Saturday, January 10, 2015

Mario Cuomo: The Power—and Limits—of Words

In the 1980s and 1990s, walking near the campus of New York University, I continually passed a Protestant church. Instead of a quote from the Bible or even a theologian, the church would invariably post on its outside bulletin board passages from contemporary secular figures. More often than not, I saw quotes from the published diaries, speeches or articles of Mario Cuomo.

In the Reagan Era, the New York governor customarily elicited this same level of devotion among liberals that the more religiously inclined gave to saints. Today, following his death on New Year’s Day at age 82, I offer not reverence, but respect, for his life and legacy.

In 1984, while Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign was trumpeting the America being remolded by his trickle-down economic policy as a “shining city on a hill,” Cuomo warned presciently of the income inequality that was making the nation “A Tale of Two Cities” in his eloquent keynote address at the Democratic Convention.

In the area beyond the sight of the White House, Cuomo said, “There are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can't find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. 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.”

Instead of the Social Darwinism at the heart of the President’s program, Cuomo called for a return to “the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another's pain, sharing one another's blessings.”

Cuomo had tried out that idea of "family" two years before as he campaigned to become governor of New York. GOP opponent Lew Lehrman’s contention, that government should be “run like a business,” struck me at the time as inappropriate; now, it seems madness. (Which business would that be? Enron? “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap’s Sunbeam? Lehman Brothers?)

In contrast, Cuomo’s metaphor of the American people as a family struck me as homey but effective, something everyone could easily grasp, the same way that Franklin Roosevelt’s comparison of Lend Lease to lending a hose to a neighbor putting out a fire had been in WWII.

What’s more, it could resonate with immigrants who maintained continuing powerful ties to their ancestral lands—the kind of blue-collar, ethnic, often Catholic background from which I came, a voting bloc that Reagan had poached, to devastating effect, in the election of 1980.

My favorable impressions of one Cuomo appearance
In the late 1980s, I heard Governor Cuomo address the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) at its annual convention. The theme of the speech was “The New York Idea,” a title he would later use for a 1994 collection of his articles.

The “New York Idea,” in his formulation, involved “government using its resources to help create private sector growth, then requiring those who benefit from that growth to share some part of it so that hope and opportunity are extended to those who have not been as fortunate." 

Cuomo had already been governor for a term when I saw him, but aside from brief snippets about him on the news, I had never heard him at extended length till then. That afternoon, I came away mighty impressed, not just by his vigorous delivery of a prepared address but, perhaps even more so, by his response to questions that represented potential trouble, before an audience hardly predisposed to like him. He may have felt, as son Andrew remembered in his eulogy, that "you can’t possibly deliver a speech extemporaneously that is as well done as a written speech," but--perhaps from his practice as a lawyer--he knew how to think fast on his feet.

I know—and, at times, have seen—several techniques employed by politicians before audiences with, shall we say, tough questions. The first, the baldfaced lie, while hardly beyond the ethical ken of politicians, is potentially the most dangerous if it is uncovered. A second approach, which might be termed “grabbing by the smooth handle,” was raised to its highest art form by Bill Clinton; it can involve either using ambiguous words that convince a listener that the politico agrees with him, or the politician being so “in the moment” that he somehow persuades even himself as he speaks that he agrees with the questioner. A third approach, rephrasing a question in such a way that it becomes a topic far more comfortable to address, can lead, if performed clumsily, to absolute contempt from the audience. (I saw this happen to California’s Gov. Gray Davis, who, addressing a business group, spoke about his pet issue, education—then, when asked about their specific real-estate concerns, immediately turned the topic back to education, with not the slightest attempt to show a connection. Few left that day without feeling he was the very definition of an empty suit.)

Cuomo would have none of this. He told the DMA audience straightaway why he would not back their preferred positions, cited several well-developed reasons for his stance, and took the edge off only slightly at the end with a joke at his own expense. At the conclusion, he was hardly ready to be lifted and carried aloft out of the building, but I think he left many listeners with a grudging respect for his mastery of the issues and his refusal to pander.

I found out later that Cuomo was unafraid to walk into the lion’s den on other occasions, too. Two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sidney Blumenthal recounted in his account of the 1988 Presidential campaign, Pledging Allegiance, Cuomo was one of only two Democratic hopefuls (the other being Gary Hart, before his self-destructive fling with Donna Rice) to foresee a near future beyond the Cold War—and the governor said so, shockingly, before a conservative audience.

