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“Most Americans Don’t Know What Lincoln Really Represents”

May 2024
22min read

Governor Mario Cuomo of New York has used history as a guide — and a solace — for a good part of his life

Those who see Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York for the first time are likely to be surprised. Led to expect a short man with baggy eyes (someone, in his own words, with the appearance of a “tired frog”), they are startled to meet a goodlooking six-footer with the physique of a linebacker. He emanates the tightly coiled kinetic energy of a football player a few seconds before kickoff. Yet at the same time, he’s a comfortable man to be with. Indeed, he carries self-effacement and self-scrutiny almost to a fault. His office is unexpectedly modest too. He has shunned the huge, ornate “Red Room” his predecessors had inhabited for an inconsiderable, though pleasant, adjacent retreat.

Cuomo takes a lot of pride, though, in what he has done to refurbish the larger office, now used only for official occasions, and before we sat down to talk he led me on a tour. “Dewey desecrated this place,” he told me, as he pointed to before-and-after pictures of the carpets and furnishings. He called attention, too, to the concealed box on which Governor Dewey stood to make himself appear taller at press conferences.

He had, he said, a number of my books in his library, and since I had written on Franklin D. Roosevelt, he thought I might like to ride in a concealed elevator to see where FDR had gone to get massaged, and the ramp where he could be wheeled in and out of the building, an escape route Cuomo himself still sometimes employs.

Our interview took place back in his office.

Do you recall your earliest experiences with learning about the history of this country?

I didn’t speak English until I was about eight years of age, and there was a kind of traumatic entry into public school. It made an immense impression on me. I still recall the teachers: I remember the scent of Mrs. Milligan’s perfume; I remember Mrs. Cooper and Mr. Harter. I can still sing the school song of both public schools I went to. 1 think of textbooks with beautiful pictures in them and frightening moments of having to answer the questions at the back of the chapter about the Indians.

So I first learned about the country the way most first-generation children do. Not from my parents, because my parents didn’t know anything about the country; they barely knew anything about their own country—they hadn’t been educated there or here. And my neighborhood wasn’t educated. I learned about the country not from my parents, not from the priests, but from the schools.

My junior high teacher nearly destroyed any interest I had in history by converting it all into dates.

There was no television. Because my brother had nearly been killed in an accident, I wasn’t allowed out of the house. So I became an expert on all the radio serials. I knew them all. And I read everything. I have learned everything from reading. Even now I prefer a commissioner’s sending me a memorandum to coming in and talking to me. I’ll let him or her come in, but first I want to read. It gives me time to contemplate, to go back.



Is there any single book that stands out for you?


I liked religious books—not the Bible so much, because, as you recall, the Bible in those days was very tough to read the Douai-Reims Catholic Bible, beautiful as it is. If I wanted enlightenment, the Bible wasn’t the place to go. Still, there were all kinds of good books given to me by priests about good young men going on to be priests. The morality that was taught to us then was very exclusive and elitist: the world was a terrible place to live in, there would be a series of moral obstacles, and the best thing to do was to retreat from them. God forbid you should want to be a politician. Or rich. Schoolteacher? Not bad—as long as you stayed poor. So the books that meant the most to me were those like Dan , a little book about a good boy who resisted all sorts of temptation and went on to become a great priest. And the lives of the saints were exciting; they gave you a lot of history because they covered a wide period. Childish, unrealistic, some of it surrealistic, but those are the things that made the first impressions on me.

Was history part of your curriculum at St. John’s?

In those days history was part of P.S. 142, junior high school, and St. John’s Prep. You had to take four years of history—American history, modern European history. You had to take history until you were sick of it. My teacher nearly destroyed any interest I had in history by converting it all into dates. He hurt me in arithmetic, this guy, just with what he did with numbers in history.

Yes, we studied an awful lot of history. But not intelligently. Most things were memory courses in Catholic school at that point. That’s the way they taught religion—the Baltimore Catechism, memorized. It was easier than trying to figure it out. And history was a very, very big part of our curriculum in St. John’s College as well.

You’re known to be a voracious reader. To what extent over the last few years have history books been part of your diet?

I’ve gotten terribly pragmatic, and that’s something I don’t like about this business. I was a lawyer and a pretty good one, and I worked very hard at the law, yet I could range into other areas as a lawyer, read other things, even novels. But there is something about this job—maybe it’s the demands on you, all the problems we’re not solving—that makes it almost impossible for me to spend any time reading or musing about things I cannot relate to my job. Therefore, the history I read is almost all of that sort.

