Hamlet's Passing: Mario Cuomo, Rest in Peace

Mario Cuomo

image courtesy of New York Historical Society

Hamlet's Passing: Mario Cuomo, Rest in Peace
| published January 2, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

He became arguably the most famous presidential candidate never to run for President of the United States. At one time, some within the Democratic Party regarded him as the natural successor to the almost mythical legacy of the Kennedys—a passionate liberal with a pragmatist’s ability to get things done through negotiation and hard work.

Indeed, there was a moment in the middle-to-late 1980s, and well into the start of the 1990s, when Mario Cuomo—then Governor of New York—was considered the man to beat among Democrats. Cuomo carried more weight and more credibility, some believed, than Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, John Glenn, Michael Dukakis, or any one of a dozen other potential candidates at that time.

Walter Mondale was the party’s nominee in 1984, but he won the battle only after a bruising challenge by the much younger, seemingly more energetic Gary Hart. The two candidates could not have been any more unlike each other: Mondale was a bland party regular in the patronage-based mainline tradition of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey; Hart was a reformer, a quasi-intellectual, and a direct descendant of the progressive movement within the party. Mondale and Hart represented factions still largely engaged in a bitter struggle which dated back to Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy’s challenges to LBJ at the height of the Vietnam War. Though their DNA clearly defined them both as Democrats, Mondale and Hart were combatants in an old family feud—sparring for the votes of party loyalists in a fight similar to fights between Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern in 1972, or between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008.

Mondale would win the intra-party struggle, but go down to an infamous defeat at the hands of the popular Ronald Reagan in 1984. Reagan’s landslide victory was so overwhelming—Reagan won every state except Minnesota and the District of Columbia—that it was widely assumed the “Mondale Wing” of the party was finished, and that the youthful, handsome and chiseled Hart was heir-apparent for 1988—a progressive, a reformer, and a guy a vaguely handsome as John F. Kennedy.

But it was not to be. Hart, the presumed front-runner, would self-destruct in a nasty implosion of his own making. Democrats, looking toward 1988, turned their attention again to the traditional business of questing for that King Arthur, someone able to return the party to its days of glory.

For some, the man that could lead them from the wilderness was Mario Cuomo—the son of Italian immigrants deeply embedded in the Democratic Party's long post-FDR tradition of liberalism and social equality. In 1984, he would deliver what many regard as one of the most impressive and passionate speeches to a political convention in the 20th century—a speech so powerful and so resonate that despite his relatively short tenure as governor, he was thrust—reluctantly, some would say—onto almost everyone’s short list for an inevitable presidential run.

Mario Cuomo was as New York as it gets. Born in the Briarwood neighborhood of Queens in 1932, to a father from Nocera Inferiore, Italy and a mother from Tramonti, Italy, he attended public school while his parents ran a small retail store in the busy South Jamaica section of Queens. Cuomo made good grades in school, and later, he attended the Catholic-run St. John’s Preparatory School in Queens. Like many kids in New York, his passion was baseball, and his skills on the field very nearly landed him a multi-year contract with the Pittsburg Pirates in 1952. He was fast enough, and had a good enough arm, to convince the Pittsburg office to pay him an advance of $2000—not chump change in those days—to sign with the team as an outfielder. After playing for a brief period in the early 1950s, he was injured by a baseball—beaned on the back of the head by an errant pitch in the days before helmets were required. Cuomo changed course, went to law school at St. John’s University, and graduated in 1956 at the top of his class (he was tied for first place among all the students).

Decades before a young Barack Obama would begin his stint as a neighborhood organizer in Chicago, Cuomo forged the same trail in Queens, organizing residents in a famous fight between homeowners and residents, and the school system of New York over the construction of a new high school. The school’s footprint would have required the demolition of more than sixty homes and apartments, and the young attorney helped stop the project. That political battle would set him on a path toward similar fights, and by 1972 then-Mayor John V. Lindsay picked Cuomo to supervise a state-wide inquiry into housing fairness issues in crowded New York City, where low-income housing often competes for space with upscale homes and neighborhoods. That high-profile job drew much attention, and from that point on Cuomo was a rising star. He became New York Secretary of State in 1975, and continued to be a force within the fractious politics of New York City.