Verbal fencing
As someone who made (and continues to make) his living with words, I was impressed with Cuomo’s apparent facility with language. So, at least initially, were reporters who covered him. That may have been part of the problem with this great hope of liberals—and a portent of what they encountered when they succeeded in putting another progressive given to soaring words, Barack Obama, in the White House.

Cuomo famously observed, “You campaign in poetry but govern in prose.” As it turned out, he was not equally comfortable with both.

In 2004, a decade out of office, Cuomo wrote a book called Why Lincoln Matters. Obviously, he felt he shared with the first Republican President not only a legal background but an ability to use oratory to move the electorate to greater acceptance of the marginalized. It was less obvious if Cuomo grasped that this latter skill would have been insufficient without Lincoln’s shrewd understanding of his listeners in one-on-one encounters or his instinct for making a momentous move at just the moment when voters were ready for it.

Baseball might have been the means by which he hoped to mark his mark as a young man, but judging from his time in Albany dealing with other politicians and the press, fencing might have been Cuomo’s more natural sport. The arts of thrust, parry, feints, posturing, ripostes—and, on the rare occasion, disengaging—were indispensable parts of his verbal arsenal.

In a New York minute, Cuomo could cross the line from jesuitical to downright preposterous. “You’re telling me that the Mafia is an organization,” he said, for instance, “and I’m telling you that’s a lot of baloney.”

Granted that the national recession, felt acutely in the state, limited revenues, and that Cuomo managed to balance all his budgets. But battles over state finances became incessant. It remains an open question how damaging this proved to his relationships with lawmakers in Albany. “If Cuomo had been governor at the time [of New York City’s fiscal crisis] instead of [predecessor Hugh] Carey, we’d still be talking now about how to get New York City out of bankruptcy,” a friend who had served in the Cuomo administration told me 10 years after his boss was out of office.

Weighing the plusses and minuses of three terms
In an age of diminished expectations, Cuomo’s achievements as governor could not be summed in a simple one-liner the way his predecessors had (e.g., “Thomas Dewey implemented construction of the state highway system”). To its credit, the state under his watch sought to step up to its responsibilities as the federal government under Reagan turned a blind eye to the social ills going unaddressed in the nation, including funding for AIDS  patients, expanding coverage for low-income children and pregnant women who didn’t previously qualify for Medicaid, and building permanent housing with support services for people living with mental illnesses in shelters and on the streets. (Moreover, unlike Nelson Rockefeller's actions with regard to Attica, Cuomo was able to negotiate the end to a hostage crisis at Sing-Sing prison without the loss of life.)

But perhaps the program with the widest impact was the penal archipelago necessitated by  Rockefeller’s anti-drug laws—which, while boosting Cuomo’s claim to be tough on crime (and, to be fair, getting some criminals off the street), disproportionately disadvantaged many of the state’s African-American and Hispanic youths. (Even some conservatives are now questioning the value of these long-term incarcerations.) Ironically, one of son Andrew’s proudest boasts as governor, in fact, was that he has closed some of these prisons.

In a trenchant piece published a few months before the governor’s 1994 last hurrah, New York Magazine’s Jacob Weisberg, while acknowledging the vapidity of George Pataki’s complaint that the state’s sputtering economy was all Cuomo’s fault, still lodged a telling criticism against the incumbent:

“Cuomo’s style of economic development involves government in a wheel-spinning vicious circle: The state spends time and money creating and implementing its taxes and regulations, then spends more of both finding ways around them for those who complain the loudest. Instead, he should just cut business taxes across the board. But the notion that the key to a sounder economy is doing less rather than more seems never to have occurred to him.”

In particular, upstate voters were peeved at what they regarded as his neglect of their needs. Much of that anger was misplaced (did any governor do enough to reverse the region’s decline in the post-WWII era?), but their complaints were not without merit.

New York State government became the largest employer upstate during Cuomo’s three terms. No wonder: Business taxes were roughly 75% higher than the national average by his last year in office. On his watch occurred the loss of the steel industry in Buffalo, the movement of more than 40,000 workers from General Electric in Schenectady, the closing of the Ford plant in Green Island, and the downsizing of manufacturing by Carrier Air Conditioning in Syracuse.

