Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo died Thursday at 82, just shortly after his son Andrew was sworn into his second term as Governor of New York. I can’t say that I knew Cuomo well, but I had the great pleasure of speaking with him a number of times over the years. I liked him a great deal and I always thought it was a terrible loss to the country when he stepped aside from a run for the White House — leaving the path clear to Bill Clinton to run. He was a deeply caring and intelligent man. While many picked up a genuine quality about him from television, it was even more evident in person where he would put people at ease and convey an honest interest in their views and concerns.
At a time of robotic, blow-dried candidates, Cuomo brought of sense of authenticity and depth to politics. His signature was a certain honesty and directness. He would not insult the intelligence of voters. He could speak profoundly on politics and government . He once said “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”
My affection for Cuomo grew during the Clinton impeachment after an act of kindness by Cuomo. I had spoken with him a couple times before, but I was surprised to get a telephone call from him. It was at the height of attacks on me for testifying in Congress that lying under oath was an impeachable offense regardless of the subject matter. The attacks were unrelenting. That is when I picked up the phone and found myself talking to Mario Cuomo. He said that he understood that I was taking the position out of a deep sense of principle and that he respected the commitment to the Constitution. We spoke for a long time about the Constitution (which Cuomo had a great understanding and love for) as well as the viciousness of modern politics. We even discussed our shared Italian roots. It was one of the most memorable and enjoyable conversations that I had in my life. While Cuomo might not have agreed with me on my conclusions, he was a man of great principle and kindness. At a time when our leaders seem increasing diminutive in stature and vision, Mario Cuomo walked like a giant among his peers. You could disagree with his vision, but at least he had one. He could inspire liberals the way that Reagan inspired conservatives. He was the embodiment of what George H.W. Bush later called “the vision thing.”
I only spoke with Cuomo a few times after that but cherished each opportunity. Each time I felt that the country had lost a great president in his decision not to run. I had the opportunity to mention that more than once to him, though I was not alone. He was someone who fought hard for the poor and the underprivileged. Yet, he tried to retain his principles in politics. He made mistakes. Indeed, he famously said once that “Every time I’ve done something that doesn’t feel right, it’s ended up not being right.”
Cuomo’s life story remains an inspiration to many Italians. He was the son of two Italian immigrants and his father ran a grocery store in Queens. He once said “I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in fifty years what my father taught me by example in one week.”
Cuomo went to St. John’s University and later signed as an outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He used his $2,000 bonus to buy a ring from his wife, Matilda — a marriage that lasted over 50 years. (He once said “I am a trial lawyer. Matilda says that at dinner on a good day I sound like an affidavit.”) He was later injured by a ball while playing for the Brunswick Pirates. He decided to attend law school at St. John’s University School of Law and graduated tied for first in his class in 1956. Despite clerking for Judge Adrian P. Burke of the New York Court of Appeals, the prejudice against Italians remained high at the time and he was rejected by all of the large firms that he applied to.
He would of course triumph in the end. His eloquence and dignity offered many voters what they have long missed in American politics: a statesman.
However, my words can hardly do justice to Mario Cuomo. It is much better to remember him in his own words. Here is the speech that introduced Cuomo to many Americans in the 1984 Democratic Convention. While some may disagree with the criticism of GOP policies, it is difficult to deny the magnetic power of this man: