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.”