Taking A Bullet for Mario

During his 1986 Gubernatorial re-election campaign, I was prepared to take a bullet for Mario Cuomo.

I was working in Cuomo’s NYC Press Office at Two World Trade Center for less than a year, when WNBC’s dean of political reporters Gabe Pressman phoned late one afternoon to tell me that NBC news received a death threat against the Governor and Coretta Scott King.   Both were scheduled to speak at Town Hall, in Manhattan, before a gathering of Local 1199, a union being torn apart by internal strife. Understandably, Mrs. King cancelled. Cuomo, ignoring advice from staff and State Police, went ahead.

A few minutes before we arrived at the West 43rd Street building, Cuomo, seated in the front passenger seat of the unmarked State Police car, turned to me in the back.

“Steve,” he asked, “Do you believe in heaven and hell?”

I panicked.  Good god, he was genuinely worried about the death threat if he was thinking of an after-life, I thought.  I was silent for a moment.  I had less than 60 seconds to answer Mario Cuomo, who thought deeply about such matters.

“Well, Governor,” I said, buying a few more seconds to think, “I’m not sure I’m smart enough to know whether heaven and hell exist.” I paused. “But, I believe in acting as if they do.”  As we pulled up in front of Town Hall, Cuomo turned to face me, and smiled.

“That’s a very good answer, Steve; a very good answer,” he said.  The student had pleased the mentor.  I was gratified by his praise, and terrified at the same time.

We got out of the car and were surrounded by a phalanx of undercover NYC cops who escorted us in through Town Hall’s small kitchen.  My mind instantly replayed the scene of Robert F. Kennedy, life bleeding out of him, on the kitchen floor of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel.  Cuomo greeted all of the kitchen workers and my eyes darted around the pots and pans, anticipating a pistol pointed our way.  I was ready to throw my body in the way of an assassin’s bullet, determined not to have another RFK blown away.

New York Times reporter Jeffrey Schmaltz, then Albany Bureau Chief  who was covering Cuomo that night, noticed the ashen color of my face.

“Was there a death threat against the Governor’s life tonight, Steve,?” Schmaltz asked me.  I looked straight at him.  I couldn’t bullshit Jeff Schmaltz.  I respected him too much as a journalist, and liked him too much as a person.  It was hard for me to hide what my face revealed.

I nodded my head, “yes.”  The Governor and his entourage of police, staff and reporters, including myself and Schmaltz, moved backstage , barely out of sight behind the curtains.   We could hear shouts and catcalls coming from the balcony.  Union leaders were having trouble keeping the crowd under control.  Then, Mario Cuomo was announced as the next speaker.

The crowd broke into sustained applause, upstairs and down, cheering Cuomo just for showing up, knowing that Martin Luther King’s widow had cancelled. Mario Cuomo, instead of ignoring the division among the union members, seized on it, delivering a passionate appeal for 1199 members and all of organized labor to come together and “fight our common enemies of inequality, poverty and the need for more jobs, more education, and more access to health care.”  The Governor’s words brought the crowd to its feet and brought the union’s warring factions together, fleetingly, on a night when everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, like a black and white newsreel, frozen in time.

Jeff Schmaltz gave me a wink, acknowledging Cuomo’s accomplishment, and later showed me the obituary he had drafted in case the threat on The Governor’s life materialized.  I sucked in my breath, stunned.

“It comes with the territory, “ Jeff said.  “All of us who cover public figures carry these around.  We just have to fill in the blanks, if it comes to that.”

Cuomo got back in the unmarked State Police car waiting for him out in front of Town Hall on West 43th Street, and phoned his long-time secretary, Mary Tragale, who, earlier, urged him not to challenge the threat on his life.

“Well, they missed,” he joked.






Italian-Americans & “Thugs”

PBS’ brilliant series on “The Italian-Americans” features, among others, the contributions of New York’s Governor Mario M. Cuomo struggling mightily to elevate an ethnically-biased public’s perception of the intelligence and integrity of Italian Americans.  It also underscored why Bill Clinton’s crude attempt to stigmatize Cuomo, and all of us, still  sticks in my throat.

