Mario Cuomo's 1984 speech to the Democratic Convention is often interpreted as a rebuttal to Reaganism. By the fourth paragraph he argued, "A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House....But there's another 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 truth, though, it was much more, a contribution to the long work of statesmen to define what America is. We are, after all, still a relatively new nation compared to older cultures in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Complicating things even further, we continue to be a population of immigrants almost unique in the world, with newcomers adding to our strength, yet constantly shifting the national character.
So since the early days we have been trying to outline and express who we are. Reagan and Cuomo both referred to John Winthrop's 1630 speech, frequently quoted as a foundation document for this country. The Puritan leader set out goals if we were to have a place in the world, that "to provide for our posterity..." his followers must "do justly...love mercy...entertain each other in brotherly affection," that "we must be knit together in this work as one...". If they in fact did all this they would achieve their great objective, the everlasting definition of what America hopes to be but only occasionally achieves, "a City on a Hill, the eyes of all people...upon us."
This effort, to delineate the meaning of America, was then immortally laid out in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Not just a soaring piece of rhetoric, it restates what our ideals are, what the nation stands for, in shockingly few words. Lincoln began by setting the terms of American history, how "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." He was laying out his case by noting what the founding fathers had established as the basis for this country.
Lincoln then builds on this to explain how the soldiers' sacrifice derived from these same beliefs, that to honor them, "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
In a similar key, Cuomo also sought to delineate the meaning of America by outlining our ideals. Thus, early on he explained, "We believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact....we don't have to settle for two cities, that we can have one city, indivisible, shining for all of its people."
Even more, he suggested that there were American beliefs we all needed to live up to, "that a society as blessed as ours, the most affluent democracy in the world's history, ought to be able to help the middle class in its struggle, ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute."
Rising to a crescendo, trying to build on Winthrop and Lincoln in defining America by expressing our principles, he concluded, "We must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another, that the problems of a retired school teacher in Duluth are our problems; that the future of the child -- that the future of the child in Buffalo is our future; that the struggle of a disabled man in Boston to survive and live decently is our struggle; that the hunger of a woman in Little Rock is our hunger; that the failure anywhere to provide what reasonably we might, to avoid pain, is our failure."
Cuomo's address was more than politics, it was part of an effort going back to our earliest immigrants, to delineate what America is by outlining our moral values.