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Bob McCarthy: The continuing influence of Mario Cuomo

Robert J. McCarthy

There are few days in the State Capitol, or for that matter other places around New York, when Mario Cuomo’s name fails to enter the political discourse.

That’s inevitable when his son, Andrew, has reigned over Albany for the past seven years and is seeking a third term. It’s also inevitable when you consider the elder Cuomo’s impact on our state that continues to this day.

So the recent debut of a new Cuomo biography – “American Cicero: Mario Cuomo and the Defense of American Liberalism” – by Saladin Ambar (Oxford University Press) only rekindles the conversation. The author crafts a unique perspective of Cuomo as liberal icon – especially as his day’s most vocal and eloquent counterbalance to Ronald Reagan and the conservatism he championed.

“This challenge exceeded the ones presented by the likes of those who had failed to tackle this nascent conservatism (George McGovern), represented the dying flame of liberalism’s most successful days (Teddy Kennedy), or embodied its rich intellectual tradition (Patrick Moynihan),” Ambar writes. “Mario Cuomo posited a New Deal-style liberalism to be sure, but one that was more ardently ethnic and with the deep compromises along racial lines endemic to that coalition.”

Cuomo never bequeathed monuments to his time like Thomas Dewey’s Thruway, or Albany’s Empire State Plaza and sprawling SUNY system left by Nelson Rockefeller – unless you consider the many new prisons he deemed necessary. And Ambar’s work delves deeply into how outsiders recall him now – Hamlet on the Hudson ready to fly his presidential paperwork to New Hampshire and its primary – only to confound everybody by saying “no.”

“It was clear that Cuomo’s decision not to run had implications well beyond his own political career,” Ambar writes. “It was rightly seen, not only in the United States but also abroad, as likely heralding a shift in the Democratic Party and liberal politics into the future. And indeed, it was just that.” (See Bill Clinton).

“American Cicero” examines the speeches that catapulted Cuomo to the top echelons of U.S. politics and convinced many that his oratorical powers qualified him as presidential timber. They included his 1983 inaugural, his famous keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, a talk at Yale University in 1985, and of course, his defense of abortion rights at the University of Notre Dame that defined how “Cuomo wrestled with his Catholicism even as he became richly tied to its intellectual traditions and spiritual message.”

The Politics Column recalls many Cuomo conversations about that struggle, not from any point of view, but from the philosophical dilemma it posed then – and now. He reveled in it simply for the sake of intellectual jousting, whether in the center of American Catholicism at Notre Dame or “educating” some ink-stained wretch from Buffalo hammering out a Sunday column.

Ambar, meanwhile, recognizes Cuomo’s failures too. The governor often compared campaigning and its rhetoric to “poetry;” the hard part of governing was “prose.”

“Cuomo’s story was also one of serious failings,” he says. “It was Cuomo who pushed for and got enormous tax cuts as governor that ultimately contributed to the state’s budgetary crisis. It was Cuomo who promised large programs ... that came to naught. Cuomo tried to govern from the left and he suffered serious setbacks for it, a good number of his own doing.”

And of course, Ambar draws the inevitable comparison to the current Gov. Cuomo and the ever-present speculation about the presidency.

“His is a decidedly results-oriented administration,” Ambar writes of Andrew Cuomo. “But the language and attention to first principles is missing. And Andrew Cuomo views that as altogether welcome.”

This column occasionally dives into history because nobody can appreciate politics and government of today without understanding the past. How ever Andrew Cuomo differs from his father can be argued forever, but there can be no dispute about Mario Cuomo’s influence, and that the history of his time in the spotlight very much shines in the governor’s office today.

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