Dean Alfange: Mario Cuomo’s Greek-American Liberal Forefather

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s death on January 1 somewhat tempered the exuberance that the beginning of any new year brings – the length and intensity of his political career rendering him a modern-day political icon, or nemesis, depending on one’s ideology.

Cuomo was an unapologetic liberal in an age of conservatism. On the national stage at the 1984 Democratic Convention, Keynote Speaker Cuomo challenged immensely-popular President Reagan’s notion that America is a “shining city on a hill,” contending instead that it is a “tale of two cities” of haves versus have-nots. Seven years earlier, he ran for mayor of New York City, unsuccessfully, being squeezed out of the Democratic Party before being endorsed by New York State’s Liberal Party.

One of that party’s important founders, and a defender of leftist politics in the state in the early to mid-20th century was Greek-American Dean Alfange. In many respects, he was Cuomo’s liberal forefather, and indirectly but significantly, helped John F. Kennedy win the White House in 1960.

Alfange was born in Constantinople in 1897 to Greek parents who, shortly thereafter, brought him to the United States. In 1918, he joined the U.S. Army and fought in WWI. He had a stellar academic record, culminating in graduation from Columbia University Law School. At that point, his passion for liberalism flourished.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was well underway, and the Supreme Court battled him on numerous aspects of it, not unlike challenges that the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) endures today. Singas battled the Justices, advocating for the unfettered continuation, even expansion, of the new deal, arguing that the Court should judge it not on its legality but rather on how much good it would do for society.

The quintessential loose constructionist, Alfange believe in a “Living Constitution,” one that should adapt to changes in society. He wrote a book on that, The Supreme Court and the National Will (1937), for which he was presented the prestigious Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Award.

Prior to his involvement in the Liberal Party, Alfange headed the American Labor Party and was its candidate in New York’s Gubernatorial Race in 1942, exactly 40 years before Cuomo was elected to that office. His candidacy garnered almost 12 percent of the vote – a record for the Labor Party and a remarkable feat for a nonmajor party – and served to split the liberal vote, taking enough votes away from Democratic nominee John J. Bennett, Jr., thus securing the win for the Republican, Thomas Dewey.

LIBERAL, NOT COMMUNIST

A rift in the ranks of the Labor Party by communists and non-communists caused Alfange, the latter, to walk out and help form the Liberal Party, with Roosevelt’s support, which later helped John F. Kennedy in 1960 garner enough votes in New York to win the state’s electoral votes in and thus secure the presidency against Richard Nixon.

Kennedy won New York – which at the time had 45 electoral votes, the most in the nation – by fewer than 400,000 votes, which is approximately how many votes were cast for him by the Liberal Party. New York is one of a small handful of states that permit fusion voting in presidential races, meaning that the candidate’s total votes are counted, regardless of on which party’s behalf the ballot was cast (Kennedy was both the Democratic and Liberal nominee). Realistically, had the Liberal Party not existed, Kennedy probably would have won anyway – but as it was one the closest elections in history, anything that could have tilted the election one way or another, is significant.

Therefore, although there were a number of other factors arguably more critical to the 1960 result – not least of which Nixon’s poor appearance on television during the debates – it is not implausible to suggest that had Dean Alfange never existed, Kennedy might not have been elected president. Improbable, but not implausible.

THE CREED

Alfange’s famous “An American’s Creed” was published in This Week magazine in 1952.

I do not choose to be a common man

It is my right to be uncommon…

If I can. I seek opportunity… Not security.

I do not wish to be a kept citizen,

Humbled and dulled by having the state to dream and build, to

Fail and succeed.

I refuse to barter incentive for a dole.

I prefer the challenges of life to the

Guaranteed existence; the thrill of

Fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia.

I will not trade freedom for beneficence

Nor my dignity for a hand out. I will

Never cower before any master nor bend

to any threat.

It is my heritage to stand erect,

proud, and unafraid; to think and act for

myself; enjoy the benefits of my

creations; and to face the world boldly

and say, “This I have done with my own hand,

I am a man. I am an American.

A PROUD AHEPAN

Two weeks ago we compiled a list of highly influential Greek-Americans, selecting 15 individuals of Greek descent, who were born in and/or lived in the United States, and influenced American society (“All Time Highly-Influential Greek-Americans,” Dec. 25). The list was not exhaustive, and the focus was influence on America as a whole, not necessarily Greek-America. But some of the people on the list contributed to the advancement of both. Alfange – who certainly can be included on such a list – is one of those. Not only for his influence on modern liberalism, but on Hellenism. He was an early president of AHEPA, Alfange lobbied for U.S. support of Greece during WWII, and remained active in Greek interests for many decades thereafter.

BONA FIDE LIBERALS

Some political observers scoff at the notion that Barack Obama is a “liberal,” let alone a “socialist.” A common retort is: “why don’t you compare Obama to Mario Cuomo? Now there’s a real liberal.” The same can be said for Cuomo’s liberal forefather, Dean Alfange.

American Aid to Greece: Address by Dean Alfange to Congress – December 30, 1940

Gentlemen, the Order of AHEPA, founded 18 years ago to promote Americanism and oppose subversive activities, appeals to you in behalf of Greece. Greece, mother of civilization, inspirer of poets and philosophers, is once more fighting for human dignity and human freedom. This time, we too have a vital stake in her struggle. If we abandon her, we may abandon the last chance of saving Europe from the forces of bestiality and atheism. If we help her, before the swan song of “too late” is chanted, we may help turn the tide of the war.

