When he died of heart failure on New Year’s Day, Mario Cuomo had been out of office exactly 20 years. But his impact endured, in part because he articulated his political philosophy so powerfully while at his peak and in part because he never fulfilled the destiny many envisioned for him on the national stage.
The New York governor’s national moment in the sun came at night, in a San Francisco convention hall. On July 16, 1984, Cuomo gave the keynote address, mesmerizing a crowd of thousands in the Moscone Center and intriguing millions more on TV.
I watched that speech from a floor seat just below the dais, embedded with the Wisconsin delegation as a reporter for The Milwaukee Journal. In a darkened hall, Cuomo loomed on the stage above, bathed in a shaft of light. He appeared as a tough-talking prophet bringing his testament from on high — a jeremiad against the regime and worldview of President Ronald Reagan.
At first the crowd listened respectfully, with ambient chatter still audible. But as Cuomo rolled inexorably through his text, his voice rising and falling with the rhythm of his cadence, the effect was enthralling. At the natural pauses the hearers were heard from, their own voices and applause merging in a roar that rose and then fell silent. At moments there were shouts, and at others, tears.
That was surely the case in the Wisconsin delegation, dominated by supporters of Walter Mondale, a sometime neighbor from Minnesota who had narrowly won that year’s nomination. A former senator and vice president, Mondale was a competent but uninspiring speaker.
The convention planners had wanted a barn burner to kick-start the proceedings on the first night. Cuomo, in just his second year as governor, was already known as an eloquent orator and fiery debater. And he did not disappoint.
Beyond his stinging indictment of Reagan’s fiscal and foreign policies, Cuomo mocked “the glitter and the showmanship” of the president’s popular persona. And he roused the delegates with the old-time religion of the New Deal. It was the populism of the left, a case for those who were left out and a forthright defense of the role of government espoused by liberals such as Mondale and Cuomo himself.
Seated immediately behind us was the Illinois delegation, which included quite a few officeholders who, like Cuomo, were urban and ethnic Catholics from the old school. When the speech ended and the crowd was still roaring its approval, someone behind me shouted a question to Chicago Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Asked what he thought of the speech, Rosty enthused: “I think we may be nominating the wrong guy!”
Indeed, had the convention rules permitted, the passion Cuomo unleashed might have made him an instant candidate. But the nomination was predetermined, and Mondale had already anointed a running mate in Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman ever on a major party’s national ticket (and Cuomo’s fellow Italian-American from Queens).
All Cuomo could do at that point was steal the spotlight. To forestall that, he got on a plane and went back to New York. It was the first of what would be many occasions when people eager for a President Cuomo would be frustrated.
Cuomo famously said that campaigning was poetry, governing was prose. Back in Albany he concentrated on balancing budgets, building what the state needed in infrastructure (including prisons) and even cutting some taxes. He labored at relations with the Republicans in the state Legislature, who often held the levers of power on fiscal matters.
Despite a generally lackluster field of Democratic candidates in 1988, Cuomo, then in his second term, refused to run, preferring to keep his focus on Albany. After a smashing election to a third term in 1990, he was widely regarded as a prospect for the White House in 1992. He encouraged the speculation.
But as the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary approached, Cuomo was locked in another budget struggle with the Legislature. A plane warmed up on the tarmac to take him to New Hampshire, but that flight never took off. The governor said he could not move on and leave New Yorkers behind.
When the 1992 convention met in his own hometown, Cuomo was on the party’s biggest stage once again. But he was there to place in nomination the name of the man the party had already chosen, Bill Clinton. Later, President Clinton would seriously consider naming Cuomo to the Supreme Court. But Cuomo took his name out of consideration. He had decided he did not want that role, either.
Seeking a fourth term as governor in 1994, Cuomo was upset by Republican George Pataki in the coast-to-coast wave of Republican victories. He left politics thereafter, although he saw his son, Andrew, win the governorship in 2010 and again last fall. Cuomo the Younger has also been mentioned as a potential candidate for president.
It may never be clear whether Cuomo passed on the 1988 and 1992 presidential cycles — his natural turn at bat — for reasons related to politics or his personality. Sometimes labeled “Hamlet on the Hudson,” Cuomo loved to debate the pros and cons of a presidential bid. He also showed a lifelong aversion to trucking around the country and a tendency to bridle at criticism. Many a pol and pundit can tell of phone calls from the Cuomo who, in office and after, often took umbrage at what was written and said.
In the end, it’s also possible that Cuomo’s passion for politics and policy did not extend to the particular demands and contortions of presidential politics — or the Oval Office. America’s 44 presidents to date have included several who could be called masters of prose style. Cuomo might have been the first to be called a poet.