Mario Matthew Cuomo, 1932-2015
Long before Bill de Blasio summoned the ghost of Charles Dickens, long before the phrase “income inequality” became part of the political lexicon, long before shimmering castles rose in the Midtown sky in celebration of a new gilded age, there was Mario Matthew Cuomo, son of immigrants, child of the New Deal, keeper of his party’s conscience.
Cuomo became a political sensation through a medium thought to belong to another era: words. Beautiful, poetic, meaningful words, spoken in a strong, clear voice, with a cadence that turned even a clumsy phrase into a baroque masterpiece.
He was reared in a household of Italian speakers; English, his greatest companion and most formidable ally, was his second language.
It was hardly a wonder that embedded in all those beautiful words there was a palpable love of American possibilities. Where else, he might have asked, could an Italian-speaking kid from Queens become not just an orator but a philosopher whose texts will be read for as long as American political thought matters?
Cuomo was a relative political unknown in 1984, when the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, asked him to deliver the keynote address at the party’s national convention in San Francisco. Mondale had heard something about Cuomo’s use of the English language, heard something about a speech he gave in Albany on January 1, 1983, after taking the oath of office as governor of New York. On that first of 4,380 days he would spend in residence on Eagle Street, Mario Cuomo spoke of “the idea of the family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all.”
“There is an ideal essential to our success,” he said, “and no family that favored its strong children or that in the name of even-handedness failed to help its vulnerable ones would be worthy of the name.”
There are people with us still who vividly remember that speech not only because of the words and not only because of the power of the man who spoke them, but also because nobody else in public life spoke like that. Not in 1983.
The age belonged to Ronald Reagan, the onetime New Dealer who preached the gospel of self-reliance and regaled the nation with anecdotes about individuals who made themselves rich, or, if already rich, then even richer. The age belonged to Reagan’s ideological sidekick, Margaret Thatcher, who said there was no such thing as society.
And here was this man from Queens, Mario Cuomo, all but saying that these powerful people were peddling lies.
“It has become popular is some quarters,” he said, “to argue that the principal function of government is to make instruments of war and to clear obstacles away from the strong. It is said that the rest will happen automatically. The cream will rise to the top. … Survival of the fittest may be a good working description of the process of evolution, but a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order, one which tries to fill the cruel gaps left by chance, and by a wisdom we don’t fully understand.”
From his listening post in Washington, New York Times columnist James (Scotty) Reston announced that “the governor may be on to something.”
Hoping that Reston was right, Mondale arranged for Mario Cuomo to face the nation on a July evening in the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
Today, at a time when the president of the United States bears the name Barack Hussein Obama, it is quite impossible to appreciate the impact of a man named Mario Cuomo speaking on behalf of a presidential candidate to a national television audience numbering in the tens of millions. Covering that convention, I recall a man from the South—Texas, I seem to remember—reminding us Northerners that all those vowels in the governor’s name might not sit well with his America. He at least pronounced Cuomo’s last name correctly. There were many in that convention hall in San Francisco who seemed to believe the governor was related to the old crooner, Perry Como.
He came to the podium, waved, and then excused himself from the usual preliminaries, “the stories and the poetry and the temptation to deal in nice but vague rhetoric.”
Instead, he offered a polite but passionate assault on Ronald Reagan’s America, his shining city on a hill.
“A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well,” Cuomo said. “But there's another city; there's another part to the shining city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate. … There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city. In fact, Mr. President, this is a nation—Mr. President you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’"
Mario Cuomo said these things in 1984, to a nation that was in thrall to Reagan and his narrative of an America reborn and resurgent. Cuomo continued with phrase upon devastating phrase, asking the president to consider those left behind, pleading with the American people to see the poor and the disenfranchised not as failures and losers, but fellow citizens of the same city, of one city and a single nation.
To be in that hall on that night 30 years ago was to be in Chicago in 1896, when a former congressman named William Jennings Bryan called on his fellow Democrats to hear the voices of those left behind, to prevent their crucifixion on a cross of gold. He was nominated for president on the spot.
The rules of politics had changed since Bryan’s time; Mario Cuomo could be no more than a surrogate for the party’s duly anointed candidate, Mondale. But the delegates left San Francisco knowing they had nominated the wrong man, a fine man no doubt, but a man who could not stir the soul.
Mario Cuomo would never run for president, even though the party saw him as a savior after Mondale lost 49 states—all but Minnesota—that year.
