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Mario Cuomo Had the Most Divided Mind in Politics

The confessions of St. Mario

Pool/Getty Images News

Mario Cuomo, former three-term governer of New York, died Thursday at the age of 82. Journalist Sidney Blumenthal profiled the Democratic politician in 1991 as he was contemplating a presidential run, concluding that "the only institution in American politics more raucous and divided than the Democratic Party is Mario Cuomo's mind."

The political landscape is barren and windswept. A mournful silence reigns in the Democratic redoubts. If the Democratic primary were held in New Hampshire today, according to a recent poll, the winner would be George Bush. Up the Hudson River, in a soot-covered industrial town, within a neo-Gothic pile of five-foot-thick gray mason stones and red tile spires, is a chamber of dark, polished wood—the hallowed spot once occupied by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the chair of the governor of New York sits a man with deep lines in his face.

Mario Cuomo is besieged. The recession, which has brought about a steep decline in state revenues, stretches unendingly before him. He must slash $6 billion to balance his budget. His embrace of austerity and his opposition to a progressive tax increase he thinks would only accelerate an exodus of business from his state have put him in painful conflict with his own famous principles. His popularity, along with all the other numbers, is falling fast, bottoming below 50 percent.

To be sure, the picture of a man alone, facing nothing but rising difficulties, is not without its consolations. It fits his self-image as the lonely avatar of virtue. What would be an impassable barrier to normal politicians might be, to him, an invitation.

But to those who tell him to run for president, Cuomo says routinely that he has no plans to make plans.

"Don't run," I say.

"Why?" replies Cuomo. "Why would you tell me don't run?"

From the beginning of his career, Mario the contrarian has often bought when everyone was selling. He has gotten to where he is by taking on a series of hierarchies, not by making himself agreeable enough to be promoted by them. He trampled upon the party regulars who tried to send him back to Queens in humiliation. He pronounced his own conclusions on public policy contrary to those of conservative bishops, thereby demonstrating a point, especially crucial to Catholic voters, that is apart from religion: that he (and they) are infallibly American. But a common image of him outside of New York is as the personification of the traditional, custodial Democrat who repeats the party's ancient dogmas as if they were the Lord's Prayer. "I laugh," he says, hearing this description. "I've gotten so used to superficiality in analysis, it amuses me."

Cuomo's intensely felt resentment against entrenched establishments is at the heart of his contrarianism. In his imaginary dialogues, his opponents are always "they." The Wall Street law firms that denied his applications for employment after he finished first in his class at St. John's, the white-shoe characters like George Bush, and Republicans as a group are the main "they." But the Church and the party that have tried to impose their fiat on him are also fused into the corporate "they."

If "they" are indeed faced with a 1992 Cuomo candidacy, the Republican strategy, almost certainly, will be to turn him into the embodiment of the decline of the Democratic Party and New York City at the hands of liberal elites. But the prospectus for this negative campaign neglects Cuomo's greatest political strength. Cuomo comes from the social territory that appears in The Bonfire of the Vanities, but only in the cameo roles: the walk-on workaday figures, not the vice-ridden under- and overclasses. It is a parochial—but electorally significant—truth that Cuomo is the angry middle-class homeowner to whom the Republicans have pitched their appeal since the days of Richard Nixon.

In 1988, casting about for a political persona, George Bush rented Peggy Noonan's evocation of the postwar middle-class myth for his acceptance speech, making him seem to be one of "us." But Bush's rhetorical world is a place where Cuomo has really lived. Massapequa, Long Island, where Noonan grew up, is only a few miles from Queens. Her poetry about the odyssey of the middle class describes Cuomo's prosaic experience, not that of the patrician who paid the handsome fee for her phrasemaking.

Much of Cuomo's politics is adduced from his autobiography. But his real journey is not the one he celebrates. His odyssey was not from the Old Country to America, but from the city to the outer borough. He did not grow up tending vines in the Mezzogiorno; instead, as a young man he stepped across the baseline of the field of dreams wearing the jersey of a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. "I was," Cuomo has said, "in heaven." In baseball terms, the cultural divide between Cuomo and Bush is between the Georgia-leaguer and the Yale captain. To escape the story the Republicans wish to tell about him, he must, to begin with, get his rhetoric out of steerage. In spite of his tireless soul-searching, Cuomo is guilty of filiopiety to the neglect of his own epic. To the increasingly straitened middle class, it is an epic that could have considerable political and personal appeal.

