I was one of the reporters camping out at the courthouse in Concord, New Hampshire, in December 1991, waiting for Godot… er, Cuomo.
Even then, most of us doubted he would show up and actually sign the papers allowing him to enter the 1992 New Hampshire primary. The New York Times had reported earlier that fall that Governor Mario Cuomo had spent only 36 nights out of more than 1,300 as governor in a bed other than his own at the Executive Mansion in Albany. The man just didn’t get out enough to be president.
But for liberal Democrats, the questions remain: Would he have won the presidency in 1992, and if he had, would the country have experienced a restoration of the New Deal and the Great Society and the liberal governing values he articulated so well?
The answer to both questions is no.
Cuomo, who died Thursday at 82, was a wonderful bundle of complex and often contradictory qualities: thrilling and exasperating; warm and acerbic; tough-minded and curiously naive about political realities outside New York.
His speeches, which he wrote himself, were frequently brilliant, even if they too often pointed backward instead of forward. His description at the 1984 Democratic Convention of the United States as a family whose members take care of one another remains a more soulful and coherent governing philosophy than anything Democrats have managed since.
Cuomo was a challenge to cover as reporter—combative and thin-skinned—but always enlightening and invigorating, whether slicing up Republicans or explaining that if his name had been “Mark Conrad” instead of Mario Cuomo, he would have been hired by Wall Street law firms that rejected him in the 1950s.
When a reporter asked him a question, it would often elicit a series of Jesuitical responses. Once, after he flung every word of my question back in my face as if I were a sixth grader at a rigorous Catholic school, he called me at home to make up. My wife answered and thought it was a friend impersonating the governor. She let slip that I was out having my pants fixed. For years, Cuomo gave me a hard time every time we crossed paths about whether I had cuffs or pleats. “How are those pants?” he’d ask, with a taunting smile that other politicians, anxious to curry favor with the press wouldn’t dare.
In those years, Democrats and underworked pundits (it was a pre-Internet age when most insights were for the bar, not the Web) engaged in endless Cuomo what-ifs.
Had he run in 1992, he would likely have beaten Bill Clinton for the Democratic nomination, if only because Clinton was badly wounded in early primaries by revelations that he dodged the draft and cheated on his wife.
But while Clinton defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush that year, I don’t think Cuomo would have done so. In 1988, Bush knew just how to destroy another Northeast liberal ethnic governor, Michael Dukakis, and he would likely have done the same to Cuomo.
Cuomo would have fought back harder against Bush than Dukakis did; it’s difficult to imagine him replying blandly to a question about what he would do if his wife was raped and killed, as Dukakis famously did in a 1988 debate. But like Dukakis, Cuomo opposed the death penalty, and this would have likely posed an insurmountable obstacle that year, with crime still a huge problem across the country.
Recall how Clinton returned to Arkansas from the campaign trail to preside over the execution of a mentally disabled man. Such was the importance of showing the country that he was a “different kind of Democrat.”
Cuomo was not different then. Independents and moderate Democrats would have seen him as the same old, same old; a liberal who wanted to give their hard-earned money to poor people. Ross Perot, whose presence in the race helped sink Bush, would have drawn much more from Cuomo than he did from Clinton, who ran to the center that year.
Had Cuomo somehow won, he would have been a compelling president; the most blunt-speaking since Theodore Roosevelt and the most intellectual since Woodrow Wilson.
But it’s hard to imagine him getting much done, especially after the House went Republican in 1994. Americans in the 1990s were ready to move past the liberal solutions of the past, even if the unintended result was the hollowing out of the middle class.
Cuomo was among those consumed by the 1994 election. (He lost his bid for a fourth term to George Pataki that year.) His time had passed.
His son, Andrew, sworn in with great sadness for his second term as governor of New York on the day his father died, has tried with some success to update his approach to governing.
But the qualities Mario Cuomo brought to public life—compassion, integrity, commitment to principle—remain in short supply today.
Cuomo’s best-known line, that “you campaign in poetry and govern in prose” didn’t really apply to him. He campaigned and governed in poetry, and we are all the richer for it.