Cuomo chose not to run in 1988, and the Democratic consolation prize was Michael Dukakis. He chose not to run in 1992, when a plane was waiting to take him from Albany to New Hampshire to file late-minute paperwork for the state’s primary. Cuomo said he could not run for president because he had to figure out the state’s budget, a curious explanation he would reiterate in years to come, no matter how bizarre it seemed.
For Democrats who had never forgotten the San Francisco speech, for hundreds of patronage holders and reporters in Albany, Cuomo’s announcement, made 90 minutes before a 5 o’clock filing deadline, was one of the great could-have-beens in modern political history.
William Faulkner once said that for young white men in the South, it is always a few minutes before two o’clock on July 3, 1863 in Gettysburg, and General George Pickett and his men “are in position behind the rail fence … waiting for Longstreet to give the word.”
For those who worked for or who covered Mario Cuomo a generation ago, there are times when it once again is 3:15 p.m. on Friday, December 20, 1991. A small plane is warming up, bound for Manchester, N.H., and Governor Cuomo’s office has just scheduled a press conference on the second floor of the state Capitol.
Mario Cuomo’s hold on the imagination of his fellow Democrats was all about soaring rhetoric and political poetry. But it was the governor himself who noted that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. And as a governor, Cuomo’s record was more prosaic than many Democrats and journalists from outside the state realized.
He built more prisons than any other governor in the state’s history. He and his legislative colleagues couldn’t deliver a budget on time. He cut taxes but didn’t raise the state’s minimum wage until 1990, after he had been governor for seven years. By 1994, as he tried in vain to win a fourth term, he found himself talking about improvements made to Thruway rest stops during his watch. Hardly the stuff of poetry.
His principled stand against capital punishment—which he shared with his predecessor, Hugh Carey—won him accolades from liberals tired of Democratic compromises and cave-ins. His nuanced defense of abortion rights, brilliantly argued in a speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1985, earned him the support of powerful activists who policed the party’s pro-choice orthodoxy.
Combined with his wonderful speeches, those two positions earned Cuomo a reputation as the Democratic Party’s leading liberal spokesman at a time when liberalism was banished to the political wilderness. But it was, in many ways, an illusion.
If Bill Clinton is credited with the political gymnastic known as triangulation, Mario Cuomo deserves recognition for embracing a form of political bifurcation even if party diehards insisted that he was the true liberal they had been yearning for since Adlai Stevenson led them to principled disaster twice in the 1950s.
Cuomo disdained the term “liberal,” preferring to describe himself as a pragmatic progressive or a progressive pragmatist. The rhetorical sleight of hand was evident even in some of the speeches that sent liberal heart aflutter.
“We believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need,” Cuomo said in his San Francisco speech.
On other occasions, he noted that government required both a head and a heart, of the need to provide jobs as well as justice. Conservative. Liberal. Pragmatic progressive. Progressive pragmatist.
This careful attention to linguistic detail could be exasperating for those looking for simple, straightforward answers. People like, well, reporters.
Along with others who covered Cuomo far more closely, I knew that the right question phrased the wrong way would lead only to a Cuomo verbal assault and a non-answer. He’d attack the question. He’d question the attacker. I can hear his voice now:
Governor, other Democrats are saying you should raise the minimum wage.
I can’t tell you that, governor.
How can I answer the question if I don’t know who is saying these things? Why do you allow people to hide behind a veil of anonymity? Is this the way you always operate? The issue here is not the minimum wage but the people who are making statements without putting their names to those statements. That’s the real issue here.
This imaginary conversation was pretty close to daily reality for Albany’s press corps, although visiting journalists from the Beltway generally were spared the full Mario treatment. That accounted for the disparate narratives: Mario the Poet versus Mario the Lawyer.
In 1994, as he sought to become only the second New York governor to win a fourth four-year term (the first one was Nelson Rockefeller; Al Smith won four two-year terms), Cuomo published a collection of his speeches, reminding so many of his supporters why they adored him. The volume was called More Than Words.
It is a suitable epitaph for a politician who used words to inspire, to probe, to critique, and to provoke. Yes, he will be remembered best as an orator, but there was something more about him, something more than the pretty pictures he painted with the English language.
He was unafraid to challenge a comforting narrative with impertinent questions at a time when others preferred to simply go along and get along. Yes, that required more than words. That required ideas, that required courage, and that required intelligence.
Mario Cuomo had all three.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated incorrectly that Walter Mondale won Massachusetts in 1984, rather than Minnesota.