I read everything on every governor and every President I can find. Ambrose writes on Eisenhower—bing, I’ll read it. I’ve read everything Nixon writes. I like reading Nixon, because he is so easy. He’s also easy to get mad at. The egoism that comes through is extraordinary. In everything he writes, there’s always one paragraph that says, in effect, “I was right all along; they were all unfair.”

I’ve read everything on Roosevelt I can: Davis, Morgan, and your books. And now Johnson, with Caro’s books.

Whitman. I’ve been collecting Leaves of Grass ; I’ve got three different editions now.

Complaints against God — that’s Andy Greeley. He keeps sending books to me, and I like reading him.

The Tempting of America I had to read because Bork is an interesting guy, and his proposition is one that I have a lot of difficulty with as a lawyer and as a law professor. I think his book is pretty good. A little too self-serving, but what the heck.

I did take time out for Foucault’s Pendulum because I think Umberto Eco is wonderful. Did you read Eco, The Name of the Rose ? You have to read this guy. His mind is everywhere, and Foucault’s Pendulum is a brilliant virtuoso performance. He writes all kinds of history, all kinds of philosophy. So every once in a while I’ll cheat.

You have been quoted as saying that as a boy you were an avid reader but were no good at speaking.

Oh, I never was any good at speaking.

Yet your biographer Bob McElvaine has written that you are now “to political orators what Vladimir Horowitz is to pianists or Wayne Gretzky is to hockey forwards: the standard against which all other are measured.” Now you’re shaking your head. But somewhere along the line you did learn how to speak.


Not so. I didn’t speak English well. I was always terribly shy in school. I was not on the debate team. I would not give a speech in speech class. I didn’t actually speak publicly until I was a practicing lawyer. I always did well in oral argument. But I have never enjoyed giving speeches.

I was reasonably effective for a long time only because I knew the material so well. And I guess I could be reasonably interesting because I was born in a grocery store in a wonderful neighborhood, and I had all these rich experiences. I had a momma and a poppa. 1 was first generation. You can do a lot with that. But I was never a powerful speaker.

I wrote one good speech, I think, which was my inaugural in 1982. The keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984 was the inaugural of 1982. If you put them side by side, it would embarrass me; that’s how much alike they are.

I did not want to give the keynote. I was sure I could not do a good job of it. Everybody who had given a keynote seemed to have failed, John Glenn most tragically. I told Mondale that I wouldn’t do it, that I had nothing to offer him, that Ted Kennedy should do it. I talked Kennedy into doing it, in return for his endorsement of Mondale; I thought I had a great deal. But Mondale said, “No, you have to do it.” Then, very reluctantly, because Mondale got angry and actually said, “You said you’d do anything for me, and I’m telling you I want you to do this,” I wrote the speech.

It was awful. I delivered it to a roomful of people in New York City who were on my staff, and they didn’t like it. I did a little more work on it, went to California with my son Andrew, and we tried it on the TelePrompTer. I didn’t even complete it. I went halfway through and said, “I can’t do it.” I got up the next day, and the first person 1 walked into said, “The audience at this convention is very tough.” Then Ed Koch said, “They’re animals. They won’t listen.” I went out and Jimmy Carter was up there, and Andrew said, “Forget about it, the crowd is gone; they’re not listening to anybody. Just look at the red light, and try to talk to the camera.”

The speech I was about to give was reasonably clear, but the language was certainly not eloquent, the ideas were not spectacular. Some of them were simplistic. Some were at the edge of demagogic, especially in foreign policy—the nuns, El Salvador (”a government that kills nuns, or allows nuns to be killed”).

When I got up, though, something very interesting happened. Andrew had made them put all the lights down. He had a big fight with the security guards, who didn’t want the lights down, but somehow he got the lights down, and that caught people off guard and got their attention.

All of a sudden, from the first few words of the speech, it was clear to me that these people were desperate for something worthwhile. They all got quiet. They didn’t know who I was; there was nothing riveting about the guy or the first few sentences, but when they came to attention the way they did, what they were saying was: “Hey, look, we’re dying for something to cheer. We need something. We’re going to give you every chance we can. Give us something.”

