American in the Making


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.

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