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Friday, October 21, 2016

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.


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  • nana4gj

    I liked him. I respected him. I valued him. Knowing only his public figure and him as a person from his public statements and public policies he espoused, I knew he must be a genuine man, true to himself and his beliefs.

    I was proud of him as an Italian public leader. He never gave cause for any “embarrassment”, only pride and joy and respect. I can see much of him, in his reluctance to run for the Presidency, for example, in my own Italian family of parents, aunts, uncles, long gone now. They had a sense of humility in them, no matter their achievements, a sense of having achieved but of never forgetting their humble experiences growing up in the “oid neighborhoods” and of the respectful obligation to their immigrant parents. “Hamlet on the Hudson” was probably too humble for our own good with that old-fashioned brand of Italian humility that I know well.

    They said and did what needed to be said and done but were not boastful and arrogant. It was not so much for personal gain and ambition as it was for duty and service, always attentive to the fact that acceptance of them was never a guarantee, full of suspicions.

    Mario Cuomo was not warm and fuzzy, nor was he a “bully”. He was a big, strong, principled Italian man of honor and respect.

  • Whatmeworry

    Cumo over saw the greatest migration of people out of 1 state since he Civil War

  • Whatmeworry

    Cumo over saw the greatest migration of people out of 50 states since he Civil War

    • BillP

      If you are going to write about the person, at least spell his name correctly, it’s in the article.

  • charleo1

    In comments on another NM article discussing many of the erroneous predictions by the Republicans on the economy. Many of us lamented the scarcity of such leaders as Gov. Cuomo, in today’s money dominated political arena. Leaders who articulated in the most compelling of terms, the need for a strong Progressive, yet pragmatic movement. In the face of both growing corporate power in a global economy. And the increasing absence of labor’s seat at the bargaining table.