You can see it in juries if you’ve ever tried a case. Some juries, forget about it; you can tell from the minute you look at them that they’re sorry they’re there—they don’t like you, or your client. But other juries, you just look in their faces and you see these people are prepared to be convinced, might even want to be convinced, and that was this group.

And then, as they heard the words and the ideas, they liked them. Why? The words were very upbeat. They were very simple. They were very can do. They were very justifying in the sense that “Hey, look, you’re not wasting your time being here. We’re right. We always have been right. Don’t let them tell you anything else.” They were spoken by somebody who, whatever talent he didn’t have, seemed to be perfectly sincere, because he was , and that they liked.

How do you replace the middle class? We used to grow it from poor people, but that’s not happening anymore.

Afterward David Brinkley and all sorts of people said all kinds of extravagant things; Walter Cronkite said it was the best this and that. I had an argument with Cronkite. And he said, “Don’t argue with me. I know better than you. I’ve been around longer.” I said, “Let me tell you what it was like. It wasn’t a great speech. You know, if the moment is right, the candles are just right and the drink is just right and the music is just right and you’re just right and she’s just right, and you lean over and touch her hand, it’s magic . If the moment is wrong, it’s your clammy hand on the back of her sweaty hand, and it doesn’t work.” I said, “The message and the moment came together perfectly. Appropriateness is what it was. It wasn’t a great speech, a powerful speech, but it was exactly what they wanted to hear.”

I’ve never given a speech that effective since. I don’t even try to write them anymore, for fear they’re going to be measured against the keynote.

If someone were to ask me when I heard you at your most moving, I would immediately think of the passage in Ken Burns’s film on the Statue of Liberty, when you constructed an imaginary dialogue between your mother, Immaculata, aged twentyfive, and an immigration official at Ellis Island. You imagine him saying to her: “You have no money, no skills, no friends, no job. Your husband’s a ditch digger. What do you expect of this country with the little you brought us?” And she replies, “Oh, not much. Just one thing—before I die, I’d like one of my sons to be governor of the state of New York.”

The immigrant experience is very important. When my mother and father came, they could not speak the language. They had no skills. They had one thing: a willingness to give labor. But it had to be at the lowest level. My father was literally a ditch digger in New Jersey, literally . The new immigration is not like that. Koreans come here to establish businesses. People come here now from India, many of whom are doctors or medical technologists; there are 375,000 of them in the New York City metropolitan area. They are not coming over as low-class laborers. The closest we have to that are the Irish who are here illegally in places like Breezy Point, tens of thousands of them, and I am working very hard, frankly, to get them legitimated, because we need them badly too.

In the city of New York we have lost the middle class. The middle class—my brother and sister—have moved out. I am the only one still in Queens. I live a mile from where I was born. My brother is out in Long Island; so is my sister. How do you replace the middle class? Well, we used to grow it—from the poor people. That’s not happening. Because as they move up out of poverty, they move out of the city.

So to fill up the middle-class gap in the city of New York, you do it with a ready-made middle class, the new immigrants. They own fruit stores; they have skills. Instead of growing your middle class, you import it whole.

You mentioned Queens. You and I both were raised in Queens. My grandfather actually had a farm in Astoria, in northern Queens, and shipped goods to Harlem market, which was then a German neighborhood. I’ve often thought as a historian that Queens gets no place in history books. We read about Southern villages and Midwestern towns, but Queens, a borough of some two million people, more populous than Boston or St. Louis, is altogether lost to history. What ought historians to be saying about Queens? What is significant about it?

It was a transition place. It has no permanence. Manhattan has permanence; Queens doesn’t have permanence. People who wanted to buy a house for the first time went out to Queens, where the prices were cheaper. And then Queens got destroyed. That’s what’s happening to it; it’s just eroding. People moved from there to “better” communities. It’s losing its permanence, even Jamaica Estates, which used to be Donald Trump’s area. Trump still has a house in Jamaica Estates, but there’s no permanence there anymore. So it doesn’t have a history because it doesn’t have continuity.

A few years ago I went back to my public high school in Queens, where one of the subjects I had studied was Latin, and was told they had just dropped Latin “because of the changing ethnic character of the neighborhood” and were substituting—I was sure they would say Spanish—Mandarin Chinese. There were Spanish-speaking newcomers, but they were Chileans and Argentineans. I saw a sign on a restaurant under the El tracks on Roosevelt Avenue with the wonderfully improbable name Casa Wong. I suppose that’s another clue to Queens, that ethnic mix.

