Mario Cuomo: An OK Governor, but a Far Better Person

His self-doubt kept him from that ultimate job. If only more politicians were more like him.

Mary Altaffer/AP

There’s lots of speculation out there, in the wake of Mario Cuomo’s passing, about what kind of president he might have been had he ascended that ultimate plinth. I think a rather disappointing one—because they all are, in one way or another, and because he just didn’t have the ferocious hunger to win or the certainty that he was right that most politicians have.

But so what, really. The powerful legacy of Cuomo, or one of them, is that the qualities that made him a great person were precisely those that made him merely a good governor; he is thus probably the supreme example of our age of the way modern politics places capricious burdens on its practitioners, and how it punishes some people who might have been truly great leaders but can’t easily conform to the system’s demands.

I was a journalist in New York City for the last of his three gubernatorial terms, a little more. But I only got to know him after he was out of office. My stories are the same as every other journalist’s who knew him. I’d call him to get a quote or two for a story, and the conversation would last 50 minutes (all this for free, while he was surely billing clients several hundred dollars an hour). Or from time to time the phone would ring. He’d read something I’d written and wanted to talk it through. Once, a mutual friend’s suicide sparked a long conversation that I remember being kind of blown away by as I hung up the phone, even though I can’t recall a word of it today.

He first rose to prominence as a lawyer in Queens, who settled a boiling racial dispute over public housing in Forest Hills. He caught the eye of Jack Newfield, the power-broking Village Voice columnist, back when a Village Voice columnist could be power-broking, as Jack indeed was. He lost a mayoral election to Ed Koch. He faced Koch again, running for governor in 1982. Koch, the better-known quantity, was 20 points ahead, but eventually his natural contempt for upstate hamlets and the people who lived in them showed through, and Mario Cuomo was the governor. (By the way, it’s MARE-ee-oh, not MAHR-ee-oh; he was insistent about that.)

The only great thing he did as governor was to insist that the death penalty was just wrong. He didn’t prattle on about DNA evidence or whether it was or wasn’t a deterrent. He just said: It is wrong for the state to kill a human being, and I won’t have any part of it. It cost him the governor’s mansion in 1994; well, maybe that plus the fact that liberals and Democrats were by then a little tired of his act. He seemed by all appearances perfectly happy to let the Republicans control the state senate. He built loads of prisons. He announced liberal ideas with a flourish and then didn’t follow through, like his “Decade of the Child” from a state of the state address (“but he didn’t mean this decade,” went the running joke).

But even if he didn’t do enough to advance his ideals, boy he did articulate them. Yes, the 1984 convention speech was magnificent. But the speech that fall at Notre Dame was the one. Go read it. Called “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” it was learned and even profound here and there, and it was honest in a way I don’t think any politician would dare to be today. The seedlings of his potential greatness as a leader are sprinkled throughout it. He could have been the inheritor of what Bobby Kennedy was becoming when he was assassinated—the kind of pol who, through a combination of intellect and street sense, had that cross-racial demotic touch that too few liberals have. His track record as governor didn’t give us reason to think he’d have been a great president, but then, neither had Franklin Roosevelt’s; maybe the power would have made him more resolute.

But he was too ambivalent to seek that power. I know he was a big reader of Augustine, and it’s been many years for me since I cracked The Confessions, but I seem to recall something about the centrality of self-doubt. It was always sure central with him. I’m not saying he was a tender little flower. He did become governor, after all, in one of roughest-and-tumblest political environments in the country, and he lasted three terms. But self-doubt, while a healthy quality for human beings to have, is alas not a plus for politicians. (His son appears to have learned this lesson in spades.) Maybe that’s always what Cuomo wanted deep down: to be a good public citizen first and good politician only second. Would that more of them were like that.