The Once and Future Cuomo


The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in the March 3, 1987 edition of the Village Voice. Mario Cuomo died on January 1, 2015 at age 82.

I have known Mario Cuomo since 1970, when I wrote a piece about him as an unknown community lawyer fighting to save the homes of 69 families in Corona, Queens, from the bulldozers of the elitist urban planners. After that we became friends and he became a politician, and I stopped writing about him so we could remain friends. This week I am making an exception.

Less than an hour after he renounced the presidency, Cuomo was trying to explain his decision to a friend. He was saying:

“I just felt that running for president while I was governor was like cheating on your wife. I couldn’t rationalize spending 50 days in Iowa and 50 days in New Hampshire right after I had asked the voters to give me a new four-year term.”

I think that was the heart of it. Cuomo’s decision not to run was a revolt against the long, dehumanizing nominating process by a private man in public life.

Surely there were other factors: the chronic ache in his lower back that may require surgery; the lack of advisers with national political expertise; a fear of mobbaiting by the media because he is Italian; the impact a campaign would have had on his family.

Because of the abrupt way Cuomo withdrew, some people speculated there must be some terrible secret that he fears being exposed. But if there were any skeletons in Cuomo’s closet, they would have already come out in two elections for governor, especially last year, when the White House was already tracking Cuomo’s strength in the national polls and had access to information from public and private investigators.

However, the biggest factor was the irrational marathon nominating system that has discouraged other serious people. It is two years of suffering fools gladly; of media advisers saying you can’t be yourself; of strangers psychoanalyzing you; of no privacy; of rich people implying an obligation if they make a campaign contribution. And, for Cuomo, of urging compassion for the poor in unrepresentative, almost all-white states like Iowa and New Hampshire, while trying to govern New York from pay phones in airports.

Two days after his withdrawal, a relaxed Cuomo said to me: “Study the recent history. No one who was occupying an elective office has been elected president in a year that there was no incumbent president since John Kennedy. Nixon was in private life when he started running in 1966. Carter was a private citizen when he started running in 1974. Reagan was a private citizen between 1976 and 1980. Mondale held no public office between 1981 and 1984. Gary Hart is running full-time now. The last sitting governor who was elected was Roosevelt, and he didn’t have to campaign around the country for a year. I couldn’t run with one hand and try to govern with the other hand. I felt that instinctively.”

Mario Cuomo is one of the most complicated people I have ever met. He seems happier in adversity than in triumph. Although a remarkable orator and public performer, he seems more at piece writing in his diary and thinking alone than with the cheers of the crowd or with the perquisites of power. Under the surface, he still has the populist resentments of an immigrant’s son who couldn’t get a job in a Manhattan law firm after he graduated first class in his class at St. John’s Law School.

Cuomo also has the intelligent man’s distaste for the inevitable small deceptions of politics, which he has mastered but doesn’t enjoy. I have always suspected that if he had a secret choice, he would rather be on the Supreme Court than president of the United States. The Court’s logic and solitude fit his basic disposition.

The day after Cuomo’s withdrawal, Ted Kennedy called him to empathize. Cuomo jokingly told Kennedy: “I didn’t run because I didn’t want you to have the monopoly on conscience and substance. I’m going to be out there giving speeches and issuing white papers, competing with you.”

My hope is that Cuomo will use his abdication as the beginning of liberation, as Kennedy has. Cuomo now has a certain kind of freedom he never had before. His motives for taking positions will be less subject to cynical interpretation. If he visits South Africa, people will pay more attention to his words and won’t think he is doing it just to win black votes. When he went to Los Angeles and New Orleans this month, most people thought he was already running, even though he was only thinking about running. Because most politicians say the opposite of what they do, those who try to be truthful tend to be misunderstood.

Cuomo, in fact, has scheduled trips in the next few months to both the Soviet Union and Japan. These visits should further the process of post-abdication liberation. They should also serve to remind insiders that Cuomo, who is only 54, might choose not to run for reelection in 1990 and reluctantly submit to the awful process of spending two years in Ramada Inns as an unemployed nomad.

Part of the reason Cuomo didn’t run this time, I believe, is that he could not convince himself that he was indispensable to the county. He does not have a messianic streak. Only the belief that he was offering the country something original or unique would have been a sufficient rationalization to break his compact with the people of the state.

It is true that Mario Cuomo is not yet a historically irreplaceable figure like Lincoln and FDR, or as Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King have proven to be.

But I think Cuomo would have won. With Irangate, and with Reagan a lame duck, the tidal timing of history seemed right for him in 1988, just as the nation was ready for JFK in 1960 after two Eisenhower landslides and eight years of greedy, complacency, and entropy.

For Cuomo to allow this cup to pass without drinking required self-knowledge that tempered his ambition, the courage to say no, and a complicated view about the meaning of life.

Those are the qualities that make a good president. Perhaps that is why the last five presidents have been failures.