Tomorrow marks the birthday of Fiorello La Guardia, 99th mayor of New York City.
In the opening monologue of his 1958 play Comic Strip, George Panetta turns almost immediately to one of the most powerful cultural memories of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia:
Now, I was a kid in the days of Fiorello LaGuardia– remember him, LaGuardia? The Little Flower? Maybe he’s one of the reasons I grew up. He loved all us kids in New York City, used to read the comic strips to us on Sundays– worried and looked after us all the time.
On June 30, 1945, New York’s newspaper delivery drivers began a strike that would last 17 days, refusing to distribute any paper in the city except for the leftist (and highly pro-labor) PM… a paper that might be best remembered by comics lovers for publishing the wartime political cartoons of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.
For those who don’t mind reading between the lines, there’s an excellent contemporary account of the strike from the newspaper publishers’ perspective that can be found in the Prelinger Archives collection at The Internet Archive. Obviously very biased, but an interesting account of how a city dealt with a major media shutdown.
On July 1, La Guardia was scheduled for his regular Sunday broadcast of Talk to the People, a weekly radio show he held on WNYC. At one point in the show, he encouraged his listeners to gather their children around the radio, and commenced to reading that day’s “Dick Tracy” comic from the Sunday Daily News. With obvious relish, the mayor described the action in the panels, impersonated the voices of various characters, and reminded listeners of the plot that had led up to that moment. At the end of each strip, he would explicate the moral of that week’s adventure to his young listeners.
(In the above clip from the next week, the moral is described in no uncertain terms: “Say children, what does it all mean? It means that dirty money never brings any luck! No, dirty money always brings sorrow and sadness and misery and disgrace.”)
He also promised that he would read the Sunday comics on the air every Sunday as long as the strike continued, and that someone from WNYC would read the dailies every day. The next Sunday, when he came in to broadcast, there were camera crews there to record his reading. The story took on a life nationally. And it became one of the things La Guardia was best remembered for.
Such a move by a major politician today would smack of a paternalism and pandering that would make cynical observers tear him apart. But in 1945, La Guardia reading the comics over the radio really seems to have been seen fondly by a great number of people.
Part of this was likely La Guardia’s personality– he possessed a gentleness, kindness, and an air of genuine benevolence that was a huge change from the last multiple-term mayor in New York, the slick and corrupt “Beau James” Walker. He was a genuine uniter, running in opposition to machine party politics, and seemed to many to have the commonwheal of the city in mind.
He didn’t lash out against the strikers or against the newspapers– he just expressed a concern that the children shouldn’t have to go without their comics just because of “a squabble among grown-ups.”
I genuinely do believe that La Guardia thought that this might just be a nice thing to do– I don’t believe it was necessarily a cynical or calculated move. But I do think that there is one part of this story that needs to be read with a skeptical eye.
I don’t think he was doing this simply “for the children.” I think that reading the comics was targeted at adults as well.
By all accounts, La Guardia read and enjoyed the comics himself. Born in New York in 1882, he was a member of the first generation to grow up with comics in the newspaper. (Although he was old enough to be working by the time comics started appearing in New York papers, in his early teens.)
While the reputation of comics as a medium for children had fully developed by midcentury, adults actively read and discussed the events in the daily comics page. Based on research conducted around the same time, sociologist and media theorist Leo Bogart argued that newspaper comics were important to working-class urban readers because they provided noncontroversial (but still debatable) subjects of conversation in situations of urban semi-anonymity. You might not want to talk to the guy on the bar stool next to you about religion or politics, but you could debate Dick Tracy with him.
By reading the comics, he was actually not just providing entertainment for the children of his constituents. La Guardia was finding a way to insert himself into the everyday street-corner conversations of millions of New Yorkers. I would argue that this, just as much as appealing to the children, was key to why this was such a defining moment for the memory of La Guardia’s career. He had understood the social function of comics to its adult readers, and had joined in that discussion. It’s the mark of a true populist– to actually understand what’s important to people, even the stuff they wouldn’t normally admit to.
Interestingly, while this event has faded somewhat from the public memory, and more people know La Guardia as an airport than as a politician, the recording of La Guardia reading the comics has taken on a strange and wonderful second life: the “what does it all mean?” that can be found at approximately 1:27 in the video above has become one of the most widely-used and best-known non-musical samples in hip-hop.