On race, the deepest wound in American life, Cuomo has been adroit. His entrance into the public arena came as the successful mediator among warring racial and ethnic groups whose conflict over a Forest Hills housing project had seemed insoluble. In patiently explaining his liberal views on race to middle- and working-class whites, he has never antagonized them; he's accepted as a conciliator, since he too is from the neighborhood. Meanwhile, he has become a favorite of black voters, who preferred him by a 70 to 30 percent margin over Ed Koch in the 1982 gubernatorial primary. In the Tawana Brawley case, when a black teenager's false claim to have been raped by white racists aroused hysteria, Cuomo assigned to the case the state attorney general, Robert Abrams, who helped expose the fraud. In the racial attack on blacks in Howard Beach, Cuomo, over the protest of demagogic black leaders who wanted to prove the unfairness of the justice system, forced the naming of his friend Joe Hynes as the special prosecutor, who went on to win the convictions. In the Bensonhurst murder of a black youngster, Cuomo said, "Yusef Hawkins was my child," and attended the funeral.

But now the economic crisis has mutated new conflicts. The Black and Hispanic Caucus of the state legislature has insisted on casting the state's fiscal crunch as a black-white issue. One black representative denounced Cuomo as "racist" because of the budget cuts. The Caucus led a march on Albany, and black students protesting a tuition hike shattered the glass doors to his office. Cuomo has sought ways to avoid getting the state involved in the financial restructuring of New York City, in part to avoid the appearance of racial conflict with the black mayor, David Dinkins. So far, though, Cuomo, alone among New York's major Democrats, has managed to keep himself out of the swamp of pathological racial politics. Avoiding either demagogy or pandering, he has, in this fetid miasma, demonstrated political mastery.

So is he running or isn't he? This is always the wrong question. The problem for Cuomo is not his arguments with everybody from God to Bush, but his endless arguments with himself. The only institution in American politics more raucous and divided than the Democratic Party is Mario Cuomo's mind; this is why the roots of his indecision cannot ultimately be located in any poll or scenario. He is at once confident and insecure, angry and compassionate, a Vincentian-trained ratiocinator who may seem the captive of his logical method and an agitator able to move crowds on deep emotional levels. His speech is always limpid, but he remains enigmatic, even to himself.

"You're asking about me? Is that the question? I don't know that anybody knows himself well. Do I want to prove that I can achieve great things? No. I would have had to have run for president last time if that were the motivation. I did very well in the polls. A lot of smart people called me up and said, Mario, you can do this thing. My judgment is probably not as good as theirs as to the politics. They knew more about my chances than I did."

Cuomo's self-deprecation is a form of evasion. His beliefs, motives, and fortune are knotted together; they must all be securely fastened to pull him along. Cuomo believes in belief itself as much as he believes in individual articles of faith. As he portrays it, contradictions between his words and his record do not prove that he lacks conviction or has betrayed his ideas, but that he lives as a fallible man in a profane world—where the state senate and the national administration are in the hands of Republicans.

Because of his belief in belief, he judges Reagan and Bush on different scales. "Reagan," says Cuomo, "believed in his heart that you oughtn't to give money for social programs; they don't work. He thought he was doing God's work by cutting off the poor." Cuomo admires Reagan for his sincere belief, but deplores the doctrine. He praises Bush for his professed belief, but faults him for hypocrisy: "What he has done ... is to talk the game of compassion and commitment to all these problems nationally, but then not put up the resources... . He co-opts you until you get to the point where he has to prove that he meant what he said. If he proves it, then he's a Democrat and we may as well support him; or he doesn't prove it, and we run against him on that basis. If you're able to separate yourself from the Persian Gulf, which won't be difficult, that's what you're left with. You will be able to make the point with Bush that he admitted we were right about the need for national government, but that he didn't do it."

But Cuomo cannot do what he says must be done because he is immobilized by his budget. He has a ready explanation for his morass: it's the result of two Republican presidents' distortion of the proper roles of the federal and state governments. Cuomo blames New York's budget deficit on a "twin redistribution": responsibility for dealing with social problems downward, from the national government to the states; and wealth upward, from the middle class to the rich. The states now must raise revenues to cope with the federal dumping of programs. They do so through forms of taxation that tend to be regressive. At the federal level, meanwhile, the tax cuts have benefited mostly the wealthy and starved the government of resources. The problems mount as the means to deal with them wane; the squeeze promotes social anger and apathy.

For Cuomo, what is at stake is a first principle. "I believe deeply in the national government. This is what Hamilton warned against in the Federalist Papers. The simple point he makes is that in raising revenues, which you are going to need to expand, you need a national government that raises the wealth. If you leave it to the states, they will be pitted against one another and their strengths and usefulness will deteriorate. I'm a very strong believer that we need a strong national government. And President Bush has proven it. He couldn't have won the war without it. Oh, that's only for fighting wars? The federal government has abandoned to a great extent its obligation on national concerns. They"—Cuomo's "they" again—"have gotten away with it politically."