My neighborhood, Mollis Wood, has a Japanese elementary school. The entire school is a Japanese elementary school. It’s on 188th Street, a block and a half from where my mother still lives. So, yes, the Asian influence is immense. Twenty to thirty years ago the only Asian influence was from the United Nations, which had bought up some apartments along the parkway. But now they’re moving in very large numbers, and it’s a good strong influence. They come with skills, with wealth, prepared to make a contribution.

They’re among my favorite people, these new immigrants — the Asians and the group that’s despised by almost everybody except me, the Hasidim, Jewish people who are having an awfully hard time. I like them. Because they’ll go to a place like Greenpoint, which is lost, and bring it back to life. They don’t use your services. They don’t need your police protection. All these Hasidim make real contributions in their communities; they are extraordinary people. I call them the New York City Amish.

I did not want to give the keynote. I had nothing to offer. I wrote the speech. It was awful.

It has been said that every President is aware of the ghosts of predecessors in the White House. Do you have a strong sense of the governors who have been here before you?

Yes, but I don’t see them as ghosts, and I don’t see them as threats, and I’m not intimidated by them. For a very good reason. I have — I don’t know how to say this without having somebody run out and call a psychiatrist — never felt like a governor in a line with Roosevelt and Dewey and Harriman. I feel as though I kind of slipped in here when nobody was looking. You know, I don’t know how I got here. I’m not suggesting I don’t feel I can do the job. I feel confident I can do it, and do it well, and I enjoy it immensely. And I wouldn’t even try comparing myself with how well Roosevelt and these others did this job. I doubt they worked as hard as I do, but I don’t see myself as a figure in history like them. That just never occurs to me.

When they talked about the Presidency some years back and said, “Why don’t you run? These governors all aspired to the Presidency. Isn’t it the natural thing?,” I answered, “Well, it’s natural for people who find it to be natural. I don’t find it to be natural. I’m shocked I’m here , let alone in the White House.”

I have a great sense of the governors who have preceded us, Matilda even more so. She has a powerful commitment to our history and studies it all the time. But it’s as though I were sitting in the bleachers watching the players on the field, the same feeling I have for Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth and Frankie Crosetti. That’s where I put the governors.

At a time when many people are scoffing at positive government, you have continued to affirm your belief in it.

More than ever. And everybody does now. I went down to West Virginia for a human rights talk to the Democrats six or seven months after Bush became President, and they were all upset because he was using their stuff. And I said, “Look, what Bush has done for us already is to legitimate our agenda. That’s something we couldn’t get for eight years. He said on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day that there are hundreds of thousands of black people left outside the circle of opportunity. Reagan never said that. Bush has conceded that homelessness is a problem. Reagan said that the homeless are out there because they choose to be. Bush has said that the environment is being eroded. Reagan said that the trees were the principal problem.”

I said, “Bush has acknowledged that there is a second city, that we’re not all a shining city on a hill. That we couldn’t get Reagan to do, and we weren’t able to convince the American people Reagan was wrong. Let’s face it, Bush is doing it for us.” And I said, “The next step, and it’s an inevitable one for him, or he will be declared a hypocrite, is to say now that we have acknowledged that we’re not all living in the shining city, only with government will you be able to escape the second city.”

That reminds me of one of the many reasons I like Lincoln so much. I guess I have used one quote more than any other; that is his description of government, which I paraphrase most of the time: “The government is the coming together of people to do for themselves collectively what they could not do at all, or as well, individually.”

Every time they try arguing with me, I say, “I don’t want to hear any arguments about whether I’m big government or little government, whether I’m a liberal or not. Let’s be practical. Do you need government for housing, or don’t you? Do you need it for health care? Of course you do. Is there anybody that says you can do health care all by yourself? Private insurance companies? You really believe that? Of course not. Can you do organs and transplants without government? It gets very easy when you reduce it to specifics.”

Your party has lost five of the last six presidential elections. People are talking about its needing a greater vision, a new sense of direction. Is there anything to be learned from the past with respect to the kinds of things the Democratic party ought to be saying and doing in the years to come?

I’m not good at this. I really am not. I’m out of step on all of this. I don’t see these five defeats as so much the defeats of a philosophy. Maybe this is my lawyer’s instinct, but what I do is go to each campaign.

