WASHINGTON — Autumn in New York — that sounds like the title of a song! In fact, it sounds like the first line of a song, and so it is. Autumn is a lovely time of year in many places, but for me my favorite place at this time of year is New York City. As the song goes, it seems “so inviting.” And one of the great events marking autumn in New York is the Columbus Day Parade. It reminds us of what a great Melting Pot it has been, and, one hopes, it always will be.
Christopher Columbus opened the New World to European migration in 1492. He prefigured the spirit of America with his daring, his sense of duty, and his piety. Samuel Eliot Morison, in the second volume of his two-volume history, The European Discovery of America, portrayed Columbus as a truly heroic figure, an exemplary captain of the ocean waves, to introduce us all to the admirable adventure that America has proved to be. Sixty-eight years ago the Italian-Americans in New York City’s Columbus Citizens Foundation gave Columbus a fitting memorial in the Columbus Day Parade, and this year on October 8 once again all Americans can come out to honor him and share in the glory that is the American Melting Pot.
There will be 35,000 marchers representing over one hundred groups. Almost a million people will be spectators as the parade makes its way down Fifth Avenue. It will be a great day to be an Italian-American, and by sundown there will be a little bit of Italy in all of us: pasta, veal scalapini, frutti di mare, and a glass of vino, possibly two. The Italians made their contribution to the American Melting Pot, and we are all grateful for their contributions: cooking, style, their innovations in such areas as the arts, the building trades, and investment banking. This year the Columbus Citizens Foundation is honoring the philanthropist and investment innovator, Mario J. Gabelli, as the 68th annual parade’s Grand Marshal. He has been one of the good guys in banking for years, and his philanthropy in education, health, and community service only emphasize it.
Larry Auriana, himself a great investor and philanthropist and an eminence at the Columbus Day festivities for many years, makes the point that “Italians did not come to America to change it. They came to America to participate in the opportunities presented by this great country.” They came for what America offered, for instance, ideas of freedom, of the rights of man, of the dignity of the individual before the state. In the heyday of Italian immigration many Italians were leaving the old world where they were often treated practically as serfs, for America, where they had rights and freedom that only a handful of Europeans even envisioned. In those days—basically beginning late in the 18th century—American exceptionalism was the marvel of enlightened people everywhere. America was, as Ronald W. Reagan said, “a shining city upon a hill.”
The Columbus Day Parade is a happy time to be in New York City and it is not a bad time to reflect on the exceptionalism of America. Today we have living in America ingrates that would sneer at exceptionalism. They and popinjays living elsewhere attribute to America all sorts of ills: racism, corporatism, inequality, militarism. It all gets quite esoteric. Yet it has little to do with real American life.
America is still Ronald Reagan’s shining city upon a hill. It can be improved. It can be made worse. It is in constant need of attention so as to be sure that it is still functioning according to the vision of our Founding Fathers. That is where the Tea Party comes in. Yet it is still the world’s best hope. And on this Columbus Day I am going down to Fifth Avenue and I shall let out a yell for an Italian guy from Genoa who got his boats from the Spanish and was idolized in Paris. Christopher Columbus seems to have anticipated the United Nations by four centuries!