When I first heard that Mario Cuomo passed away, my thoughts were of him as a man just like my father. Both were born in the New York City borough of Queens, both were Italian, and both grew up to have ideals and values that were unshaken by the hard realities of the world. My father did well enough for himself, but Mario rose to national and international prominence – a real case of a local boy doing extremely well.
After his death he was being called a “liberal lion” or “Hamlet on the Hudson” by those who remember his career, but that does nothing to qualify his true legacy – one as a voice for the regular people like those he knew growing up and living in Queens. His common touch was always evident, as was his deep love of his wife and children.
He came from simple origins – his parents were Italian immigrants. They owned a grocery store and Mario often worked there to earn some cash. This humble beginning is more reminiscent of Lincoln growing up in a log cabin (read his book Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever) than all those guys with rich fathers who run for office. He was grounded in his Catholic faith and ended up at St. John’s University, where he played baseball and even had a shot at the major leagues until getting hit by a pitch in the head, ending thoughts of a big league career.
At St. John’s Cuomo would meet Matilda Raffa, and they would end up getting married and settling where else but in Queens, the borough that he loved. Mario would go to St. John’s Law School and, when someone suggested that he change his last name to a less ethnic sounding one, Cuomo refused. His identity as an Italian-American was as much a part of him as his Queens upbringing.
This background prepared him for politics – where a streetwise New Yorker would rise to the top of the political food chain in this state (he served as governor of New York for three terms) and become a national voice for the Democratic Party. Many will recall his famous speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco; his oratory would always be one of his most talked about skills. It is easy to see why this eloquent and passionate countering of then President Ronald Reagan’s assertion that America was a “shining city” with the notion of a “tale of two cities” really blew away the fantasy that all was well with everyone in this country. Cuomo made it clear that there were the haves and have-nots in America, the latter being those with whom he was intimately familiar.
While Cuomo was known for standing up for the common folk here in New York and across the country, that speech started getting attention from people looking for a candidate to run for President of the United States. As Cuomo would consider running and then not seek a candidacy several times, he earned that nickname “Hamlet on the Hudson.” This conjures images of his roaming the castle keep (actually the governor’s mansion in Albany) debating the matter in his head just as the titular character from Shakespeare’s great tragedy did when confronting varying thoughts about how to capture the conscience of the king (his uncle who murdered his father).
All of this doesn’t begin to tell the story of the life of the man who was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, a supporter for women’s right to abortion (causing a clash with the Catholic church that he loved), and a staunch defender of the little guy over the big machine – whether it be political or corporate. When he turned down the chance to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Clinton, Cuomo was opting to stay local as opposed to going out of his hometown for the rest of his life.
My Uncle Frank was a local politician in Queens, and he got to brush shoulders with state and national big names. He always fondly recalled having a drink (turns out it was few) with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill who told him that, despite all the press to the contrary, he really liked Ronald Reagan. My uncle loved living in Queens, and he used to say “All politics is local” (which I later learned he borrowed from old Tip). Still, in essence, this is what defines Mario Cuomo’s life and career. Everything he did was grounded in his attitudes and beliefs forged from whence he came.
One can only speculate what the legacy would have been for Cuomo if he had run for president; however, his three terms as governor saw him improve the fiscal health of the state and much of its infrastructure. During this time his eloquence and intelligence brought him national recognition, and there is no question that he affected the history of New York State even after he left office, guiding his son Andrew as he rose to eventually be elected as governor just as his father had.
If Shakespeare had been writing the story, he couldn’t have created a better or more bittersweet ending than having the son Andrew giving his acceptance speech for his second term in office as governor while the father Mario lay dying. This is, however, not a tragedy like Macbeth or King Lear, for the former governor died with dignity, with an honorable legacy, and surrounded by a family that had been the most important part of his life.
My admiration of Cuomo has little to do with politics and more to do with the man himself. It would be difficult for anyone from Queens not to appreciate his love for the area. He was also an Italian-American who made anyone of that heritage extremely proud, but he stood not for just them but anyone who was working class and struggling to make ends meet. He understood intimately that those people are the essence of what made this country great.
Mario kept in touch with where he came from and never forgot that despite rising to the highest office in the state. He spoke passionately for the people who needed to be heard – the ones (as Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey notes so eloquently in the film It’s a Wonderful Life) who do most of the living, working, and dying in this country. If nothing else, Mario Cuomo should be remembered as always being on the side of the little guy, and that makes him a towering figure whose legacy shall not be forgotten.
Photo credits: cnynews.com,ronkaplansbaseballbookshelf.com, nydailynews, nytimes, timesunion.com
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