I WAS glad to accept appointment as Deputy Attorney General of the State of New York because of the opportunity to get some experience in public office in my home state. Though I knew that I would gain considerable experience in the law and the way it was administered in New York, I did not know that I was also to learn a great deal about practical politics in that connection. While I already knew generally that political parties help their friends, I never realized until this experience in the Attorney General's office how far special privileges and favors really went.
I was assigned to the New York City Bureau of the Attorney General's office in January, 1915. The main office, of course, was in Albany. I was given charge of matters ranging from legal work for the State Department of Agriculture to looking into unpaid mortgage taxes and conducting litigation with the Federal government. I took my work seriously, though I soon found that not all of the deputies did so and did not seem to be expected to put in a full day's work.
One interesting experience in the Attorney General's office gave me considerable knowledge of the ways of politics and justice. It had to do with trivial violations of the Conservation Law of the state. Every year fish and game inspectors brought in a sheaf of complaints against fishermen on Long Island for violating the law by taking scallops under one year old. A large number of these cases were scheduled for trial. I went out to Long Island to try them.
There was no question of the guilt of these fishermen. It was easy to establish that they took the young scallops. In each case the fishermen had been caught coming in with their catch, and samples of the scallops had been taken. But in case after case juries disagreed. I just couldn't understand it. Finally, I got to know the jurors pretty well, and after about the fifth or sixth disagreement, I asked some of them about it.
They were very frank. "Why, Mr. Attorney General," they said, "there is no question that these men are guilty. We understand the need of conserving fish life and not taking scallops under one year old, but this has been going on for a long time. Now, all of a sudden, the state indicts these small, individual fishermen. Why don't you go after the big oyster companies? We are not going to convict these little fellows. The big companies do the same thing day after day and are never bothered."
On the way home I asked the conservation officials about it. They looked at me and said: "Would you prosecute one of those big companies?"
"Of course I would," I said. "It's a violation of the law, isn't it?"
"Yes, but -" They sort of hemmed and hawed and said finally that they didn't believe any such action would receive approval "all the way up.” They had been in the service many years.
I told them to go out and get the evidence. Within two weeks they had brought in complaints against most of the large oyster companies. They were really large corporations. They owned their own tugs and also owned a large part of the waters from which they took their oysters, clams, and scallops. I adjourned all pending cases against the small, private fishermen and went out to try my first big oyster company case.
The company was represented by a prominent lawyer who later became a Supreme Court judge in New York State. He asked for an adjournment and before I could open my mouth, it was granted. I went out to Riverhead, Long Island, to try this case at least four or five times, and each time adjournment was requested and immediately granted. Finally, after many weeks of these delays, I appeared in court on the date last set for trial, and much to my surprise, the company was ready for trial.
I had not even adjusted myself at the counsel table, and the first juror had not yet been called, when counsel for the big company addressed the court and requested the court to ask the Attorney General to advise under what section of the law he intended to prosecute. That was easy. The law was not more than one and a half lines long. "No scallops under one year of age shall be taken" was the way it ran. I cited it. Whereupon, the company's counsel, with a happy grin, took a telegram from his pocket and said: "If Your Honor please, that law was changed last night, and I have a telegram from the Governor so informing me. Now, if Your Honor please, inasmuch as this law has been changed, I submit that it would be hardly worth while to continue with this trial. Clearly the legislature has seen the fallacy of such a law."
The judge seemed not a bit surprised. He seemed to know more about it all than I did. "Oh, yes, Counselor, I quite agree," he said. "Of course, if the Attorney General insists on a trial, I suppose we will have to go through with it, but I quite agree that it will serve no purpose whatsoever." The law had been changed simply by inserting the words "in public waters." The little fisherman caught his fish in public water, while the big companies had leased private waters along the coast!
I did not proceed with the trial, as it would have been useless. But I also did not prosecute any more of the cases against the small fishermen. I learned afterwards that there had been an understanding for many years that the big oyster companies were not to be disturbed. I suppose the same condition exists to this date. Law is all right so long as big interests are not disturbed. It seems it was easier in that case to change the law than to change the Attorney General.