He ran for mayor of New York in 1977 in what would become one of the most bitterly contested mayoral races in modern times. Urged by supporters and liberals to challenge the unpopular incumbent Abraham Beame—the man who had presided over the city’s bankruptcy, default, and the disastrous July 1977 New York City blackout—Cuomo entered a crowded field of Democrats in what became a fragmented, raucous primary. Ed Koch narrowly took first place, with Cuomo one point behind him. But the vote was also split among Beame and seven other candidates, including Bella Abzug and Percy Sutton. Koch and Cuomo were thrust into a runoff, which turned sharply negative and nasty. Koch would win, but in the process Cuomo was now a rising star within the Empire State’s Democratic Party. The mayor’s race had also demonstrated that Cuomo had the capacity—even as an unabashed liberal champion—to reach out to some heavily-Republican areas of the city to draw votes.

Cuomo had to do battle once again with Ed Koch in 1982 when they each ran for governor upon the retirement of Hugh Carey. Cuomo ran a better campaign, and delivered what many described as transformative campaign speeches. Koch, meanwhile, shot himself in the foot several times, including in an interview with Playboy magazine in which he seemed to insult the lifestyles and social conventions of people living outside the city, and declared suburbs and exurbs to be “sterile.” Cuomo won the primary easily, but only barely squeaked by his Republican opponent in 1982, Lewis Lehrman.

Shortly afterward, Cuomo’s presence on the national scene was assured and solid. Backing Mondale in 1984, Cuomo became the party’s most famous rising star, and after being nudged aside in favor of Geraldine Ferraro as Mondale’s running-mate, Cuomo was offered the coveted role of Keynote Speaker at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. His speech was so powerful and so eloquent, and contained such a forceful message of opposition to Ronald Reagan, that many Democrats at the time wondered aloud if the party had nominated the wrong man by choosing Mondale. Despite Reagan’s enormous popularity and store of goodwill, Cuomo challenged the themes and tenets of Reaganism on a grand scale. The mainstream press and media immediately elevated Cuomo to the top of their watch list, and—aside from the party’s progressives and reformers who seemed to fall into a column behind Gary Hart—Cuomo became everyone’s man-to-beat.

Mondale was buried by Reagan in November in a stunning landslide, and Democrats looked to 1988 as their open year. Cuomo loomed so large that he became a sort of 500-pound gorilla in any room of Democrats, or Republicans, for that matter. Hart was considered vulnerable, but until proven otherwise, he was heir-apparent. But Hart’s self-destruction in 1987 cleared the field, and quickly realigned the map for the party—leaving a crowded field of second-tier and third candidates which included the largely unknown names of Bruce Babbitt, Dick Gephardt, Paul Simon, Joe Biden, Patricia Schroeder, and others, an unimpressive gaggle which became known as “The Seven Dwarfs.”

But Cuomo vacillated, waffled, flirted—and eventually deferred. Democrats turned briefly to Reverend Jesse Jackson, or Tennessee’s Al Gore, with many people lamenting Cuomo’s absence in the field. Dukakis would win the nomination, with final results similar to Mondale’s trouncing in 1984. Vice-President George H.W. Bush would defeat Dukakis roundly in November, giving the GOP another four years in the White House. Bush would be seen to have maintained a better-than-average Presidency, but the Gulf War would bring him enormous success and popularity—and for a brief period his approval ratings would soar north even of Reagan’s best numbers.

Looking toward 1992, Democrats again yearned openly for a leader, a leader, a standard-bearer who could bring warring factions together and forge consensus among progressives and liberals, between party reformers, party regulars, and the complex outcrops of shifting demographic base. With Bush’s approval rating setting a record high—exceeding 89% in the days and weeks after the conclusion of the Kuwait operations—numerous top-tier candidates withdrew or deferred: Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Bradley, Geraldine Ferraro, Sam Nunn, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Tom Foley. None had the stomach to endure bruising primaries and caucuses, followed by certain defeat in November of 1992. Once again, the party was left with what clearly appeared to be a cadre of lightweights, dwarfs, and long-shots. Among them were Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Jerry Brown (then former California Governor), and a little known former Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.