Start with Carter. Why does Carter lose in 1980? Well, he loses because he appeared to be ineffectual, because the OPEC price rise tilts inflation against us, interest rates go crazy, the hostages get grabbed. He makes a calculated risk and tells people the truth about sacrifices, and they don’t want to hear that because they want a leader who solves problems for them, not a minister or a teacher who points to problems. And he is facing an absolutely charming person who is reckless about his promises, which are all terribly seductive—the biggest army (“we’ll be the toughest we’ve ever been”), the lowest taxes, and the budget will be balanced in three years. How can you beat that? “And I can do it, because I was a cowboy, a football player, I was a lover, I got my hair, and I’m seventy years old, and it’s all black.” And with all of that, if the hostages had come back, Carter would have won. So Carter’s loss is not difficult to explain.

Mondale, four years later, never escaped Carter, plus the tax rise he pledged. And he runs against the same opponent, only stronger because the biggest defect Reagan had people weren’t on to. That was the deficit. He had ruined the economy, but it hadn’t gotten to anybody’s plate.

Then what happened? You got Bush. Bush is behind seventeen points to Dukakis. And then he beats him with Boston Harbor, Willie Horton, and a general impression that Dukakis is a wimp. I felt that was terribly unfair. Dukakis is one of the strongest people I have ever met; witness how he has handled all of his tragedy. But that’s explicable too.

I don’t think that the things Dukakis was talking about lost. Bush is now talking about most of them. Dukakis said, “You need day care.” Today: day care. Dukakis said, “Take care of the environment.” Today: environment. Dukakis said, “You might need revenues.” Now Bush is saying that. It wasn’t the ideas that lost. So I have difficulty saying, “Gee, we had a philosophy that’s now down the tubes.” The philosophy didn’t lose. I like Robb, and Bill Clinton is an old friend, but this Democratic Leadership Council is a joke to me. Why? The proposition that you must move away from what we’re saying because the other side is beating us is wrong. Who’s right, them or us? Winning is not the measure. These guys won and screwed up the economy; how can you say they were right? They were wrong, notwithstanding they won.

So yes, I’m all for positive government. All the government you need, but only the government you need to do those things you can’t do for yourselves.

It’s clear there’s a long step from the situation you first described, when you were a reticent boy in school, to that evening in San Francisco, and I wonder whether there were any historic models for you as you developed as a speaker.

Lincoln. When it comes to communication—Lincoln. Once every five years you’ll be asked a question, “If you were on a desert island, and you only had two books, or three books, what books would you have?” And I almost always say “Douai-Reims.” I’d bring it not for enlightenment but for the words, the old language. And I would bring Teilhard, The Divine Milieu , which I read every month and hold up to the light to see something different each time. [The French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who advocated embracing the world in order to improve it, has been Cuomo’s spiritual guide.]

But in terms of communicators, Lincoln is about the best I’ve read. I wish I could have seen him and heard him. You hear so much about his voice. I would like to hear what it was really like. I made a mistake watching all of the Lincoln movies. It’s one thing to see Raymond Massey. I’ll settle for him. But then you see Fonda, then you see these other guys, and you get all confused.

Christ—Christ the man. Christ the god can’t be a model, because God can’t be an exemplar for you, really, but Christ the man is interesting, and Thomas More is interesting. I had a big argument with—who wrote the book? Marius, from Harvard, wrote about Thomas More, and I didn’t like it. I’ll tell you why. I like Thomas More as a model, not because he was a saint but because he wasn’t. Because he whipped heretics. Because he had trouble with his wife. Because he overdid his affection for his daughter. You couldn’t call him a great theologian and moralist. This guy did everything he could to avoid being courageous, and I like that, because he was a human being. And we are human beings. And if I want a model for my existence, I would rather take him than Joan of Arc.

Lincoln I like the same way. I like the idea that he was a politician. And that he could get even with you if he didn’t like you. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good trait. But I like to think he could be as great as he has come to be regarded and still have the imperfections that we all suffer from.

So there are the models: More, Lincoln, Christ, especially when he threw the guy down the stairs of the temple. Because that’s reassuring. Ah, see: even you , Jesus. These other great heroic figures are beyond me; I’ve never really been interested in them. The angels I am not interested in. And I’m offended by people who are offended by the flaws of the Kennedys and the Lincolns and the Roosevelts.

You have a book coming out on Lincoln.

If it comes out good, I’ll take credit for it, but it really is not my book. There will be a book coming out, yes, and we’re it’s not too much to say — excited about it. It happened practically by chance.

