I’m in the US right now so have been hearing and watching the remembrances of Mario Cuomo, mainly on NPR and PBS. I respected Cuomo during his years on the national scene (1982-94) but wasn’t a huge fan of his. I wasn’t bowled over by his speech at the 1984 DNC (I thought Jesse Jackson’s was superior) and didn’t see him as the Dems’ messiah for the ’88 and ’92 elections (I supported Dukakis and Clinton, respectively, from the outset in those). But in seeing excerpts from that ’84 speech, plus clips from other speeches and interviews Cuomo gave over the years, I have to say that I’m impressed. What a good man he was. And on all the issues. A good, decent liberal. The best that the Democrats had to offer, then and since. That’s as much as I have to say. R.I.P.
UPDATE: Progressive journalist Al Giordano has a nice personal remembrance of Mario Cuomo, posted on social media (h/t Stephen Zunes)
I first shook Mario Cuomo’s (1932-2015) hand at the age of 14, after he had given a speech at the candidates’ debate of the New Democratic Coalition (NDC), a group trying to bring the New York State Democratic Party to the left. He was 42, the son of immigrants from southern Italy and a native of New York. His mother had been born on the Amalfi Coast, Immaculata Giordano. Cuomo was a candidate for Secretary of State in New York, and curiously devoted most of his speech to making a powerful argument against the death penalty, an unpopular position at the time (he lost the primary election). He had been a community organizer in Queens, first stopping the seizure of people’s homes to build a high school, then halting a gigantic housing project. Although still a young man, he carried himself with the gravitas of the “old school” Italian-Americans of New York. Most of his generation were what we called “juniors,” first- and second-generation immigrants who had assimilated so thoroughly into American culture that their inner compasses didn’t quite know in what direction to point (see Giuliani, Rudy, or even Cuomo, Andrew, for examples of what I mean by “juniors”). But not Mario: he was a “don,” emanating the stigmata of rock-solid leadership of the old ways while applying that archetype to a very liberal, almost dreamy, and very poetic idealism. It’s a combination of substance and style that one rarely sees today.
In 1988 and 1992, millions of Americans hoped he would run for president. I believe to this day that he would have defeated Michael Dukakis or Bill Clinton for the nomination. And US history might have been very different – read: better – as a result. I also believe that, in each of those cycles, Cuomo declined to run because the same ethnicity that was his strength, in a national election, would have led to accusations of “mafia connections” based on the sort of thin gruel that almost every Italian-American New Yorker of his generation had grown up with, or was related to, somebody in the so-called “five families.” Still, his impact on me and countless other Italian-Americans was permanent. He taught by example that one did not have to, that indeed it was undesirable to, follow the dominant paradigm of the era and become a “junior,” which essentially defines a man who goes for the money, or for the easy path, instead of going for broke toward destiny; one who ignores the minutia of detail and principle whenever it does not serve ambition. Juniors do not make good history. They do not leave legacies. Cuomo did both. Ciao, Don Mario…
As for why Cuomo didn’t run for president, it was apparent to me at the time that he wasn’t really interested in the job. He just wasn’t interested in leaving New York to live in Washington.