ANOTHER time I was given the first case under a new Weights and Measures Law. The law required that the true weight be stated on all food in containers. The first case was against some large packing houses for misstating the weights on hams and bacon. It looked like a very simple case to me. There was no question as to the identity of the hams and bacon. There was no question as to their weight, or that they were underweight. Several ounces underweight made a difference of perhaps 5 per cent in price.
The State Department of Agriculture was very keen about establishing the efficacy of this new law, for it had taken several years to get it enacted. The violation was a misdemeanor. The case, therefore, was of a criminal nature and was instituted in the Magistrates' Court of the City of New York. When the case was called, my neighbor in Greenwich Village, State Senator James J. Walker, later Mayor, appeared for the defense.
I called my first witness, one of the inspectors of the packers' plants. Whereupon, Senator Walker addressed the court, stating that he was the author of the law, that it was never intended to apply to "wrappers," that the hams and bacon were in wrappers, and not in a container, that the requirement that true weight be shown only applied to containers made of glass, wood, or tin but did not apply to wrappers. And, of course, he knew, for he had written the bill.
He also knew the judge, who was an affable Tammany judge. The judge went out of his way to be nice to Jimmy, and my case was dismissed then and there. I started to protest—for all the good it did me! I had known Jimmy for some time, and after the case was dismissed, the judge came out, and Jimmy and the judge invited me to have a drink.
I was still protesting at the dismissal of my case. "Jimmy," I said, "how in the world can you possibly appear in a case to defeat your own law?"
And Jimmy, in his urbane way, said: "Fiorello, when are you going to get wise? Why do you suppose we introduce bills? We introduce them sometimes just to kill them. Other times we even have to pass a bill. Why are you in the Attorney General's office? You're not going to stay there all your life. You make your connections now, and later on you can pick up a lot of dough defending cases you are now prosecuting." And, of course, the judge acquiesced in all that.
"But," I said, "a lot of little storekeepers have been fined for selling the same kind of hams in wrappers."
"Fiorello," said Jimmy, "you stop worrying about those things. What are you in politics for—for love?"
Well, that was the end of the Walker Law so far as the big packers were concerned. When I reported the incident, no one in the department seemed to be shocked. They had run into the same kind of thing in the course of trying to enforce a great many of our laws. Once in a while, a conscientious deputy would proceed with his case, but sooner or later he would find himself blocked if big interests were involved. Politics, politics, politics! I found very little difference in their philosophy among members of either big party. I was to find the same kind of thing going on after I went to Congress.
But I just could not be a regular. Not to comply and accept the established custom, things as they are, but to raise a howl and kick, brands one as an insurgent. I managed to survive, but many others who bucked the machine during their early careers were through before they could get their start. I enjoyed the work in the Attorney General's office. I left it much wiser and not so innocent as when I entered it.
IN November, 1914, when I ran for Congress the first time and was defeated, there was very little war talk in the United States, though the war in Europe had been going on for four months. War orders were having their stimulating effect on employment, production, and business in general, and the country began to pull out of the depression it had been in just before the European nations went to war. While I was serving as Deputy Attorney General in 1915, I became convinced that the situation was serious, and decided that I might as well get myself ready for war.
I decided that I wanted to go into our Air Corps. I got hold of my friend Giuseppe Bellanca, the brother of my friend August Bellanca, the garment workers' leader. As a boy in Sicily, Giuseppe had got interested in aviation, when Santos-Dumont first started to fly there. Bellanca spent hours on the Sicilian beaches scaling flat stones and watching them hop. He carefully watched the birds fly and studied aerodynamics by himself. He managed to get a grounding in higher mathematics. Even as a boy he was always talking about flying.
Giuseppe Bellanca came to this country before the war and started making airplanes by hand. I was the attorney for the company he formed, which consisted of about twenty-five cooks and waiters, each of whom had put in about $100. All of thorn attended all the meetings of the company, which were quite exciting. I did their legal work free of charge.