Clinton’s comments to his mistress Jennifer Flowers, on tape, that Mario Cuomo “acts like a Mafioso,” have always infuriated me.   The PBS series, depicting bigots murdering Italian immigrants because we looked different, ripped the scab off that wound once again.  To many of us, “Mafioso” is a code-word for “thug.”

For me, the monstrous slander was magnified because I knew how untrue it was, since I grew up with members of both the Gambino and the Genovese Crime families.   The word among the Mob guys, including my oldest brother who “ran” with John Gotti, was that Cuomo was “pure as snow” and could “never be reached.” What made Clinton’s crime for spreading his slime especially evil,  was that Mario Cuomo represented a civilization of achievement, and his presence in public life gave us hope for our future.  He was the anti-“Wise Guy”; the anti-thug.

After the Clinton/Flowers transcripts revealed raw prejudice against Italians by a Democratic Presidential candidate, I angrily exhaled an Op-Ed piece, to be submitted to the New York Times, under my own name.  The piece said, in part:

            “Foremost among the reasons I came to work for Mario Cuomo, is my deep conviction that Governor Cuomo is to Italian Americans what Martin Luther King, Jr. was to African-Americans, and what John F. Kennedy was to Irish-Americans and Catholics.  He represents the best of us—an articulate, intelligent, compassionate, Italian-American of great personal integrity who shatters the negative stereotype of Italians with which newspapers, television, books and movies are in love.”

“Young Italian kids in Bensonhurst, Ozone Park and Canarsie dress up like John Gotti, their hero.  They walk like him and talk like him and quit school like Gotti did, recording the third-highest drop-out rate in New York City, right behind Hispanics and African–Americans.  Some of us, led by the examples of Mario Cuomo, Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti, and  Professor Guido Calabresi of Yale Law School, have tried to show our children that there is another way, a better way—a good, honest life of service and learning and concern for the community.”

I lived what I was writing about, having grown up with that terrible conflict in my own family. This was not rhetoric; it was far too real.

            “Bill Clinton’s flippant comparison of Mario Cuomo to a “Mafioso” demonstrates that he neither understands what the most prominent Italian-American politician in the nation’s history means to us, nor how his acceptance of the word “Mafioso” in connection with Cuomo’s name is like a dagger thrust into our chest.”

“Mario Cuomo’s importance to Italian-Americans—which transcends politics—is that he acts exactly unlike a “Mafioso”; that his whole existence has been a living statement against organized crime; that he shows all Italian kids that there is another way to behave, another kind of life they can achieve, because he did.”

For Italian-Americans, the damage wrought by words that scar so deeply is not in our minds, but in the streets of our communities, at our dinner tables, and on the faces of our sons and daughters.”

Clinton’s tossing of the term “Mafioso” at Cuomo was a cultural insult that resonated through our generations—not unlike the use of the racist term “thug” lobbed loosely at Black men today.

I was writing what I knew and felt, and was prepared to put myself out front to protect my hero.   Cuomo was moved by my words, but also cautious.  He weighed the ramifications of one of his personal staff publishing such a powerful piece.  In bold, black script he wrote across the top of my Op-Ed Draft:  “Steve:  I’m concerned people will think this is something I influenced because of our relationship.  What do you think?  M—“

The “hot-headed Italian” being stereotyped by the media because of his human reaction to Clinton’s slur, had, in fact, calmed me down.  Intuitively, Cuomo understood the larger picture, and what was at stake for his State and the country if, either through surrogates or on his own, we continued to slug it out with Clinton over his coarse, anti-Italian sentiment.

PBS’ “The Italian-Americans” shows how stigma can damage the spirit, and cost lives.    Neither Cuomo, nor the Italian Poet/Labor Leader Arturo Giovannitti would have any of it.  To them, speaking some 80 years apart, all that really mattered was  “ a sincere heart, a search for truth,” and “doing battle against wrong.”





It’s the Hillbilly’s Fault

Last month, Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the New Yorker, blamed Mario Cuomo for virtually everything that’s gone wrong with the United States for the past 20 years. Actually, it was all the Hillbilly, Bill Clinton’s fault.

