Jan 2, 2015

Mario Cuomo, 1932 - 2015

Mario Cuomo, whose politics were deeply informed by his Catholic faith, for many years seemed to embody the potential of American liberalism. As the New York Times explains in the obit for the man who governed New York state from 1983 to 1994:
In an era when liberal thought was increasingly discredited, Mr. Cuomo, a man of large intellect and often unrestrained personality, celebrated it, challenging Ronald Reagan at the height of his presidency with an expansive and affirmative view of government and a message of compassion, tinged by the Roman Catholicism that was central to Mr. Cuomo's identity.

A man of contradictions who enjoyed Socratic arguments with himself, Mr. Cuomo seemed to disdain politics even as he embraced it. 'What an ugly business this is,' he liked to say. Yet he reveled in it, proving himself an uncommonly skilled politician and sometimes a ruthless one.

He was a tenacious debater and a spellbinding speaker at a time when political oratory seemed to be shrinking to the size of the television set. Delivering the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, he eclipsed his party's nominee, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, seizing on Reagan's description of America as 'a shining city on a hill' to portray the president as unaware of impoverished Americans. 'Mr. President,' he said, 'you ought to know that this nation is more a "tale of two cities" than it is just a "shining city on a hill."'

The speech was the high-water mark of his national political career, making him in many ways a more admired figure outside his state than in it.
His rhetoric was powerful, but Cuomo also represented an alternative to the patrician liberalism of Kennedys and Roosevelts, on the one hand, and New Left identity politics, on the other. A son of immigrants who worked their way toward the American dream, he could communicate to the populace that was increasingly identifying with the populism of Ronald Reagan.

Others argue, though, that despite his leftist rhetoric, Cuomo actually helped the Democrats build a bridge to the centrist, third-way politics of Bill Clinton and the modern Democratic party. Eleanor Clift presents this argument at the Daily Beast:
For Democrats yet to regain their bearings after Reagan's landslide win in 1980, Cuomo rose like a phoenix at the convention with his forceful exposition of government's positive role in people's lives. 'He defined what it is for Democrats to have their mojo again,' says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. 'He reminded people my age how it felt to belong to a party that was dynamic and had principles and had ideas at a time when Reagan was stomping all over those things with his message that government is the problem.'

Cuomo famously said, 'You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.' The fires of longing that he ignited with his powerful convention speech did not lead for whatever reason to his candidacy as president.
On news of his death, Bill and Hillary Clinton released a joint statement saying "Mario's life was the very embodiment of the American dream."

Reflecting in 1998 on his political fortunes and why he never ran for president, Cuomo, for his part, was still pushing the political potential of progressivism:
There has never been a time when we needed a progressive point of view more than we need it now.

Let me give you some facts. Five percent of America is now making $100,000 or more. That's the highest percentage ever. There are more millionaires and billionaires than ever. Here at Willkie Farr, where I am a partner, I tell my clients, and have been telling them for over a year, that the Dow Jones will be 10,000 by 2000. Owners, formidable investors, and high-skilled workers are having a bonanza. But there are 16 million children in danger of being involved in drugs, being victimized by violence, and made susceptible to teenage pregnancy, and we lead the industrial world in teenage suicide. The average family wage is $34,000. That's more than half of America not doing well enough to be worry-free, stagnant in wages. But what is not stagnant is the cost of higher education, the cost of health care, the cost of nursing homes, the cost of housing, the cost of automobiles -- all escalating at beyond the inflation rate.

This would be my line if I were running right now. This is the greatest nation the world has ever seen, and we have had eight great years, but we are nowhere near what we could be. And the gap between the best of us and the weakest of us is growing larger even as we experience this affluence. And unless you conclude that you can have this kind of strength only by tolerating this kind of weakness -- only if you say that -- can you settle for what you have now.
Cuomo died on Jan. 1 at the age of 82, hours after his son Andrew was sworn in for a second term as governor of New York. According to the New York Post, Cuomo's funeral will be held in Manhattan at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church.