Besides building planes, Giuseppe Bellanca ran a small flying school at Mineola, Long Island. It was there that I studied flying. Aviation was young then. Bollanca had two planes. One was used for instruction. It was a light Bleriot-type monoplane with a three-cylinder Anzani motor. It was a pretty little toy, but it flew. The motor was supposed to develop about thirty horsepower. If we got fifteen out of it, on actual test, we were doing well.
Quite an assortment of individuals were learning to fly at this school. We flew irregularly, whenever we had the time, and whenever the wind was right. I taught Bellanca how to run my secondhand Ford, while we were on route to his flying school. Mile-a-Minute Murphy was one of the other pupils. He was a New York City policeman who had made a record a generation before by riding a bicycle at the speed of a mile a minute, paced by a Long Island Railroad train. Bicycles were now too slow for him, so he decided to learn to fly. There was a Chinese, who was always mysterious about himself, and we never did learn where he had turned up from. There was also a Vermont farmer whose aunt was paying his bill and was very eager that he should learn how to do stunt flying. Then there was a young lady who had a perfect wardrobe of flying clothes, but who showed up very seldom for her lessons.
We felt our way and learned to fly like fledglings. Our first lessons were devoted to what we called grass-cutting. We would sit in the instruction plane for a ground run of about a mile and a half. Then we would get out, turn the plane around, and taxi back. It was necessary to control the throttle so that we would not lift off the ground. After we had qualified at doing that and were able to keep the machine straight, the next step was a straightaway hop on the same course. We would lift the machine about fifteen to one hundred feet in the air and then land. This simple instruction went on for quite a while before we were allowed to circle the field.
The instruction plane had no dual controls. It was a single-seater, and one had to remember what one was told and then trust to luck. After I went through this course, I had got the feel of the air and learned the nomenclature of a plane and the terms used in flying, but I was not much of a flyer. It did help me to get into the Air Corps later, however.
I believed then, as I believe today, that Giuseppe Bellanca is one of the greatest plane designers the world has ever known. He could got more lift out of less horsepower than any other plane maker. He always had tough going. He never had enough capital, and many of his associates were always more interested in promotion than in production. Bellanca produced the Columbia plane, built by hand. That type of plane had more crossings of the Atlantic to its credit than any other plane during the early period of transatlantic flying. In fact, the old Columbia is still kicking around somewhere. Bellanca planes of that period won all the efficiency contests at air meets, so many that the contests were finally eliminated. I actually saw the present multi-motor two-winged monoplane, now of standard typo, on Bellanca's drawing boards back in 1914. During World War II, the Navy took his design, went into production, with not even a word of credit or thanks to Giuseppe Bellanca. Some contractor made a lot of money out of it.
I kept pretty busy in 1915 and 1916, what with my work in the Attorney General's office, learning to fly, and building my fences for the 1916 Congressional campaign. I had my heart still set on going to Congress, and my first defeat did not discourage me. Once when I was in Washington, a member of Congress gave me a card to the "family" gallery. I would not go. I did not want to enter the House of Representatives until I could go on the floor as a member. But I read the Congressional Record religiously. That was the easiest part of my preliminary training. The big job was making friends so that I could win the election.
I knew that I could not depend much on the Republican organization, because of my first experience with it in 1914. It was pretty clear to me that the seat in Congress from my district appeared to belong to the National Liquor Dealers' Association in the name of Michael Farley, the Democratic incumbent, by tacit agreement with the Republicans. But I kept building up my contacts. My law office was a regular Legal Aid Society, and after Office hours at the Attorney General's office I made many friends useful to me in politics by going to clambakes, balls, weddings, and funerals—functions inseparable from the life of a man in politics. I got to know a great many people in my district.
