Goodbye, Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo at WAMC

Mario Cuomo died yesterday. In many ways, he’s already been forgotten, eclipsed by the tumultuous 20 years since he left office, and by the daily attention garnered by his son, current governor Andrew Cuomo. For me, though, Mario was the politician I’ve most admired in 50 years of paying attention to politics and government. My recurring pipe dream was sitting down with him for a one-to-one conversation on politics and societal obligation. Fortunately, I and others could get that by proxy by listening to his conversations with Alan Chartock on WAMC radio’s weekly “Capitol Connection”.

No governor before, and especially since, has ever spent so much time talking directly to his constituents, articulately defending his liberal, compassionate view of government’s role in society. He was also the only governor to appear on a regular call-in show, on WCBS radio. In today’s high stakes image contests and “Gotcha!” attacks, unscripted appearances can be politically fatal. Mario Cuomo obviously never worried about that.

As governor during New York’s problem-filled era of 1983-1994 (crack, AIDS, crime, homelessness) he dealt with a very difficult financial and political environment. He had many notable, but not well known, policy successes, but times were hard and choices were hard. His initiatives were often stymied, from both sides of the aisle, by New York’s famously fractious, corrupt, and self serving legislators.

I always saw Mario Cuomo as the smartest politician in the room. Whether you agreed with his position or not, he always made an intelligent, persuasive case for it. He cared about people, and never appeared to succumb to the temptation of personal power — a true public servant.

During his final campaign, for a fourth term in 1994, I was amazed at the opposition he engendered from those he was looking out for. I remember hearing him savaged by a variety of State University of New York (SUNY) faculty and staff for insufficient support of higher education. He lost re-election to George Pataki — in my opinion a bland political lightweight who ran his campaigns far better than his governorship. Pataki really did a number on the SUNY system, and I had periodic opportunities over his two terms to ask my SUNY friends if they weren’t now nostalgic about the Mario Cuomo era.

Cuomo’s major abdication of his service to the American public was refusing to let Bill Clinton appoint him to the Supreme Court. His compassion, intelligence, legal acumen, and eloquence would have made him one of the great justices in what has turned out to be a sadly doctrinaire and politicized institution. I can’t blame anyone for deciding not to run for President, but I was disappointed that he didn’t see the Court as his post-governorship civic duty.

The era of the liberal, passionate defender of government as society’s expression of its desires and principles is in decline these days. Certainly, Governor Andrew Cuomo is almost nothing like his father. Eventually, the pendulum will swing away from bought and paid for government to an institution attempting to implement broader, more inclusive societal goals — I hope.

In the meantime, I’ll miss you, Mario.

by John Gunther

New York Times obituary:

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