A searching discussion by Brian Mann and Martha Foley, on North Country Public Radio, outlined some of the other ways, positive as well as negative, in which Cuomo reshaped the upstate landscape:

*He created the Environmental Protection Fund, a permanent funding mechanism that would help New York State purchase land for open space conservation;

*He “walked away” from the findings of an Adirondack Parks commission he himself had set up, leaving on the table issues still unresolved two decades later;

*He negotiated a deal with the Mohawk Tribe for the building of a casino, with state approval, in Franklin County—an agreement made seriously complicated by a separate agreement he had helped broker, as Secretary of State under Hugh Carey, with a separate band of Mohawks for the right to use a chunk of state forest land in Clinton County north of Plattsburgh.

As New York governors are wont to do, Cuomo soon cast his eyes longingly down the Hudson and toward the Potomac. Washington offered him a warmer climate—and, in the Oval Office, a larger stage for his political ambitions.

And yet…one of the indelible images of the last quarter century of Presidential policies was of two chartered airplanes at the Albany airport in December 1991, waiting to fly him to New Hampshire so he could get his name on the state’s Democratic primary ballot for president. Instead, he announced that the severity of another budget battle in New York would preclude him from running. Even many of his admirers found it difficult to accept that explanation.

Lost policy opportunity on abortion
The greatest missed policy opportunity of the governor's time in public life might have come in the matter that endeared Cuomo the most to many in the media: abortion. His 1984 Notre Dame address, on "Religious Belief and Public Morality," was indeed nuanced and thoughtful.

But the years ahead showed that the governor was far more ready to challenge his own church’s strictures than its mirror image in pro-choice orthodoxy. His pronouncements on the subject went from acknowledging abortion as a tragic necessity to defending it as an unassailable right.

The tragedy was not just that America’s abortion debate became further calcified, with increasingly less middle ground between absolute positions, but that more deaths of the unborn eventually resulted.

It did not have to be this way. Across Western Europe, with countries far more liberal and secular than the United States, waiting periods and other restrictions vehemently opposed in America are common, along with generous maternity benefits, as outlined by Emily Matchar’s August 2013 article in The Atlantic Monthly

Cuomo could have argued forcefully for something similar in New York and America. Instead, his increasing rhetorical rigidity on this subject ensured unnecessary religious divisions and the alienation of many voters who, on economic issues, could have been expected to vote Democratic.

Cuomo’s background promised more than this. It wasn’t only because that, as recently as the 1977 Mayoral runoff primary, he had been far less supportive of abortion on demand than opponent Ed Koch, but because he came to prominence in state Democratic circles in the first place in Queens for forging compromises in the early 1970s over bitter city-neighborhood disputes involving another third-rail issue: race.  

Moreover, Cuomo’s justification for his abortion stance was inconsistent: while he said he could not in good conscience apply his religious beliefs in the public square in this instance, he felt no compunction about citing religious and moral principles in his full-throated opposition to the death penalty.

The office Cuomo should have pursued (not the Presidency)
The greatest missed opportunity of Cuomo’s career, as far as officeholding was concerned, may have been his rejection of an appointment to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton. A seat on the Supreme Court would have provided a graceful escape from a post he found increasingly onerous as his power and prestige had dissipated. (Most observers ascribe his declining popularity toward the end of his time in office to a recession. But Cuomo should have understood, after his lackluster third-term victory over hapless GOP neophyte candidate Pierre Rinfret, that voters’ patience with him was wearing thin, the way it has over time with other formidable vote-getters, such as New York mayors Fiorello LaGuardia, Ed Koch and Michael Bloomberg.)

Joining the Supreme Court would have given Cuomo far more than what unsuccessful Republican nominee Robert Bork had hoped for: “an intellectual feast”—he would have had the chance to influence social legislation for a generation. For Clinton, the appointment would have removed another dominant sphere of influence within the party, added to the liberal bloc on the court, and posed a counterweight to the conservative, feisty Italian-American Antonin Scalia with the liberal, feisty Italian-American Mario Cuomo.

The nation also would have benefited from having a justice with practical executive experience. The court has had far more than its share of court appointees who were legal scholars or appellate judges, but far less in the mode of William Howard Taft, Charles Evan Hughes, Frank Murphy, or Earl Warren: governors (or, in Taft’s case, a President) who knew firsthand the impact of court rulings on administration at the state or federal levels.