WHEN the time came for the Congressional nomination in 1910, I was shocked and hurt to learn that I was not slated for the place on the Republican ticket. I felt I was entitled to it because of the run I had made in the previous election two years before. But that run had attracted a great deal of interest in the nomination. Everybody was nice, giving me good advice about not taking another licking. I was destined, they said, to be a judge or something big like that. "Just be a good boy, go along with the organization, help wherever you can," they told me. That didn't register very well with me.
I got my petitions printed. I was told that was not in the books, that recognition had been given me by my appointment as Deputy Attorney General; I must not hurt my own interest, but just go along and be a good soldier. I insisted that I would contest any nomination made by the party and run in the primaries against another Republican organization choice.
Finally, I made an appointment to see Fred Tanner, who was then Republican State Chairman. He had been leader of my home district. Fred Tanner was a prominent lawyer, scholarly and gentlemanly, who was interested in politics. He had had a meteoric rise in the Republican Party, but he was far too refined and clean to make a success as boss of the New York State Republicans. Naturally, Tanner was greatly occupied, as it was a Presidential year. New York State was going to the Republican convention in Chicago with its Governor, Charles S. Whitman, as its favorite son. I do not believe Fred Tanner was very hot about Whitman.
I had an interesting talk with the State Chairman. He repeated the old gaff about my future in politics, and he tried to convince me that it was to my interest to stay put that year. I was not a bit impressed. He was frank enough to tell me that a young outsider wanted the Congressional nomination badly that year. And this young man's friends had promised to make a substantial contribution to the Republican Party if he got the nomination. The outsider's name was Hamilton Fish. There is no doubt that he wanted to go to Congress, and he succeeded after World War I. But he was elected to Congress from Dutchess County, a long way from 14th Street in Manhattan.
Fred Tanner made one blunder in his effort to talk me out of running that year. He said that if I had gone to any expense, such as printing my petitions, or anything else, he would see that I was reimbursed. Well, I just hit the ceiling. I don't think Fred meant it the way I took it. But I blew up, and that just about ended our talk. As I started out of his office, Fred shouted to me, "Fiorollo, hold your horses. Damn it, if you want to run, go ahead and do it. Don't blame me if you're licked again."
Harry Andrews was a very useful man around our district. He was young, a good stenographer, did most of the clerical work, and acted as secretary to the district leader. He had a job as a secretary to a judge. In 1914 he was in my corner, and he was very helpful to me in the primary stage of the 1916 campaign as well as in the election. I got him to study law and had the pleasure of seeing him grow and develop to the point where I appointed him a magistrate when I was Mayor. I learned a great deal about politics from Harry, and he, in turn, I believe, learned some things about government from me.
We got my petitions signed and filed. Though I never got a nod or a word from the Republican Party officials, no opposition developed, much to my surprise, and I entered the primaries unopposed. I did have opposition for the Progressive Party nomination. My friend Ben Marsh, a real liberal and a true progressive, who has been on the right side of many losing causes, was my opponent. I won the Progressive nomination, too, and always had a feeling that Ben voted for me.
The campaign was hot. I got a tremendous start on my opponent, the sitting Congressman. His office-holding had gone to his head, and he was terribly inflated. He seldom showed up at his saloon, and when he did, forgot to treat the boys. He had become a "big shot," and was seldom seen in the district. That would not have been so bad if he had ever done anything in Washington. So I had plenty of material to work on.
This time I did not wait for the party leaders to get me started. I was 'way ahead of them. The campaign was difficult because my district had such varied interests. The East Side section was interested in economics and the future of Europe; Washington Square, before Greenwich Village had become The Village, was most conservative—for higher tariffs, lower taxes, big business stuff; and the West Side Irish were anti-British and completely Tammanyized.
While I had many friends in the Socialist Party, they waged their fight against me on the East Side. It was their tactics to accept an ultraconservative rather than a progressive. Tammany was counting on a heavy vote in the West Side section of the district and the solid Little Tim Sullivan Third District on the East Side.
This time my candidacy was not taken by Tammany Hall as the joke it had been to its henchmen two years before. They were in a dilemma. They didn't dare put Mike Farley, their candidate, on the stump. So all sorts of stump speakers were imported into the district. We had a great time with them. I covered every corner in that district, I think. We would start early in the evening, on the West Side, keep going east, and it was not unusual for the last street meeting to end 'way past one o'clock in the morning. Then, to Stuyvesant Hall or some coffeehouse on the East Side for another hour or two of campaigning.
Tammany was not really worried. They depended on two things: on the Democratic majority usual in that Congressional district, which they considered overwhelming, and on the count. Republican leaders in the West Side districts and in some of the East Side districts were not only weak but untrustworthy and venal. The Republican leader in Little Tim Sullivan's East Side district was an Italian who had made a fortune as a padrone for the Erie Railroad. He worked very closely with Tammany Hall and would do nothing to incur its displeasure. He always got advice, protection, and help from the national Republican administration. He was illiterate, ignorant, and arrogant. He didn't even treat his family well. The Tammany leader in the same district was one of the Sullivan clan. Little Tim Sullivan was personally a nice fellow, but as tough a Tammany leader as they came. We prepared for fraud, by organizing in this district a corps of volunteer watchers for the count, a precaution I have always taken in my subsequent campaigns.
The fighting Irish were helpful to me in that campaign. I knew more about the history of Ireland than Mike Farley did, and some of the Irish thought Mike Farley had not been anti-English enough. I was greatly aided by a corps of volunteers headed by one who became known as the Irish Joan of Arc. She was a real spellbinder; she was not particularly supporting me; but she was certainly opposing Mike Farley.
In my talks on the East Side I dismembered the Hapsburg Empire and liberated all the subjugated countries under that dynasty almost every night. The funny part of it is that I was not fooling and happened to guess future history correctly.
Charles Evans Hughes was the Republican candidate for President against Woodrow Wilson, running for re-election. Naturally, the interest in the campaign was focused on the Presidential election, which was a tense and close struggle. In the Republican part of the district, which constituted only a small percentage of the total vote, I had the advantage of the fact that they were all for Hughes and would vote the straight Republican ticket, including me. Hughes was very popular as a former Governor of New York and a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. We were certain of getting a big vote in that "silk stocking" section of district, and, in fact, we did very little campaigning there.
WE WERE all pretty tired that last Monday night before election day. We stuck it out at meetings until two o'clock in the morning. We had to get up very early on election day, for we had a job to do. After about three hours' sleep, we covered the two or three lodging houses in the district, "flophouses." At five o'clock we visited these, for we knew that Tammany planned to vote the inhabitants in a pack between eight and nine that morning. Our boys were ready with coffee and rolls and doughnuts, that by the time the Tammany men came around, the flophouse inhabitants had already voted. It was the first time in years, some of the old-timers remarked, that the guests of these flophouses had voted sober.
We had a little trouble early in the morning when word was spread, allegedly by one of the Republican leaders, "La Guardia hasn't got a chance, so trade votes for Congress for a Republican Assemblyman." We got hold of that leader quickly, took him in the car with us, and went from polling place to polling place straightening out that one.
Our real trouble started when the polls closed and the count began. In those days we still had paper ballots. The count was long and tedious. There was ample time and opportunity for marking ballots so that they would be disqualified, for substituting ballots, and for every other kind of dirty, dishonest political trick.
I took the toughest district on the waterfront to watch. This attracted a lot of attention, and finally Charles Culkin, one of the top men in Tammany Hall, who held high office from time to time, and was the Tammany leader of that district, came to the polling place. He gently told me, "Why La Guardia, what are you doing here? You shouldn't be here. Everything is all right."
"Everything is not all right," I said, "and what is more, Charlie, you sit here and help me watch the count. There is going to be an honest count, or, if not, someone is going to go to jail, and I mean you, Charlie. You stay here and protect your own district."
He did. I took a few precincts even in Charlie Murphy's own home district, although he was then the strong boss of Tammany Hall.
I had all sorts of people watching that district of Charlie Culkin's as well as the other districts. There were schoolteachers, doctors, businessmen, long shoremen, and some tough guys on our side. In the final count in the district where I was helping to watch, I defeated my Tammany opponent by a very small margin. The Democratic vote in that district was usually five to one against the Republican. Charlie Culkin's jaw dropped. He shook his head and asked me if I was satisfied with the count.
"Yes," I said, "as soon as the certificate is signed and turned over to the police." It was.
All through the Democratic districts on the West Side river front I was running 'way ahead of the ticket. We knew then that if we could keep up that lead, we would overcome the normal majority for the Democrats. We were going well on the East Side. It, too, was well organized. All of our watchers were instructed to remain on duty until the count was entirely completed, the returns officially signed, and the ballot boxes sealed.
It was about four in the morning before we could get a final count. I had won the election. But it was a good thing we had watched that count carefully, for I won by 357 votes—7272 for me, 6915 for Parley.
I got quite a reception on the East Side. Sam Koenig, who was the Republican county chairman, was genuinely elated at my victory. There is one thing I could always say about Sam Koenig then and during the many years following: if he gave you his word about something, he kept it. I anticipated an enthusiastic reception in other parts of the 14th Congressional District. After all, it was the first time a Republican had been elected to Congress below 14th Street since the foundation of the Republican Party. I particularly thought I would get a riotous reception in my own home district. I never saw such gloom anywhere. The hangers-on at the club hardly nodded to me. Someone was on the telephone in the rear office, assuring the Democratic leader of the district, who was supposed to be his rival, "No, Joe, we didn't double-cross you; we didn't do anything for this fellow. You just can't control him." An apology for my victory was what I heard instead of congratulations!
I got another lesson in politics from that campaign of 1916. William M. Calder, then a Representative in Congress from a Brooklyn district, was running for United States Senator from New York. There was no sham about Bill Calder. A successful builder and an active member of the House of Representatives for many years, a staunch Republican, most conservative, he made no claims to being a progressive and always remained a real party man. He and I had already become close friends.
Calder was opposed by Robert Bacon, who had been in the State Department for a long time as Assistant Secretary of State. In 1909 he had succeeded Elihu Root as Secretary of State. Mr. Bacon was a partner of J. P. Morgan. There was plenty of money in the primary campaign on the Bacon side. But the boys in our district were for Calder, though the Republican organization seemed to favor Bacon.
On primary day the "Bacon boys" went up to party headquarters and came back with plenty of dough. During the early evening hours, Bacon cars came through the district dishing out more money. But the "Bacon boys" were amateurs, and the regular district boys were hard-boiled politicians. They were taking Bacon money, but they were getting Calder votes.
Calder carried the district overwhelmingly and won the Republican nomination. I don't know whether the same funny situation went on in other districts, but the final result throughout the state was that Calder was nominated and was elected. That impressed me with the fact which I have insisted on so many times, namely, that money in and of itself just cannot win a campaign. This is not to say that Robert Bacon did not have the qualifications for the high office of United States Senator. In fact, he did. But he just didn't have the political appeal.
It was at this same period that the New York Central and Wall Street were in the habit of dividing the United States Senators from New York between them. At the same time in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Railroad took one Senator and the steel interests the other. But that period was coming to an end in 1916. Later Robert Bacon's son, Robert Bacon, Jr., ran for Congress, after his father's death, from a Long Island district and was elected. He was a gentlemanly, amiable, and useful member of the house during the entire time of his service there.
President Wilson called the Sixty-fifth Congress, to which I had been elected, into extra session, to meet on April. I was glad to get started. I visited Washington often between my election and the meeting of the extra session. Since I was a sort of freak, having been elected on the Republican ticket from such a strong Tammany district, I created some interest, and this gave me the opportunity of meeting the leaders of the House, with whom I afterwards served. I grew very fond of many of them and developed great respect and admiration for them. I entered the House under the rule of courtesy by which members-elect are permitted on the floor. My dream of a lifetime had come true.