Two teachers from Solidarity were brought here. I gave them not quite as elaborate a tour as I gave you, but I spoke a little about the Red Room, and they spoke about what a great state this is and what a great country. “Will you come over to Poland and talk to us about democracy?” they asked, and I said, “I’m not equipped to. But there are some great American thinkers and figures. You should have people talking about Lincoln on democracy.”

“Ah, Lincoln. Lincoln is good, except we don’t have him in Polish.”

“Why not?”

“Well, since the Soviets came in, no Lincoln.”

Swept away by the moment, I said, “Well, I will arrange to have Lincoln translated into Polish.” I thought all I had to do was go home and call Harold Holzer [Cuomo’s press secretary and a Lincoln expert] and say, “Harold, give me the best Lincoln on democracy we have and give me the best Polish translator, and I’ll figure out where to get the money and we’ll translate it and send it over to the Polish people.” Except that when you go through the index of the collected works, you don’t find “democracy” anywhere. We were confronted all of a sudden by this wonderful idea of translating him into Polish, but no Lincoln to translate.

Lincoln should be every young black person’s hero, not because he freed the slaves but because he made it.

So we gathered together the Lincoln scholars (some of whom I had known because I’d given a speech in Springfield), and they loved the idea. They were a little bit concerned that a politician was doing it, and I don’t blame them. I tried to reassure them that there would be nothing political about it, certainly nothing crass about it.

They got very interested, and eventually the thought was that they would select pieces, and several of them would write essays before each contribution, all on democracy. Harold, who did most of the work of putting it all together, insisted that I write a little piece just to attach my name to it, an introduction recounting the story of how it started.

It should be out by the end of November—in English and Polish. Then the AFT—the teachers—will put together educational materials for courses. We’ll send the books over there, we’ll send people over there, and I’ll go over there. I promised I would, and I want to very much.

But the deal I made is this: We’ll send this over to you, but then you must send people over to us. We will go to you to talk about how we enjoy democracy; you must come to us and tell us what happens when you lose democracy. I said that lesson is at least as important to us. And they agreed to do that. As the word has gotten out, I had the Lithuanians here, and they’re all excited about it, and the Czechs and all sorts of people want Lincoln in their language now. I think it’s not extravagant speculation to say that we will have, in the very near future, Lincoln all over the globe. He will be the figure on democracy. Which he never was. Not in this country or anywhere else. And that’s all because two guys from Solidarity walked into the governor’s office.

I’d like to ask you about something you said about Lincoln. You once wrote, “His mythology became our national mythology. It’s as if Homer not only chronicled the siege of Troy but conducted the siege as well. As if Shakespeare set his play writing aside to lead the English against the Armada.” Do you think of that as being the key to Lincoln?

Well, I’m going to disappoint you. When you say the key to Lincoln, if you mean the key to his popularity—why it is that through all these years so many Americans look to him as a hero—I think most Americans don’t know what Lincoln really represents, what his role was in the Civil War, except that they believe he was against slavery. Most Americans would be shocked if you said to them, “You know, he wasn’t always really that much against slavery.” They would be very offended.

I think Lincoln’s appeal is much simpler. Lincoln is the ultimate success story. The reason he appeals to most Americans, not to educated Americans, certainly not to historians, but to most Americans, is that he’s everybody’s ideal adventure. Start in a log cabin, and you go all the way. Start with nothing, and you make it anyway. Self-educated, he let nothing stop him. He should be every young black person’s hero in my neighborhood of South Jamaica, not because he freed the slaves but because he made it. I think that’s what Americans see in him.

What is his principal contribution from my own perception? His success at a critical point in keeping the country together. Sure, it would have been nice if he could have done it without a civil war. But that wasn’t possible. Whatever was in his heart, whatever was in his mind, however manipulative God knows he truly was, he pronounced a magnificent statement—about humanity, about rights, about the fundamental dignity of human beings.

The one thing we need most is clear statements of values. That’s what Roosevelt gave us. He was a master politician, but to me what Roosevelt was, was a commitment to a lot of people in trouble. It’s not all the alphabet agencies and all the clever devices. In his time they worked. They might never work again.

So the moral statement made by Lincoln, the moral statement made by Roosevelt, to me those are the important things. When was the last time a great moral statement was made? Who has done it recently? Martin Luther King? A great moral statement—that, more than anything else, is what we need now.








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