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


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 sfores; 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.