With our material and moral support Greece can and shall carry on. Greek genius attains sublimity when a crisis confronts it. The Hellenic will becomes indomitable when the task is prodigious. This was true of the Greeks of Marathon and Thermopylae. It is also valid of the Greeks of Argyrocastron and Koritza. Be assured, then, our efforts in behalf of Greece will not be wasted.

The Italian debacle, in the bleak Albanian hills, affirms the modern Greek as a worthy descendant of illustrious ancestors. It reveals Greek history as one continuing and impelling force, unbroken by the centuries that link its parts together. And what a vital force that history is. The gallant soldiers of Greece, the first to inflict a major land defeat upon the dreaded axis war machine, are conscious of the greatness of their history. They know that western culture was saved at Marathon by Miltiades and at Salamis by Themistocles, and they know that they are now engaged in an epic struggle to

preserve it.

And what an epic struggle it is, at once romantic and tragic, full of pathos and full of poetry, and yet overwhelming in its relation to world history. Yes; the Greeks are gambling with destiny, though the stake is total. Terrific odds are against them, yet fierce determination governs their will to win. In the light of such background, one understands their resounding achievements against an enemy vastly superior in numbers and in equipment.

And how the struggle follows the pattern of ancient events.

How amazingly similar are the analogies. Twenty-four hundred years ago, Xerxes, King of the Persians, marching upon Greece with the greatest army ever assembled, sent a message to Leonidas, King of Sparta, to surrender his cities or be ruined. Leonidas replied, “Molon lave,” which, in ancient Greek, means, “Come and take them,” and history records the rest. But Mussolini is no respecter of history. Believing, like Xerxes, that the Greeks would succumb at the sight of his legions, he demanded the immediate surrender of their islands and their cities. The reply he received was the same, “Molon lave,” and now history repeats itself with remarkable fidelity. The slogans are the same, the military tactics are the same, and the motivations of world conquest and defense

of ideals are the same.

But still more remarkable is the similarity of the implications. The victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Marathon saved civilization. And now the Battle of Greece may

be the modern Marathon to save civilization anew. It may well be the decisive turning point of the whole war. History has a curious way of repeating its miracles. The defeat of

the Persians under the King Emperor Darius in the year 490 B.C. was a miracle. Who can gainsay that another miracle is not in the offing? The Greeks believe it shall come

to pass, and so, imbued with a sense of their historic mission, they proceed with stout heart and grim resolve in their inexorable forward march. And revived to inspire them are the exhortations of the poet Lord Byron:

“Snatch from the ashes of your sires

The embers of their former fires;

And he who in the strife expires

Will add to theirs a name of fear

That tyranny shall quake to hear,

And leave his sons a hope, a fame,

They, too, will rather die than shame;

For freedom’s battle once begun,

Bequeathed by bleeding sire to son,

Though baffled oft is ever won.

Bear witness, Greece, thy living page,

Attest it many a deathless age.”

Already the Greeks have accomplished what 1 month ago would seem incredible. Just before the Italian invasion began, the cause of the democracies was at its lowest ebb.

Japan had joined the axis, Spain and Russia seemed ready to join, and the small nations of Europe, lifeless and listless, had resigned to an inevitable fate. The clouds of gloom hung heavy and all hope seemed irretrievably lost. Yet in 1 short month little Greece, impoverished and undernourished, has changed the entire complexion of the war. She shattered the prestige of Mussolini and brought his regime to the brink of collapse. She imparted to the conquered peoples of Europe new hope and to the remaining free nations on the agenda of slaughter a fresh determination to resist. But above all she has stiffened the morale of democracy’s defenders everywhere, immunizing their will to win, by proving that slaves are no match for freemen, albeit the vaunted invincibility of their machines.

If the enlightened world shall fail this opportunity, the axis may break the back of Greece, though it shall never break its spirit. For the spirit of Greece is made of the stuff that does not break. It is the yearning, the unyielding passion of men to be free. It is the epitome of all mankind’s aspirations.

Wherefore, the Greeks fight. And Leonidas and Pericles and Miltiades live again and a new ray of light begins to shine above the dark and dismal clouds that have gathered in the east. Who knows, that ray of light, however dim, may be the sunshine of tomorrow, to bring peace, hope, happiness, and brotherly love to a world weary with suffering,

hate, and the lust for power, and torn asunder by the mad horsemen of the apocalypse. It may be the new birth of freedom, the restoration of government by law, and the

reassertion of the dignity of man.

But let us not rest our case on hope. Let us rather, by our active help, nourish that hope that it may attain the stature of reality. This is a war of civilians, as well as of soldiers,

of nerves as well as of guns, of morale as well as of munitions.

If, by our help, we sustain the morale of those valiant people, we contribute mightily to the battle. It is our battle, too. It is the battle of democratic peoples everywhere.

Gentlemen, relief for Greece, under present circumstances, is not primarily a matter of charity or humanitarianism. It is, more essentially, a part of our plan of national security

and national defense. For if Britain should collapse and Greece should perish, we in America must inherit their struggle and continue the fight to the bitter end alone, if we

prefer our own traditional way of life to Hitler’s new order of servitude and bondage.

I am deeply grateful for the gracious attention that has greeted my words. If I sang the praises of Hellas too highly, I will ask you to remember that I, too, hail from that Hellenic

stock whose virtues and vices know no middle ground and whose enthusiasm on occasions like this is apt to trespass across the boundaries of modesty and better judgment.