In its editorial euology last Friday, my alma mater, the N.Y. Daily News, referred to Gov. Mario Cuomo as “the last lion of New York liberalism.”
An excellent description.
Those of you who know me, or think you do, might wonder then why his death left me feeling bereft.
It’s because, once in a great while, there appears a politician who transcends politics. And I have always been one to place more store in the character of the man, or woman, holding, or seeking, office than in the political platform the person espouses.
In other words, what I value most is honesty. Because in the political arena, that can be a rare commodity.
Mario Cuomo, whom I had the privilege of meeting more than once on a professional basis, was someone who inspired trust. He was genuine. Unlike the case with some others in government, who shall be nameless, you could sit in a conference room with him for a couple of hours, listen to him field myriad questions from journalists, and not once doubt the sincerity of what he said. Or suspect that his responses had been fed to him and memorized.
I may not have agreed with his stance on some issues, but I respected the person taking the stance.
Of course, there was also his eloquence. Mario Cuomo, who had the ability to hold his audience spellbound, was also the last (I fear) of the great orators.
I can remember exactly where I was when I heard his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. I was on the M101 Lexington Ave. bus heading south from 42nd St., listening to the coverage on my Walkman. And I was transfixed. The memory is that vivid.
Cuomo had the ability not only to use words, but to deliver them. There’s an echo of his voice and cadence in his son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but it doesn’t have quite the same resonance.
Another side of the man I had the luck to witness was his quick-wittedness.
Every spring, the reporters covering the N.Y. state capitol, host the Legislative Correspondents Dinner. Unlike the White House Correspondents Dinner that is telecast on C-Span, the Albany event is more than a basic political roast. It is a show. With skits and musical numbers. All the pols are fair game for the journalists’ jibes, but none more so than the state’s chief executive.
The first time I attended, Mario Cuomo was governor, and I was at a table near his. Throughout the show, I could see him scribbling notes.
As is customary, the person who gets the last word at this event is the one who was prime target.
When it was Cuomo’s turn to answer his comedic critics, he delivered a monologue that would have put George Carlin to shame. Point-by-point (which explains those notes), he rebutted the slings and arrows that had been directed at him, and he had the audience laughing ‘til we cried. Literally. The man was a master of comedy. Who knew?
So, even though he had been out of the spotlight for some time, and even though he was a lion of liberalism, I shall miss him.
In that 1984 speech, challenging Ronald Reagan’s image of America, Cuomo said: “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’ . . . . 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.”
I may not agree with everything in that speech, but I can appreciate the passion of his arguments. The elegance of his rebuttal.
Mario Cuomo had character.
And he had class. T
hese days, what passes for a rebuttal? “Sit down and shut up!”
– Karen Zautyk