In his piece entitled, “Mario Cuomo:  A Miscarriage of Justice” ( January 12, 2015), Hertzberg wrote that  had Cuomo been more open to accepting an “offer” from Bill Clinton ( an offer, by the way, never actually made by Clinton himself) to be nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court:

“It’s possible, verging on probable, that some of the lamentable five-to-four decisions of the past twenty years would have turned out differently. That includes the very worst, the worst since the nineteenth century. By the time Bush v. Gore reached the docket, Justice Cuomo would have had seven years to build relationships with his colleagues. His practical experience of elections and election law would have magnified the customary effects of his persuasiveness, intellectual suppleness, wit, and personal magnetism. If just one of the Republican Justices—O’Connor, perhaps—had been coaxed to see beyond party, then a one-vote majority of the Supreme Court might not have nullified the choice of a half-million-vote majority of the electorate. And that in turn would have meant, at a minimum, that William Rehnquist’s successor as Chief Justice would have been an appointee of President Gore—quite likely, Mario Cuomo.”

Aside from the improbable “Ifs” in the article presuming specific actions by Justice Sandra Day O’Conner and Al Gore  (and minimizing the brilliance of Brooklyn-born Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) Hertzberg, the long-time New Yorker writer, missed the most obvious fact.  Mario Cuomo disliked Bill Clinton.  Having worked with Cuomo during several major confrontations with the Arkansas Governor, it’s accurate, though understated, to say they were not friends.

On the day after Clinton won the NYS Democratic Presidential primary in April, 1992, Governor Cuomo phoned me at our World Trade Center office, where I worked as the Director of his Press Operations.  His voice sounded sullen.  “A superficial candidate for a superficial age, “ he said to me about Clinton.  Cuomo expressed to me that he thought Clinton was as shallow and duplicitous as politicians come.  Still fresh in our minds was the Arkansas hillbilly’s guffaws on tape, when Jennifer Flowers, at her January tell-all press conference, said about Mario Cuomo that “I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some Mafioso major connections. ”  Instead of correcting one of his mistresses for the use of an ethnic slur, Clinton goofily yupped,  “Well, he acts like one.”

The writer Jimmy Breslin, not a fan of Clinton’s who would have loved to push Cuomo into the presidential race, was at the Flowers’ press conference and immediately faxed us the transcript of the her secret tapes, containing Clinton’s comment.   Cuomo went ballistic, cursing out Clinton in private, and demanding an apology to all Italian Americans through the pages of the NY Daily News , the New York Post and Newsday.

Clinton, battling for his political life in the New Hampshire primary which was a few weeks away, made matters worse.  He proffered a pitiful apology that started with the phrase: “If Governor Cuomo or other Italian-Americans found my remark disrespectful…”  That slippery and insensitive qualification of the word “If,” incensed Cuomo even more.  “What does he mean, “IF,” Cuomo argued.  Clinton simply didn’t get the depth of his insult, which if uttered against Jews or Blacks would have ended his campaign.

Amazingly, Cuomo put that grotesque personal and group slander behind him, and gave Clinton’s nomination speech at the Democratic Convention that summer.  I was with him back stage in the rehearsal room at Madison Square Garden the day of the speech, when Clinton’s staffers, insulted the New York Governor in another way:  by presuming to tell Mario Cuomo how to deliver a speech at a Democratic Convention.

Cuomo listened to their impudent instructions, inserted Clinton’s name a few more times to end their whining, read through his speech quickly, and bolted from the back room of the Garden that afternoon, leaving Clinton apparatchiks apoplectic and apprehensive.  They had no idea what Cuomo would do or to say that night before a global audience.

We walked up Seventh Avenue, from the Garden to a hotel suite at the Sheraton, Cuomo shaking hands with New Yorkers along the way, many of whom shouted “Mario!” once they saw him.  Their high spirits lifted his. They knew who he was.  And, so did he.

On Vaccines: Marin County, or Moron County?

Is Marin County, California, with one of the highest median household incomes in the nation at $90,535, out to show the world that income has no bearing on intelligence?

Where vaccinating children against childhood diseases is concerned, that seems to be the case.  Affluent Marin County, with many of the most expensive and exclusive schools in the country, has the highest rate of clustered, non-vaccinated school age children in all of California.   Not proudly, California leads the nation in unvaccinated kids, with eight percent of all Kindergartners, or some 41,000 children not being vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella last year.  Compare that to the leading state in the nation for vaccination, Mississippi, with a 99.7% compliance rate—where personal and religious belief exemptions are NOT permitted– and only 140 children in the entire state entered school last year without their required shots.

Think about that, the next time you dump on “dumb”, poor  Southerners.  Mississippi’s median income, the lowest in the nation, is $35,693, or a bit more than one-third that of chic Marin’s.  Mississippi requires immunization against all childhood diseases for entering all schools, Head Start or Day Care.  No vaccine; no school.  Simple. 

California’s Department of Health, on the other hand, appears to be smoking too much weed.   In its latest report (January 30, 2015) on “Vaccine Opt-Out Rates” it hails the fact that “Opt-Out Rates Drops, First Time Since 1998”.  Yet the decline is less than one-half of one percent and over 500 schools across the State—many in the Bay Area—have “Opt-Out” rates of over 10%, despite DOH’s admission that:

“Vaccine rates need to be 90 percent — or higher — depending on the disease to create what’s known as herd immunity. That means that enough people are vaccinated to protect those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or whose immune system is compromised. This includes people being treated for cancer or HIV patients and more. When vaccine rates are high, a disease introduced into a community cannot take hold.”

So what’s to brag about here, DOH?  California is leading the nation in reported cases of Measles right now with 91, and the U.S. is far out-pacing the rest of the world in 2015, reporting 490 Measles cases to 32 in Asia and 2, (yes, only 2) in Africa.  The rest of the world would be wise to keep Americans out of their countries, unless we can show proof of vaccination, especially since Measles is more contagious than Ebola. No immigration without vaccination goes for us, too.  In 1989-91, when 17,000 cases of Measles were reported during the last Measles Epidemic, 70 people died in California. This is not a parlor game of libertarian rights. Humans are dying.

The California Department of Health statistics for the past 7 years reveal that a number of Marin County schools (Greenwood School, Mill Valley; San Geronimo Valley Elementary School, and the New Village School, in Sausalito ), and several in San Francisco, and Sonoma County,  allow from 50 to 75 percent of their students to attend school unvaccinated, putting all their classmates—and everyone in the region– at risk of contracting Measles, Whooping Cough, or whatever disease is the latest rage.  The worst offender on California’s DOH list of over 7,000 public and private elementary schools is the Grace Christian School in Carmichael, CA (Sacramento County), where 93% of the students’ parents have invoked a specious, and dangerous, “personal belief exemption (PBE),” to prevent their child from being vaccinated.

Before you get too cocky about Carmichael being a “religious school” in “rural” Sacramento County, not the sophisticated urban/suburban Bay Area, Public Enemy # 2 on the DOH’s Dumbest list is the Berkeley Rose School, in sophisticated, smart, agnostic Berkeley, where 87% of its students are unvaccinated.  Other eye-openers on the DOH’s Dumbest list were many Waldorf Schools stretching from San Diego all the way up to the Santa Rosa, to the Waldorf’s flagship Summerfield School and Farm, where 42% of the students are unvaccinated. Astounding.  So smart; so stupid.

Under California State law, children entering kindergarten are required to be vaccinated against: Polio; Diptheria, Tetanus & Pertussis (DTaP); Measle, Mumps, Rubella (MMR), Hepatitis B, and Chickenpox (Varicella)—UNLESS their brilliant parents “opt-out” of the vaccines, under the State’s “Personal or Religious Belief Exemption (PBE).”   Marin County has headed the pack of anti-vaxxers for years, asserting their stupidity with the State’s highest PBE rates, in the face of overwhelming medical evidence that vaccines prevent disease.

Marin County as Moron County when it comes to vaccines? It sure looks like while Marin residents may have left their hearts in San Francisco, their brains are buried somewhere deep under the Bay.