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“most Americans Don’t Know What Lincoln Really Represents”
For a good part of his life, the governor of New York has used history as a guide—and a solace
December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
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.