I saw the uselessness of lesser evilism; it’s the same evil…time to park your vote and your donation dollars elsewhere, other than D and R. I thank the Gods, especially Coyote Trickster, for the enlightenment: “See what We mean? Look elsewhere besides these two sides of the same coin.”

        • Brad Owen
          October 5, 2016 at 11:53

          What would be particularly funny, is if Jill Stein manages (with Angel Help?) to win the election, and have nothing but Ds and Rs staring at her from Congress…BUT…since they’ve just voted so overwhelmingly to over-ride Obama’s veto of JASTA, and are also looking long-and-hard at re-installing Glass-Steagall, they might be willing to co-operate with this new “New Dealer-on-steroids” (some neo-liberal economic “philosophers” are having grave 2nd thoughts about the unfettered free market BS they’ve been peddling for decades; I was reading about it on in their midst, and find it possible to be bipartisan about it, because Dr. Stein is neither D nor R. Now THAT would be hilarious, VERY Coyote. Only thing that would top it is if her husband’s first and middle names were Frank Norman.

  2. Exiled off mainstreet
    October 4, 2016 at 10:43

    La Guardia’s opponent was not a war criminal; Trump’s is.

    • Dick Nixon
      October 5, 2016 at 10:23

      Hillary Clinton is a proven War Criminal. Libya, Syria, Serbia, Ukraine are the obvious. She and her husband Bill have been the implements of Glass Stegal, WTO, NAFTA, and yes, Telecommunications deregulation. Victoria Nuland worked for Clinton. The middle east is a cauldron of fire due to the Clintons, Bush and of course the last eight years with Obama.

      The Clinton Foundation is a pay for play operation. Clinton talks about ill gotten gains? She has personally made hundreds of millions of dollars all the while working for government. Payments from China, Saudi Arabia, and even Russia were made all for favors. The foundation has not even been audited.

      Why is this comparison missing from the article? Write a story on Hillary and her various scandals. If not someone running for President. how about Bill and the money taken from China during his administration?

      What next? Trump ran a stop sign while at Wharton?

      • lynne gillooly
        October 5, 2016 at 14:15

        Your “facts” are not even close to the truth. The Clinton foundation HAS been audited and there is no proof of pay to play. It has an A rating because 90 percent of all donations go to doing good. It has saved over 10 million lives.
        Proven War Criminal!! I think you mean Bush/ Cheney. None of our recent Presidents are perfect. Some worse than others, but invading Iraq under false pretenses would be one of the biggest mistakes in our history.
        The problem with Trump is his claim to be a great businessman is why he thinks he should be President. If this were true why hide his taxes? He has NO experience in public service. He has filed bankruptcy several times and lost other people’s money EACH time. How is that good for the country? His economic advisors are all hedge funders and wealthy. His plan is just trickle down on steroids….the LAST thing we need.

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