When I met Mario Cuomo in the summer of 1978, he was already a celebrated public figure, if not yet a political powerhouse. We were at the Democratic state convention in Albany, where I was reporting for the Village Voice, and he was pondering an offer from New York governor Hugh Carey, then seeking re-election, to join the ticket as lieutenant governor. Mario frankly didn’t much trust Carey, who needed him more than he needed a largely ceremonial promotion from his then-position as secretary of state.
But in the end he accepted the deal, both because he believed that New York needed a Democratic administration, regardless of his personal feelings toward the governor — and because he knew that this step would advance his own political career.
That was my introduction to the Cuomo style of “progressive pragmatism” – and to a charming, thoughtful, highly literate, and occasionally volatile figure who became one of the most compelling orators of the late 20th century.
His speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, delivered at the zenith of Ronald Reagan’s reign, remains a remarkably inspirational assertion of progressive values against conservative complacency and cruelty. His address at Notre Dame on religious belief and public morality that same year courageously defended the independence of Catholic elected officials from subservience to church doctrine on reproductive rights.
In recent years, it has been fashionable to draw contrasts between Mario, who passed away yesterday at the age of 82, and his older son Andrew, who was sworn in for a second term as governor of New York only hours earlier. According to the conventional wisdom, Mario was liberal while Andrew is conservative; Mario was too self-doubting to run for president, while Andrew is too self-confident not to run, someday.
Whatever the differences in personality between father and son, however, Mario’s reputation as the conscience of the Democrats grew more from what he said than what he did. “We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose,” he famously remarked – and much of his governance was prosaic indeed.
He spoke out bravely against capital punishment, for instance, yet built more prison cells than any governor in state history. He approved tax cuts, held down spending, and was proud of his balanced budgets – even while the number of homeless on New York’s streets swelled during his administrations. But he borrowed billions to stimulate spending and create jobs with major public works in environmental protection, education, roads, bridges, and mass transit.
As a columnist for the Voice, I didn’t always agree with his priorities, to put it mildly, and wrote many columns criticizing his policies. More than once I picked up a jangling telephone to hear an angry, argumentative Governor Cuomo railing on the line, without the pleasantry of a “hello.” It was an experience that other reporters shared from time to time. But I have met very few elected officials who were as kind or as genuine.
And I’ve known few politicians as engaging in conversation, or as erudite without pretension. He wrote wonderful diaries of his first campaign for governor, published by Random House in 1984, and could speak as cogently about the history of Lincoln’s presidency as the philosophy of the Jesuit visionary Teilhard de Chardin. But he was still a tough lawyer who went to public schools and grew up on the streets of Queens.
Among the most amusing Cuomo anecdotes is one from the 1977 New York City mayoral campaign, when he is supposed to have confronted Michael Long, the unsavory chairman of the state’s Conservative Party, on a street corner – and knocked him out with a single punch. (Long later claimed this report was an “embellishment,” but I heard it straight from an impeccable source.)
Exaggerated or not, that little legend captures the feisty essence of Mario Cuomo – a man of passionate intellect and spirit, who sought to make his values real in this world. He worked diligently and spoke powerfully, reminding millions of Americans about values we ought to cherish. I have no doubt he will rest in peace.