In a presidential election where the candidates include a woman, a man whose father was born in Kenya, and a Mormon, the ethnicity of one candidate has had relatively little discussion — the Italian-American parentage of Rudy Giuliani.
One would think that the candidacy of a representative of such a mainstream ethnic group would be mundane. A deeper look, however, suggests the matter is more complicated.
No Italian-American has ventured as far in a presidential contest as Mr. Giuliani has. Governor Cuomo was the last Italian-American to be a talked about as a potential candidate. Geraldine Ferraro, also of New York City, was her party's candidate for vice-president in 1984.
Mr. Giuliani is a classic law and order candidate. The former U.S. Attorney for New York, he is the modern equivalent of crime buster Eliot Ness, who battled Al Capone, in the crime film, "The Untouchables."
But there is a sad truth in American politics. Just last month, the Order of the Sons of Italy's Commission for Social Justice lamented, in the publication "Italian American," "that despite a record number of Italian American leaders, the image of us as ignorant gangsters has now invaded political campaigns."
Given that Sunday will mark the conclusion of "The Sopranos" — an occasion which the New Yorker marked by placing an image of the show's protagonist, Tony Soprano, on its cover — it's worth asking whether Italian-American candidates still face bias in this country on the national level. Anthony Tamburri, the dean of the John D. Calandra Institute, which focuses on Italian Americans, says, "There still is the general perception in the general consciousness in the U.S. that you are ‘connected' when the numbers bear out the opposite."
Reached at his law office at Willkie, Farr & Gallagher last Friday, Mario Cuomo had much to say about anti-Italian bias and politics. Mr. Cuomo, the chief executive of the State of New York, governed between 1982 and 1994. Following an electrifying speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, his name was frequently circulated as that of a potential presidential candidate.
Mr. Cuomo recalled a little publicized anecdote that dates back from the early 1970s. Mayor Lindsay planned a showing of the Francis Ford Coppola film, "The Godfather," at Gracie Mansion, and invited Mr. Cuomo and his wife. Mr. Cuomo declined the invitation.
"I'm sure it was a great picture. I didn't accuse anybody of anything. But I also feel that they necessarily project an image that's seductive, that sticks in people's minds," Mr. Cuomo said. He applied the same reasoning to "The Sopranos," which like "The Godfather," he said he has never seen. "Children and dimwitted people will watch it, and some people will get confused and think that's the way Italians are."
Mr. Cuomo said his apprehension about such fictional characterizations was buttressed by an academic study his administration obtained during his governorship. In this study of characterizations of American ethnicities, Italians were "more often than not pictured as organized crime [members], stupid, rough."
I asked Mr. Cuomo about an episode that demonstrated anti-Italian bias, the transcript of an illicit tape recording between then-governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, and his alleged paramour, Gennifer Flowers.
Back in 1992, reporters and the public were obsessed with the question of whether Mr. Clinton had had an affair with Ms. Flowers, who secretly recorded her conversations with Mr. Clinton. Not as much was made of the following exchange between the two. "I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't have some Mafioso major connections," Ms. Flowers said to which Mr. Clinton, according to transcripts of tapes made at that time, replied, "Well, he acts like one." If Mr. Clinton's comment had been directed at African-Americans, he likely would never have become president.
Today, Mr. Cuomo points out two factors, which he contends, mitigate the comment. The first is that "He didn't say it, she said it." The second is that the conversation was a private one. "Who knows what goes on in a conversation?" he said. Ultimately, Mr. Clinton patched up his differences with Mr. Cuomo, who went on to deliver the nominating speech for Mr. Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in New York. "Even if it did offend me personally, how do I justify not supporting a person I think is the best candidate?"
As far as how being an Italian-American will affect Mr. Giuliani's chances, Mr. Cuomo noted that he had the highest favorability on a recent Marist poll of prior New York governors at 74%. "Those numbers would indicate not a lot of bigotry in New York State," he said. "On balance, it seems to have worked out pretty well."
In the current era of dirty politics, it will represent progress if no opponent attempts to find a way to use Mr. Giuliani's urban, Italian background against him. If this is to happen, it would most likely occur in South Carolina where there is potential for a culture clash. This North versus South culture clash was satirized in the film, "My Cousin Vinny."
Yet if Mr. Giuliani can win his party's presidential nomination, his Italian background could help him in a general election. Important swing states, such as Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have high numbers of Italian-American voters. It's possible that in the end things could work out pretty well for Mr. Giuliani.
Mr. Gitell is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.