Mario Cuomo: The Greatness and the Fallacy

"We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees -- wagon train after wagon train -- to new frontiers of education, housing, peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way; blacks and Hispanics, and people of every ethnic group, and native Americans -- all those struggling to build their families and claim some small share of America. For nearly 50 years we carried them all to new levels of comfort, and security, and dignity, even affluence. And remember this, some of us in this room today are here only because this nation had that kind of confidence. And it would be wrong to forget that."

New York Governor Mario Cuomo
1984 Democratic National Convention
San Francisco, California

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo's passing on New Year's Day from a longtime heart condition allowed him to hear son Andrew inaugurated for a second term as leader of the Empire State but was inopportune for purposes of remembrance. A great family man and political figure in the tradition of Catholic social activism, Cuomo was perhaps the foremost liberal figure of the Reagan/Bush era.

His keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco was a ringing cry of opposition to the ascending conservatism of the time, stirring many of the delegates on hand and far more in the country at large to stand fast in defense of the New Deal programs of the 1930s and their successor programs as well.

Then New York Governor Mario Cuomo keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco galvanized liberals in the Reagan/Bush era and raised expectations that he would become president himself.

I was at Moscone Center for Cuomo's famous speech, having represented Senator Gary Hart, the highly competitive runner-up for the presidential nomination that year, on the convention arrangements committee.

The impact of Cuomo's speech, full of passion and purpose, was clear in real time. He was telling many if not most in the party what they wanted to hear. Stand fast amidst the winds of change. Be true to the established faith.

On one level, it was a wonderful message, urging liberals not to lose heart. On another level, it was a problematic message, urging fealty to an ossified view of the New Deal as dogma.

Franklin Roosevelt, in my view, was the greatest of our presidents and is my personal favorite (followed by Theodore Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Kennedy). FDR was not dogmatic in the least. He was a great improviser and experimenter, creating overlapping alphabet soup agencies in the evolving New Deal effort to bring America back after the near collapse of capitalism. In the process, America became more social democratic but not socialist.

FDR was firm in values and objectives, flexible and pragmatic as to means. As a result, he saved America from economic ruin and then guided it through the biggest war in world history, a multi-dimensional struggle in which a dogmatic approach would have guaranteed failure.

Roosevelt masterminded America's rise to the level of a dominant imperial power, just as his cousin Theodore had done earlier with regard to America becoming a great power. And he knew how to work a relationship with the Soviet Union, without which the war would have been far bloodier for the US, in ways his successors -- largely inept imperialists -- never grasped.

Mario Cuomo was a stalwart beacon for liberals in the time of Ronald Reagan. Yet he did not fulfill the dreams of the New York-centric media complex in going on to the presidency. He never actually tried.

Like some other really famous guys like Vladimir Putin and Deng Xiaoping and Tom Cruise, I met Cuomo but didn't know him. Still, I predicted in a memo for Hart, who led Cuomo and all others in the polls, that he would never run for president. In his life and work, he always stayed close to home, didn't travel much, focused almost entirely on domestic politics. Quite unlike the Presidents Roosevelt, also New York governors but figures who both cut their political eyeteeth in the then very consequential and expansive post of assistant secretary of the Navy.

But if Cuomo was not to be the president his East Coast cheerleaders hoped, not to be a visionary for a new time of complexity and challenge, he was something nearly as important and certainly as honorable.

A beacon for enduring core liberal values in a not infrequently wintry era. Reagan made conservatism seem inevitable. Cuomo helped many remember that it wasn't necessarily so.

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