For his own part, Cuomo is constantly examining and re-examining his motives. He might like us to imagine him donning a monk's coarse robe, using a cold stone for a chair, and writing with a quill in his diary into the dark early morning hours. He demands our forbearance for the pose of exquisite indecision. "Jewish guilt runs a very distant second to old-fashioned Catholic guilt," he says. "I was raised with the specter of sin, damnation, and selfishness as the ultimate sin. The whole ideal theologically was to deny yourself. Ambition was a sin. There is in all of us in that generation an unwillingness to accept the importance of self. I should run to my mother and say, I'm running for president? Every time I think of that as a possible motive I run in the other direction."

Temporal success, he suggests, is never for him the measure of success. "You can do things that are absolutely right and even noble and be condemned," he says. "You can do things absolutely ignoble, absolutely wrong, and be cheered. So there is no relationship between the nation saying you should be our leader and your own good performance... . That is my belief. It could be naive." Or it could be false modesty, a modesty that is part of the impressive performance of appearing to commune with higher spirits.

Cuomo thinks about his ambition by reflecting on the lives of secular saints. These icons are for him masks and ideals—projections of his own ambiguities and tensions. One of his saints is Thomas More, the martyr. Another is Lincoln. "I love Lincoln," says Cuomo. "He was fallible, inconstant, sometimes self-indulgent, wrong, afraid, confused, beset by all the temporalities, just like Cuomo and everyone I know. He wasn't a superman, not a myth, but a real person." (Last year Cuomo delivered a lengthy speech on Lincoln's legacy at Gettysburg and co-edited with Judge Harold Holzer a volume of his writings and speeches, Lincoln on Democracy.) "Ambition?" Cuomo asks rhetorically. "Lincoln wanted to achieve in his own life, but it's hard for me to believe that it was just egocentric."

Cuomo's moral pride—his moral vanity, really—makes him cloak his own ambition in a holy raiment. Only if defeat seems all but certain can the purity of a candidate's motives be placed beyond question. By seeking an office others believe cannot be won—the presidency in 1992—he would keep his motives unassailable, especially in failure. Were he then to succeed, of course, he would appear greater than all.

Cuomo is unchastened by his pre-war stab at expertise in foreign affairs, when he was roundly criticized for his proposal that the United States negotiate with Saddam Hussein rather than go to war, and wound up lamely explaining that he was only speaking in the hypothetical. Now, as the fog of euphoria lifts, revealing the plight of the Kurds and Saddam still in power, Cuomo believes the foreign policy question can be finessed. "Bush was in difficulty with the Gulf situation in the beginning because it was confused," Cuomo says. "He said it wasn't oil or jobs. He got it down to 'Saddam is Hitler,' the best rationale. That worked very well. Now he and we as a nation are being challenged by that rationale. If Saddam is Hitler, the devil, then you confuse me… . What is your rationale, Mr. President? You're confusing us."

Of course, a confused administration does not make for a lucid opposition. Why don't the Democrats speak up? Because, says Cuomo, they're "frightened and reluctant—and they deny themselves a lot of positions. I think we're afraid to be Democrats. Maybe we're mesmerized by the polls. But if you're going to deny yourself, you can't distinguish yourself sufficiently from the Republicans." Lacking belief in what ought to be their principles, the Democrats shun the risks that might lift them from their quandary.

Yet Cuomo himself has yet to prove that he is capable of taking the ultimate risk—that of a national candidacy. As a governor, he bears the burden of a paralyzed government, making it impossible to offer the example of its efficacy. He would have to overcome the skepticism of government that has infected much of the middle class, which has moved itself to the suburbs, where it purchases a discrete form of government—and social insulation—for itself. Cuomo's middle-class identity could help him leap the enormous gap between their disbelief and his promise. But this will demand more than another eloquent statement of his credo. Fortune is more than the odds or the opportunity, and the one who seizes it is more than an opportunist. In the end, the politician who does not attend to power cannot defend his larger purposes. Virtue without power is lifeless.

Underneath the glass covering his desk, Cuomo keeps a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. The governor reads it aloud to me, as if declaiming to a filled hall:

Build thee more stately mansions, oh my soul.
As the swift seasons roll,
Leave thy low-vaulted past.

Next to his desk he opens a door. One steps into the magnificently restored Executive Chamber of marble and mahogany. Brilliant light streams through the stained-glass windows circling the vast high-ceilinged room. Perhaps this ceiling is tall enough for Cuomo's ambitions after all. If it is, then his political career is near its end.