WASHINGTON was chilled, gray, and rumbling with talk of war when Fiorello LaGuardia arrived in early 1917 to take up his congressional duties for the first time. The bill to arm merchant ships had just been filibustered to death in the Senate, and Woodrow Wilson was planning his next moves from the seclusion of his White House study. On March 5, opening day for the Sixty-fifth Congress, the new representative from lower Manhattan, short, sturdy, his black hair parted in the middle, wearing a bow tie, walked down the center aisle until he found an empty seat in the front of the House chamber and sat down. There were a few murmurs and grunts, stares from several colleagues, and whispers in the press gallery. The freshman congressman had violated House protocol by taking a seat up front. This was the beginning of LaGuardia's long career as a political upstart. But, more than mere obstreperousness, it was the foretaste of a new kind of ingredient in American national politics.
LaGuardia was the first Italian-American in Congress, an advance agent of the urban immigrant masses who would gather slowly in the Twenties and then shake national politics violently in the era of Franklin Roosevelt. He brought to Washington a fresh progressivism, just as the old was disintegrating. Wilsonian liberalism had swallowed up many of the big-city reformers. More important, the war split the movement badly, for the unity of progressives had always been based on domestic issues, and now