New York Governor Andrew Cuomo opened his mouth, inserted his foot, and fell on his face when he informed an audience on Manhattan’s Lower East Side last Wednesday that “America was never that great.” An eruption of withering headlines and social-media jabs predictably ensued, and Cuomo quickly scuttled away from his comment, saying that his words had been “inartful.”
“Of course America is great and of course America has always been great,” Cuomo told reporters on Friday. “No one questions that.”
Actually, among progressive leftists, a lot of people question it. Anyone who’s ever read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States — a left-wing bestseller that for years was required reading in countless high school and college history courses — is familiar with the narrative of America as a nation of oppression, exploitation, genocide, racism, imperialism, and capitalist villainy. Cuomo’s “never that great” crack, made as he was winding up a speech that focused heavily on Donald Trump, was presumably an attempt to pander to the kind of voters who embrace the negative view of US history.
Clearly that was the way Cynthia Nixon, the left-wing actress who is challenging Cuomo for the gubernatorial nomination in the New York Democratic primary, took it. She mocked Cuomo’s gaffe as “just another example of Andrew Cuomo trying to figure out what a progressive sounds like and missing by a mile.”
In fairness to Cuomo, his “never that great” barb was inartful (“Adjective. Awkwardly expressed; impolitic; ill-phrased; inexpedient; clumsy”). He was caught up in criticizing Trump, he wanted to take a slap at the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, and it came out as a maladroit denial of American greatness. Cuomo has no one to blame but himself for his phrasing, and he can expect to have it thrown in his face from now until Election Day. Still, as anyone with public speaking experience knows, the words don’t always land the way they were intended.
Had Cuomo said “America has never been as great as it should be” or “America was never perfect” or even “Donald Trump knows nothing about making America great,” there would have been no tumult over his speech. Better still, he could have celebrated American greatness and criticized Trump by doing what he has often done and what Trump never does: crediting America and its blessings for his success, not his own brilliance . That’s what he belatedly said in his mea culpa on Friday: “My family is evidence of American greatness,” Cuomo told reporters. “My grandparents came to this country as poor immigrants and their son became governor and his son became governor. That’s never been a question.”
Cuomo’s father, the late Governor Mario Cuomo, handled the theme much more — well, artfully. At the Democratic National Convention in 1984, the elder Cuomo delivered a keynote address in which he challenged Ronald Reagan’s upbeat description of the United States. He spoke to the delegates assembled in San Francisco:
Ten days ago, President Reagan . . . said, “Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.” And the president is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill.
But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.
In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city.
In fact, Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more “A Tale of Two Cities” than it is just “A Shining City on a Hill.”
Overall, Mario Cuomo’s words were bleaker by far than his son’s 34 years later. But they weren’t regarded as a damaging gaffe because, before he began the critique, he made a point of agreeing with Reagan’s basic premise: “The president is right. In many ways, we are a shining city on a hill.”
Nor did Mario Cuomo wait two days to invoke his own family’s climb from poverty to power as an illustration of what American greatness makes possible. Unlike his son, he made it his keynote’s peroration:
I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.
I learned about our kind of democracy from my father. And I learned about our obligation to each other from him and from my mother. They asked only for a chance to work and to make the world better for their children, and they asked to be protected in those moments when they would not be able to protect themselves. This nation and this nation’s government did that for them.
And that they were able to build a family and live in dignity and see one of their children go from behind their little grocery store in South Jamaica on the other side of the tracks where he was born, to occupy the highest seat, in the greatest State, in the greatest nation, in the only world we would know, is an ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process.
Ineffably beautiful, indeed. When it comes to Democratic Party eloquence, Andrew Cuomo is not in his father’s league.
Just as, when it comes Republican Party eloquence, Trump is not in Reagan’s league.
To no one’s surprise, the president jumped last week on Cuomo’s blunder.
“How does a politician, Cuomo, known for pushing people and businesses out of his state, not to mention having the highest taxes in the U.S., survive making the statement, WE’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, IT WAS NEVER THAT GREAT?” he tweeted early Friday morning. A few hours later came another tweet: “Wow! Big pushback on Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York for his really dumb statement about America’s lack of greatness.”
Trump’s tiresome jibes are par for the course. They are also ironic, since he, more than anyone in American political life today, has been a fervent exponent of the America’s-not-that-great outlook.
For years, Trump has insisted that America is losing on all fronts — duped and ripped off by foreign governments, laughed at by the world, beset by incompetence, stripped of jobs and wealth and manufacturing capacity.
America’s lack of greatness was the theme of Trump’s announcement speech when he jumped into the 2016 presidential race (“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems” . . . “we as a country are getting weaker” . . . “Sadly, the American dream is dead”). It was the theme of his acceptance speech at the Republican convention (“Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another”). And it was the theme of his inaugural address (“Mothers and children trapped in poverty” . . . “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” . . . “this American carnage”).
Nineteen months into his presidency, Trump claims that he has made America great again, the result of his own supposed genius and managerial skill. But it is silly to suggest that the greatness of the United States is a quality that can be flipped on, like current from a switch, as long as the right electrician — er, politician — occupies the White House. At no point has Trump ever shown the least understanding of the real nature of American greatness, or of its revolutionary roots, or of the singular American ideals that have enabled it repeatedly to surmount its flaws and failures.
Martin Luther King, like other American visionaries, understood that the key to American greatness lies not in its perfection, but in its quest to become more perfect.
America’s finest leaders have always recognized that the nation’s greatness is aspirational . The founders enshrined in the Declaration of Independence a standard that no people has ever fully lived up to — “all men are created equal” — not as a false boast about the imperfect society around them but as a commitment to strive toward a more perfect society in the future. Indeed, those words — “more perfect” — are in the opening line of the Constitution, which sets out America’s overarching goal as being “to form a more perfect Union.”
For nearly two and half centuries, the United States has tried to measure up to its founders’ principles — to make good, in Martin Luther King’s phrase, on the “promissory note” to which every American is an heir. Of course it has never achieved perfect success, or anything close to it. Yet when has any nation, bestriding the world as America does, cared so much about being better than it is? What great power has ever devoted so much emotional energy to holding itself accountable for falling short of its foundational values? Where besides America do ordinary citizens pour so much of their wealth into philanthropy? Which military titan has sacrificed so much blood to liberate captive peoples elsewhere? And why, of all nations on earth, has the United States been the one to which dreamers and strivers, refugees and the persecuted, have surged in such numbers?
Compared with a make-believe world in which all other countries are paradigms of virtue and decency, the United States is grievously flawed and always will be. Next to a fantasy portrait of universal prosperity, perfect safety, and unmarred joy, life in this country will always be a picture of “American carnage.”
In the universe as it really is, however, America is as great a nation as the world has ever seen. Trump, a geyser of braggadocio, has no sense of what American greatness really means. Neither does Cuomo, who confuses greatness with perfection and advances neither.
Fortunately, the key to making America great was never entrusted to American politicians. If it were, the United States could never have become what, despite its embarrassing present leadership, it indisputably is: the world’s greatest nation.