Sachs: My Cuomo 'garlic' gaffe at '84 Democratic convention

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo gives the thumbs New York Gov. Mario Cuomo gives the thumbs up gesture with both hands during his keynote address to the opening session of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco (July 17, 1984) Photo Credit: AP

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The Democratic National Convention's arrival in Charlotte reminds me that I have attended two such gatherings. They were profoundly contrasting episodes in my political life. And although separated by more than three decades, they are linked.

I was a page to the Maryland delegation at the 1952 convention in Chicago, where Adlai Stevenson was nominated. It was a week in heaven for an 18-year-old political junkie.

I was a delegate to the 1984 convention in San Francisco, where Walter Mondale was nominated. It was a week in hell for a Maryland politician with aspirations for higher office.

My duties as a page were minimal. I was free to roam the floor of the convention hall, which was down the street -- and downwind -- from its South Side Chicago neighbor, the stockyards. I was able to sneak in to the perpetual caucuses in those classy lakefront hotels. (I bunked at the Y.) All of the elders were there -- President Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther -- as were the up-and-comers, including John F. Kennedy, a young congressman from Massachusetts.

And of course there was Stevenson, whose eloquence and wit were irresistible. I still relish his putdown of the Republicans who had met in the same hall the week before: "Pompous phrases," he said, "marched across the landscape in search of an idea." There was the ringing call to arms in his acceptance speech and its honest confrontation of the Truman administration's so-called scandals. "Candor and confession are good for the political soul," he said.

Those are but a few of the memories that helped get me in trouble 32 years later.

In 1984, I was Maryland's attorney general, a candidate for governor and a delegate to the national convention. As we flew to San Francisco, the presence of my daughter, Elisabeth, who was the page this time, helped prompt a reverie. My memories were of that week in Chicago ... and the eloquent Adlai.

A reporter interrupted my nostalgia on the plane. He knew I was a fan of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who was to deliver the keynote address. How do you think Cuomo will do, he asked. My thoughts lingered on that first convention, and on Adlai.

Comparison was inescapable.

"Great," I responded, but recognizing that Stevenson was considered by many to be effete, the prototypical egghead, and not wanting to stick that label on Cuomo, I continued: "This guy is Adlai Stevenson ... with garlic." The quote was in The Washington Post the next day.

My first call was from my friend and supporter Frank Pesci, a member of Maryland's House of Delegates. Frank wondered how he was going to explain my "ethnic slur" to the Italian American community.

Next I heard from my campaign manager, Blair Lee IV, who sternly reminded me that the task of a candidate was to attract, not repel, voters.

Throughout the convention week, I attempted long-distance explanations with my Italian-American friends back home. Then things quieted down.

That is, until a Boston newspaper ran a front-page article about the perils of "ethnic humor" that featured the whole damned garlic story and my photograph.

And until I received a letter from New York congressman Mario Biaggi on behalf of the Italian American Anti-Defamation League deploring my insensitivity.

I could do nothing about the "ethnic humor" article except be thankful that it appeared in Boston, not Baltimore.

But I wrote a long letter to the congressman: I had clearly, albeit inadvertently, offended him, I wrote. I apologized.

I was brought up in a home in which combating racial, religious and ethnic stereotypes was not merely a watchword; it was the core of my father's job as executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, I told him.

Cuomo frequently and proudly identified with his Italian heritage; it was part of the political persona he clearly enjoyed. Thus, the reference to a staple of Italian cooking was especially appropriate.

Finally, I wrote, I meant the remark as a compliment. Garlic was a symbol of strength, an antidote to the "egghead" moniker. If Cuomo had been Jewish, I probably would have said that he was "Adlai Stevenson with horseradish." My vexing story has a happy ending, at least for me. I later ran into Biaggi at a Mondale rally. We embraced. He told me he loved my letter so much that he had framed and hung it on his office wall.

It didn't remain there long, though. The congressman was convicted of corruption charges in 1987 and 1988 and served time in prison.

I don't know what became of my framed letter.

Writer Stephen H. Sachs was U.S. attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and Maryland's attorney general from 1979 to 1987.

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