When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, there were claims that although he was of English, Scottish and Irish descent, he was really America’s first black president. Writer Toni Morrison, in an article in the New Yorker in 1998 summed it up this way:
Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that notion seems almost quaint by today’s standards. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, however, the idea that Bill Clinton represented an alliance and identification with African-American voters was very much appreciated by George H.W. Bush, for one. Republicans were blindsided by a man from humble origins, who worked his way up through Hope High School to Georgetown and a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and Yale Law School to the governor’s office and the presidency – all the while speaking like a preacher.
We remember John F. Kennedy as the first Irish-Catholic President of the United States, yet on his final visit to Ireland as president, Bill Clinton said on December 12, 2000:
When I started to come here, you know, I got a lot of help in rooting out my Irish ancestry and the oldest known homestead of my mother’s family, the Cassidys, is a sort of mid 18th century farmhouse that’s in Rosleigh and Fermanagh. But it’s right on the – literally right on the border. And in my family, all the Catholics and Protestants intermarried, so maybe I was somehow genetically prepared for the work I had to do. Maybe it’s because there are 45 million Irish Americans, and I was trying to make a few votes at home. The truth is, it just seemed to me the right thing to do.
Here, Bill Clinton suggests that his gift of empathy began in his family and naturally gave him advantages when growing up in the Deep South in connecting with African-American voters – in addition to his Irish brethren. Identity politics, that ugly step-child of the civil rights era, was well understood and embraced by Bill Clinton in a way never seen before. Donald Trump has certainly learned this lesson.
President-elect Donald Trump has long been proud of his German heritage, yet keenly aware that being identified as German was a liability when collecting rent from Jewish tenants, some of whom were survivors of the Holocaust. His father Fred Trump identified himself as Swedish for this reason and this lie may have shaped young Donald’s adolescent thinking back in Jamaica, Queens – his family home. Donald’s mother was born in Scotland in 1909 and I would suggest that Scottish was his considered ethnicity before John Oliver outed him as a Drumpf.
Being German and Scottish is run of the mill stuff as far as U.S. Presidents are concerned. Kenyan Barack Obama is also of Scottish and German ancestry, as are the last five or six presidents for that matter. There have been dozens of German and Scottish presidents, yet there is now one Italian-American president for us to take (some) pride in: none other than Donald J. Trump. The J, by the way, is for John. So yes, his name is Don John Trump. Don Juan Trump. Just suffice it to say that he’s our first Italian president.
What does he sound like, you may ask? Well, he sounds like a New York GC (General Contractor) with a little Tony Soprano sprinkled in for effect when he’s among friends. His weird vocal inflections that Alec Baldwin so perfectly nails on Saturday Night Live are the result of his holding back on his natural country club dragged r’s and jutting chin drawl. How arrrre you? See you at the Cluuuub. He’s figured out a way to talk as plainly as he can, but when a deal is on the table and The Donald wants his way, it’s Queens Italian all the way. Just ask the owners of Carrier, United Technologies, who were somehow convinced by The Donald to change their minds and keep 1000 jobs in Indiana.
Queens, Brooklyn and New York City have more Italians than any other place outside of Italy. (Actually two other places supposedly have more Italians, but I find that hard to believe. I want a recount!) The influence of Italians on New York City identity and culture cannot be overestimated. A product of New York City, Trump is at least as “Italian “ as he is German and Scottish. The neighborhoods of Greater Jamaica, Queens, where Donald grew up, including Woodhaven; St. Albans; Rosedale; Springfield Gardens; Queens Village, Howard Beach and Ozone Park were an enclave of German, then primarily Italian families. The following funny video, featuring comedian Mike Marino, imagines an Italian-American president and was recorded in 2010:
If you watched the video, I’ll just rest my case. We have an Italian president. Still not convinced? How about Italians themselves recognizing the similarities between Trump and their former Playboy President Silvio Berlosconi? It’s not just the machismo, it’s the Italian way of making it all look so easy. Fuggettiboutit! Donald Trump once told Sir Richard Branson that his life’s mission was to destroy five people who went against him years ago. That’s all he had to say to him. Now that’s Italian.
Joking aside, millions of Italian-Americans hate to be associated with the mafia and are appalled that the history of the United States is rife with anti-Italian hate, yet the mob is all anyone ever wants to talk about. The largest lynching in American history was committed against Italians and future President Teddy Roosevelt, then heading the United States Civil Service Commission, wrote to his sister Anna Roosevelt Cowles on March 21, 1891 and had this to say about it:
Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans. Personally I think it rather a good thing, and said so.
We’ve come a long way. Trump inner-circle ally Rudolph Giuliani, for all his get-off-my-lawn crazy grandpa routine lately, is a proud Italian American. He did more to change the negative perception of Italians in America since the great Fiorello La Guardia, when in the 80’s, his fearless prosecution of La Cosa Nostra in New York set the stage for a new day for Italian history and culture in the United States. Give him the credit he deserves and as far as I’m concerned, he would make a superb Ambassador to Italy – not so much Secretary of State.
Today over 17 million Americans claim Italian ancestry since Christopher Columbus sailed from Europe, among them the identity of America itself: explorer Amerigo Vespucci. The list of Italian-American sports heroes and entertainers is too long to list and a glimpse of the Pioneers of Italian-American history include such luminaries as New York Governor Al Smith; Bank of America founder Amadeo Giannini; Businessman Lee Iacoccoa; Inventor Enrico Fermi (and an honorary mention to Nicola Tesla); Film Directors Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese; Actors Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro; Artists John Singer Sargent and Frank Stella; Writers Don DeLillo and Camille Paglia; Cardinal Joseph Bernardin; Politicians Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro and Justice Antonin Scalia.
In fact, the first non-native American to be appointed to a U.S. Cabinet position was Italian-American Anthony J. Celebrezze, Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Kennedy Administration. The current Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General Raymond T. Odierno, is Italian-American, as is General Anthony Zinni, former Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command. And let’s not forget Nancy Pelosi – the first woman in U.S. history to hold the office of Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Someday, an inheritor of this rich Italian-American heritage will hold the office of President of the United States. Until then, we have Donald Trump: America’s First Italian-American President.
November 30, 2016