Accepting an appointment to the high court would have been a win-win for both him and President Clinton, adding a positive element to their sometimes fraught relationship. The tape that Gennifer Flowers made public of her conversation with Clinton was less damaging for what it revealed about their intimacy than for his too-ready agreement with the spurious notion that Cuomo may have had underworld connections—a statement for which Clinton had to apologize privately, even as his campaign—wrongly—implied that the tape itself may have been doctored. The New York governor’s agreement to deliver the speech nominating Clinton would undoubtedly have been made with less alacrity had he known that adviser--and future Secretary of State--Warren Christopher had counseled against Clinton naming Cuomo his running mate (too “high maintenance,” Christopher warned).

Spurning the Supreme Court appointment also meant that the state Democratic Party would forego the necessary task of elevating midlevel talent to the highest offices, leaving the party, in effect, with an incumbent who would be practically a pinata for a resurgent national conservatism. "Since Cuomo is the aging poster boy of contemporary American liberalism and since New York is its center, a defeat of Cuomo would have national significance," urged conservative intellectual William Kristol.

Making terms, uncertainly, with defeat
The “aging poster boy” bit might have been unkind, but the rest of the sentence was true enough. Cuomo’s defeat in 1994 was not only demoralizing by itself, but also because it left the state in the hands of George Pataki. That upstate politician possessed no visible acumen but an all-too-clear connection to the ethically dubious Al D’Amato, whose most notable achievement in three terms in the U.S. Senate may have been avoiding prison for the application of his suburban-machine tactics to the Federal level.

(In watching the coverage of Cuomo’s final rites, I nearly gagged on the rank hypocrisy of D’Amato, who told credulous reporters about how the governor “exemplified integrity”: “Listen, he’s a man who probably lost an election because he said, ‘I’m opposed to the death penalty.’” I wondered how many of those covering the wake realized that D’Amato helped mastermind an election that never allowed voters to forget this fact?)

After his failed bid for a fourth term, Cuomo was a political Icarus who fell too quickly to earth. His relationship with son Andrew may have been every bit as complicated as the one between George H.W. Bush and Dubya. Though he gloried in Andrew’s ascent to governor, he felt that the latter’s initial failure to reach the state’s highest office in 2002 stemmed from a refusal to heed the old man’s advice. Mario’s late-in-life work for rich clients might have been just long-delayed compensation for years of public service and for being unjustly ignored by white-shoe law firms after a sterling college record, but one longed for him to labor unstintingly in the courts for those threatened by penury and the state, as New York City’s Paul O’Dwyer did.

Oddest of all, as the New York Daily News' David Hinckley recalls, Cuomo could not find an audience during a one-year stint as a Saturday talk show host on WABC radio. As conservative talk radio began to dominate the airwaves, his voice could not enthrall enthralled millions, as it had only the decade before.

What was—and what might have been
With his departure from public life, Cuomo joined Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Adlai Stevenson, and Ted Kennedy among the most tantalizing of political might-have-beens: giant figures who often dwarfed their parties’ preferred Presidential candidates (and even successful aspirants to the White House).

The end of Cuomo’s political career paralleled his shortened athletic career: a promising, tough competitor sidelined against his will, with so much potential never reached. Disappointment inevitably clings to his mantle: he was "not to be the president his East Coast cheerleaders hoped, not to be a visionary for a new time of complexity and challenge," writes political analyst William Bradley, a former adviser to Hart, in a piece for The Huffington Post.

But, in a state with a history of corruption, his administration was largely scandal-free (helped out, in no small part, by ethics legislation enacted on his watch), and his own personal conduct was above reproach.

He was not all that he could or should have been, but he was intelligent, large-hearted, and superior to the great majority of the other figures in a bad, cowardly political time. He demonstrated a commitment to engage the electorate, beyond sound bites, in the essential moral debates of this age on the proper role of government. He did not leave people cynical about public affairs, but moved them to confront the necessity of change in a compassionate manner. He was, amazingly, not a convicted politician, but a politician of convictions.

(The photo accompanying this post, of Cuomo delivering a speech, was taken by David Berkowitz on Sept. 25, 2007.)

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