Herbert H. Lehman of New York
TO ANYONE growing up in New York City in the 1930′s, the trinity of LaGuardia, Lehman, and Roosevelt seemed as fixed and permanent as the city streets. It was hardly possible to remember who had preceded them as mayor, governor, and President; it was hardly possible to imagine any of them ever being defeated. And indeed, so long as they chose to run for these offices, all three of them did prove invincible. LaGuardia retired in 1945, Roosevelt died in office in 1945, Lehman after ten years as governor became director of UNRRA during World War II.
The earnest, efficient Governor of New York State had none of the flamboyance of his two great contemporaries. There are no good stories about him, as both a New Yorker profile-writer of the 30′s and his sympathetic and honest recent biographer, Allan Nevins, agree.* But Lehman was not to be defined in history solely by his career as governor. LaGuardia and Roosevelt died, but Lehman went on to seven years in the Senate, and finally, and most remarkably, he entered in his eighties on yet another phase of his political career, becoming the elder statesman and major single resource of the New York Reform Democrats. Perhaps the greatest political triumph of his career–one can scarcely say his last-was the defeat of the regular Democratic organization by the Wagner-Reform coalition he forged in 1961. In this astonishing victory, Lehman’s sagacity, energy, experience, and wealth played an enormous role. By now, in a different era, the only defect of the great governor seems cured: he appears today almost colorful against the gray background of contemporary New York politics, for he reaches back to and reminds us of more colorful days.
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