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


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.”