By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire
Many years ago, journalist Teddy White visited New York City and asked his cabdriver for whom he was voting. I don’t even remember the election in question. It doesn’t matter. Because White got both a lecture in history and a lesson in politics for a reply.
His cabdriver told him that he always voted for “the other guy,” because no matter which party was in power, they always forgot what was important after they had been in office for a while. There was only one exception, his cabdriver told him.
“LaGuardia. I would vote for LaGuardia every time.” White asked him why. “Because LaGuardia was different,” his cabdriver said, turning around to make his point. “He really cared.”
Fiorella LaGuardia was a Republican, of course. And it has taken the Republican party this long to produce another exception to the rule, but they finally have: Donald Trump, a man who is also “different.” But this time, the magic of politics has been reversed. No matter what your politics might be, all Americans must vote against him this November.
All politics is local, and for that reason, neither of America’s great political parties have ever had a monopoly on rightness or decency. That is why White’s cabdriver had it right, in many ways. Each party needs the correction of the other.
It is important to remember that the Democrats, for instance, represented the racist American south for a very long time after the Civil War. If you were a progressive who believed in the sanctity of human life in Atlanta, Montgomery, or Tallahassee in the 1920’s, odds were that you were also a Republican.
The Democrats were also the party of Tammany Hall and the other big city machines, famous for their corruption and strong-arm tactics; that was how LaGuardia came into his natural affiliation. Half-Jewish and half-Italian, he grew up being kicked by Irish boots; with an urge to root out corruption, to stick up for those who had no power, and to prize kindness and opportunity.
The Republican party as it developed in New York City, in fact, was a wonderful thing in many ways. It was a minority party; the numbers were always against it. It had a gallantry about it, for that fact. Its chief journalistic outlet, the New York Herald Tribune, was famous for its willingness to publish works of real art and real thought (Jean Seberg advertized that rag in 1960, in the classic French film, Breathless; can you imagine some snobby French director today doing that for Fox News?).
Its politicians had verve and intelligence: Rockefeller, Javits, Lindsay, and yes, Dick Nixon. Though Nixon was a Californian, his intellect was leavened by the time he spent as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, and his entire political career represented a compromise between the Republican party’s eastern and western wings.
But you can also see the weaknesses in the Republican party’s structure, the flaws that would have caused White’s cabbie to vote against it on every other occasion. Just as the Democrats were marked by their racism, the Republicans suffered for their natural animosity towards the immigrant and the factory worker.
Those big city machines were not just corrupt; they were also the method by which new Americans came into their political maturity. In city after city, the Republicans lined up not only against corruption, but also against cultural change. There was a stodginess about the Republican party in many places, with which one might sympathize (who is ever comfortable with change?), but not always condone. It too often transmuted itself into a conservatism based not on principle, but on reaction; into a base thing that implicated hatred of “the other.” Likewise, its born tendency to defend the business owner’s interests over those of the factory worker too often stopped being in the service of American capitalism and veered instead into the servicing of American wealth.
Again, historically speaking, these considerations have always been balanced against the flaws of the Democrats, who have too often pandered to their own constituencies. White’s cabbie voted for and against both of these parties. He instinctively sought the balance that our country needs.
LaGuardia was different, though: because LaGuardia really cared. LaGuardia, who spoke Yiddish better than many Jews, even though most people considered him Italian. LaGuardia, who read the Sunday comics to children over the radio in case their parents didn’t have the newspapers. LaGuardia, who could never really play outside of New York City, because the rest of the country found him short, and fat, and funny-looking.
Trump is different, too. Because he really does not care. I am out of space today, so I will continue this article soon.
Michael Davidow is a lawyer in Nashua. He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project. His most recent one is The Book of Order. They are available on Amazon.
Views expressed in columns and opinion pieces belong to the author and do not reflect those of InDepthNH.org.