Again, Democrats yearned openly for someone to save the day—a candidate with the ability to not only bring harmony to the warring family factions, but someone whose message could resonate with voters perhaps ready for a change from 12 years of Reagan-Bush-Qualye. Cuomo was encouraged to run—privately, publicly, and even by scores of editorial writers, liberal columnists, editors and publishers. As the Clinton campaign gathered early steam, many Democrats worried openly that 1988 would be another disaster. The pressure on Cuomo was intense, and even Republicans watched his every speech, his every TV appearance, his every facial tick and smile for a sign of his intentions. Though he had stated publicly that he “had no plans” to run for President, few people took that vague statement as anything other than a proclamation that he would not rule it out. Publicly he would refuse ruling out a run; privately he assured friends, family, supporters, and innumerable top Democrats that the door was not closed, and that he would consider it if he felt the grassroots support was out there. This fueled weeks of mounting speculation that he would run, and kept reporters busy trying to second guess Cuomo’s increasingly cryptic remarks. After privately-conducted polls showed that Democrats were nervous and uneasy about Clinton, and major newspaper polls showing Cuomo leading all other Democrats by a wide margin, he agreed in private to consider a run. One poll, taken in late November 1991, showed Cuomo trailing Bush (48% to 44%) in a theoretical match-up—the closest of any Democrat, Clinton included.

Reporters and journalists, filled with an equal share of fascination and frustration, dubbed the evasive, illusive Cuomo “the Hamlet of the Hudson.” So great was the talk of a Cuomo candidacy, that even many Republican strategists believed it was only a matter of time before pressure would push the governor into the open, and GOP planners began to draw up battle plans which factored in Mario Cuomo as the likely November opponent.

But caught up in a complex and high-stakes budget and spending negotiation with Republicans in New York State, Cuomo deferred again, agreeing to enter the New Hampshire primary by filing in person the night of the deadline, December 20…but only if he could resolve his budget stalemate in Albany. Required under New Hampshire law to sign and file in person, Cuomo requested that a fully-fueled, fully-crewed jet be standing by at the airport, with his bags packed. Between negotiating sessions, he drafted two statements to the media—one announcing his candidacy, the other explaining that he would not run. Unable to resolve the budget issues in Albany, Cuomo deferred again, at least in New Hampshire, though he still did not completely close the door.

Infuriated, but also excited by the fact that he had not said no to future primaries and caucuses, Democratic liberals quickly organized a massive write-in campaign—allowed under New Hampshire law. Asked by reporters if he supported or opposed a draft movement, he again waffled. And though the write-in campaign produced thousands more signatures than required as the minimum, on Primary Day in New Hampshire he received about 4% of the vote—behind Paul Tsongas, Bill Clinton, Bob Kerry and Tom Harkin. Cuomo asked that the volunteer group shut down, and that other such draft movements reconsider.

Cuomo stayed in New York that season, and Bill Clinton went on to win his party’s nomination. Clinton would surprise many Democrats that fall be defeating the incumbent George W. Bush, and many an old school liberal bemoaned for years the great Cuomo candidacy that never was (I was living in liberal Tallahassee, Florida at the time, and I knew scores of progressives who—though they were guardedly happy about Clinton’s victory—wept for the lost opportunity to send a Kennedy-style liberal back into the Oval Office to restore the luster and shine to the process of championing social justice, and to claim again political kinship to a President who could deliver genuinely soaring oratory).

Cuomo never ran—officially—for the Presidency. Instead, he served three complete terms as governor, and ran for a fourth term in 1994. He lost that race to Republican George Pataki, in part because of the tide of GOP gains made that year nationally, in part because his position on capital punishment—he was steadfastly opposed to it under any circumstance—conflicted with the popular sentiment in the Empire State at that time.

Cuomo also came very close to a position on the U.S. Supreme Court when—upon the announcement that Byron White was retiring from the bench—President Clinton put Cuomo at the top of the short list of replacements. But Cuomo rejected the offer shortly before Clinton could make it official.

Cuomo died of heart disease after a long illness. Cuomo has five children. His son Andrew Cuomo is currently the governor of New York, and his son Chris Cuomo is a correspondent for CNN. The elder Cuomo died on New Year’s Day, the same day that his son Andrew was being sworn in for the start of his second term as governor of New York.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Ben Bradlee, Legendary Washington Post Editor, Dies; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 22, 2014.

Book review: The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power; review by R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review