presidential elections: Mario Cuomo edition

December 15, 2008

Let’s pretend that 10 months out of every 48 are the Presidential election campaign cycle. I know, i live in an elaborate fantasy world, but just work with me.

Husband spends those 10 months feeding like a tick on the every move of the candidates. He watches the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses like sporting events. By June he’s referring to David Broder as Dave-O. Me? I go to ground. Whereas Husband views the Tivo’d C-SPAN coverage of a town hall at the Cedar Rapids Fairgrounds, presented by the Greater Iowa Poultry Workers United Pluckers shop 407 as Must See TV, I find myself gnashing my teeth and pleading for it all to be over.

By the end of summer and the Conventions I’d confess to kidnapping the Lindberg baby to make it stop.

Then, after the election, I emerge, sober up, look for my shadow, and then spend the next 38 months obsessing over Presidential elections.

Lately I’ve been ruminating and cogitating (also, occasionally, fulminating) on Mario Cuomo’s 1984 speech to the Democratic National Convention. This is the speech where Cuomo remarked on Reagan’s highjacking of the phrase “a shining city on a hill” and I’ve embedded it toward the bottom of this post.

I’m obsessed with this one not just because of the striking parallels to our own time, but because it’s a fine speech and despite the bits I’m about to highlight, really quite inspiring.

Ten days ago, President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn’t understand that fear. He said, “Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.” And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill.

But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.

In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city.

In fact, Mr. President, this is a nation — Mr. President you ought to know that this nation is more a “Tale of Two Cities” than it is just a “Shining City on a Hill.”

Maybe, maybe, Mr. President, if you visited some more places; maybe if you went to Appalachia where some people still live in sheds; maybe if you went to Lackawanna where thousands of unemployed steel workers wonder why we subsidized foreign steel. Maybe — Maybe, Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there; maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn’t afford to use.

Cuomo goes on to outline the Democratic principles that stand in stark contrast to Reagan’s reign of recession, homelessness, unemployment, bankruptcies, a banking crisis, and a 200 billion dollar deficit. Plus, of course, a foreign policy playbook in tatters:

But what about foreign policy? They said that they would make us and the whole world safer. They say they have. By creating the largest defense budget in history, one that even they now admit is excessive — by escalating to a frenzy the nuclear arms race; by incendiary rhetoric; by refusing to discuss peace with our enemies; by the loss of 279 young Americans in Lebanon in pursuit of a plan and a policy that no one can find or describe.

We give money to Latin American governments that murder nuns, and then we lie about it. We have been less than zealous in support of our only real friend — it seems to me, in the Middle East — the one democracy there, our flesh and blood ally, the state of Israel. Our — Our policy — Our foreign policy drifts with no real direction, other than an hysterical commitment to an arms race that leads nowhere — if we’re lucky. And if we’re not, it could lead us into bankruptcy or war.

Of course we must have a strong defense! Of course Democrats are for a strong defense. Of course Democrats believe that there are times that we must stand and fight. And we have. Thousands of us have paid for freedom with our lives. But always — when this country has been at its best — our purposes were clear. Now they’re not. Now our allies are as confused as our enemies. Now we have no real commitment to our friends or to our ideals — not to human rights, not to the refuseniks, not to Sakharov, not to Bishop Tutu and the others struggling for freedom in South Africa.

We — We have in the last few years spent more than we can afford. We have pounded our chests and made bold speeches. But we lost 279 young Americans in Lebanon and we live behind sand bags in Washington. How can anyone say that we are safer, stronger, or better?

Like I said earlier, the speech is not all doom and despair – it really is inspiring and it’s a rhetorical masterpiece. Unfortunately, it didn’t help Walter Mondale and running mate Geraldine Ferraro, who succeeded in capturing only 41% of the popular vote. That seems pretty respectable as far as losses go, until you factor in the lunacy of the Electoral College and see that they only won Minnesota and Washington, DC.

This is where the November 22nd draft of this post originally ended. I came back to it once, but couldn’t remember what my original point was – it was something more than “this is a great speech” but something less than an extended digression about what a pack of unholy assholes the Reagan administration was. Not being able to remember what or where the middle-ground between those two was, I tucked it back into the drafts folder and forgot it.

This afternoon, I was reminded of the draft by Sarah Vowell. I was listening to Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, which of course spends a great deal of time on John Winthrop’s 1630 speech, “A model of Christian Charity” from whence Reagan’s writer’s swiped and bastardized the phrase “shining city on a hill” seeing as it’s a book about the Puritans. Vowell doesn’t let Reagan’s borrowing go unnoticed as the modern cultural connotations of the phrase muddy our understanding of Puritanism and what Winthrop was saying in the first place, so the references to Reagan and Cuomo aren’t out of left field or anything.

Winthrop of course swiped the phrase from the Sermon on the Mount, but I’m endeavoring to avoid a Biblical digression because I’m hungry and I want to go eat dinner.

At any rate, you should watch the whole speech for yourself because it’s good stuff.

With your copious free time, you also ought to read or listen to the Wordy Shipmates and learn some stuff about 17th Century America or at least be amused by Vowell’s dissection of what the Brady Bunch taught Gen-X about Thanksgiving.

Incidentally, here’s Vowell talking to John Stewart about The Wordy Shipmates earlier this year:

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