OVER THE PHONE she had a sweet-sounding, little-old-lady voice. Politely she said: "May I ask you a personal question?"
"Are you a dago?"
The question startled me. After a moment of silence, I said: "Do you mean Italian?"
"Yes," she said.
"No, I'm not Italian."
"I didn't think so," she said. "I always thought you were a Jew."
"Yes, some people think that, although I'm not. But why did you ask me if I am Italian?"
"Because of the way you're trying to get that dago to run for president."
"You mean Mario Cuomo?"
"Yes. I don't understand why you want a dago for president."
At this point, her voice had still not lost its calm delicacy. She might have been talking about needlepoint or feeding her cat or a recipe for a tuna casserole.
I said: "Why don't you refer to him by his name? Or as an Italian-American?"
She ignored that and said: "You still haven't told me why you want a dago for president."
I have many flaws, weaknesses and bad habits. And one of them is a lack of patience and a tendency to make intemperate remarks.
So I yelled: "Lady, you are an old (I delete the next word, but it refers to what is sometimes called the world's oldest profession)."
She lost her poise. Her voice rose and she said: "You can't talk to me that way."
I said: "Of course I can. I repeat, you are an old (deleted)."
"I am going to call your editor," she said.
"Go ahead," I said, "but since he is a happily married man, TC doubt if he will be interested in the services of an old (deleted)."
And I hung up. But the conversation did have a positive side.
First, it led to one of my rare New Year's resolutions. I will not shout at, swear at, insult, hang up on, or in any other way abuse those who call me at the office, regardless of how stupid, bigoted or offensive their remarks might be.
Well, maybe I'll hang up, but I won't do the rest of the stuff.
More important, it reminded me that we are still a country that is bigoted in more ways than one. Or two or three or four and keep counting.
I can understand why many people would not vote for Mario Cuomo, if he should change his mind and become a candidate.
He's the governor of New York. That's the entire state, which includes many lovely towns and villages, scenic mountains and farms. But to most of America, New York is only New York City, in their eyes a frightening urban jungle. I happen to like New York City, but I have spent most of my life in Chicago, which to many rustics is a frightening urban jungle, so cities don't intimidate me.
Or they might not want to vote for him because they think he's too liberal. Or too intellectual. Or they don't like Democrats. Or his hair isn't sufficiently poofed and blow-dried.
Fine. Those are all valid issues, especially the hair.
But because he is of Italian ancestry? Unfortunately, that is a factor. And it's not something Republicans have tried to hide. As a number of Southern Republican politicians have said: "We don't have many Marios down here."
That's not even an attempt at the use of subtle buzzwords, a Republican skill. It's a flat-out statement that amounts to: "We ain't votin' for no eye-tie."
With the 21st century around the corner, you would think that we had gone beyond judging people by bloodlines. And I thought we had.
After all, many of us voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower. I did. And it never occurred to me to say: "Eisenhower. That's a real kraut name. And it was those krauts who overran the land of my ancestors, and the krauts who shot our boys at Normandy. I'm not voting for no kraut."
I can think of several reasons why I didn't vote for Ronald Reagan and would not vote for Patrick Buchanan. But it has nothing to do with their ancestry. But following the thinking of those who are obsessed with Cuomo's background, I suppose I could say: "Irish, huh? As I recall, Ireland chose to remain officially neutral in World War II. Can't vote for those who trace their roots to a country that sat out the war to save the free world."
I suppose that if we poke around in anyone's family tree, we can find some excuse for bigotry. Chances are that if Cuomo doesn't change his mind, Gov. Bill Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.
Clinton? But he's from Arkansas. Must be some kind of backwoods hillbilly. Besides, he's a Southerner, and if Southerners don't like to vote for Yankees, why should I vote for some descendant of a Johnny Reb? By golly, he might even be a distant cousin of one of Quantrill's Raiders.
Sure, Clinton went to Yale Law School and was a Rhodes Scholar. But let's face it, if he's from Arkansas, he must be a moonshiner at heart. Aren't they all?
And let's not forget George Herbert Walker Bush. I believe he is of English ancestry.
There's something a lot of Americans have forgotten about the English. But I haven't. And it is this: If they had put down our Revolutionary War, it is likely that they would have executed or, at the very least, imprisoned George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Can any decent person vote for a man whose ancestors would have strung up the Founding Fathers?
Those on the political right are fond of sending letters to newspapers that include the phrase: "Wake up, America."
We need a new slogan. Maybe something like: "Grow up, America."