The Man Who Didn’t Fake It

All politics is affinity politics. The issues are always complicated and what to do about any of them is never clear, if anything can be done about this or that at all, and new issues arise after elections anyway, stuff no one imagined would happen. Each candidate’s policy position on financial regulation or oil-drilling everywhere won’t matter much when Putin invades another country or some cop shoots another unarmed black teenager and there are riots in the streets – so voters do the only rational thing left to do. They vote for the candidate they feel that that they can trust, no matter what happens, because they can sense how that person might react to the unexpected, because he or she seems to be one of them, at least in temperament. FDR got himself elected four times as president because of that. He may have been a rich dude from back east, an Old Money sort, but he seemed to be a good guy, a man of the people, not the Old Money people.

Eisenhower pulled that off too. He was a boring middle-of-the-road Republican with few deep convictions about the evils of communism or fluoridation, but people knew they could trust the man. He was that quiet no-nonsense general who won the war in Europe, while Patton and Montgomery were all wounded pride and bluster. Eisenhower could get the job done, and he didn’t have to talk about it. He won his two terms easily, but his vice president, Richard Nixon, couldn’t win in 1960 – not enough people were comfortable with Nixon, who was, as everyone knew, a strange man. Jack Kennedy wasn’t a strange man – he was young and handsome and open and witty and smart, without pushing it, and his wife was elegant and just damned cool. What did Kennedy stand for? No one remembers, but he would make America young and cool again. Whatever happened, he’d figure it out.

Nixon went home to California and ran for governor out here in 1962, and we told him he was still a strange little man. He lost badly, and then he sneered at the press, telling them they’d have to find something useful to do for a change, because they wouldn’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore. It wasn’t pretty, and if Bobby Kennedy, another Old Money man of the people, hadn’t been shot dead out here in 1968, down the way at the old Ambassador Hotel, Nixon would have never been president. He was strange and mean and vindictive, but the Democrats had only Hubert Humphry left, and he was even stranger than Nixon. He was Elmer Fudd. No one wants Elmer Fudd in charge when the unexpected happens. Bugs Bunny always gets the better of him.

This sort of thing happens all the time. Ronald Reagan somehow passed himself off as a man of the people, all the people, but the first George Bush simply couldn’t. Bill Clinton could, and after Clinton, the second George Bush could. Al Gore, smart and competent and superbly qualified, was not a man of of people at all – he never even bothered to claim he was, because he was, after all, amazingly qualified to be president, and that young Bush fellow wasn’t – so he lost, as did John Kerry four years later, or the same reason. But they were right for the job, and no one had any “affinity” with either of them.

That matters. In 2008, the base of the Republican Party never much cared for John McCain. He could do the job if elected, but he wasn’t a real conservative – he hadn’t sided with them on many issues. He was, as he said, a maverick, and the base of party had a problem with that. He wasn’t one of them – so he chose Sarah Palin to run with him, a woman who obviously couldn’t do the job and would never be able to do the job, because she was wildly popular with the base. She may have been incompetent and proudly uninformed, but she was one of them – they knew that they could trust her instincts when the unexpected happened. Unfortunately, no one else felt that way, and Obama also had a bit of that Kennedy cool about him, and the endorsement of the remaining Kennedys. That was deadly.

Hillary Clinton was in a bind too. She was experienced and competent, and also rather unlikable. She didn’t come across as a woman of the people. She was only inevitable, which isn’t much to run on. Obama, a smart and careful and rather nice fellow, with little experience and few qualifications, sailed through, easily winning his party’s nomination and then the general election – and four years later he faced Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney was a man of the people, if “the people” are millionaires and a scattering of billionaires and corporate executives and hedge fund managers and the CEOs of the major banks. Romney didn’t stand a chance. Even telling his party that he was really, deep down, a “severe conservative” didn’t work, because he wasn’t. He had given Massachusetts an early version of Obamacare when he was governor there. He wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t one of anyone, really.

This is the problem every politician faces – succeeding in a system of affinity politics, with at least some authenticity. Out here in Hollywood they say if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made, but that’s harder in politics. Voters can smell a faker – Hillary Clinton’s major problem perhaps – and punish them. Thoughtful people who “get it” – who understand how life is lived here in America, when you’re not rich and famous and powerful – are rare, and they usually don’t get into politics. Some do. One did. And now he’s gone:

Mario Cuomo, the three-term governor of New York and liberal firebrand who soared onto the national stage with an eloquent attack on President Reagan at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, died Thursday at his home in New York City. He was 82.

His death was announced by his son, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He died of heart failure with his family beside him just hours after his son was sworn in for a second term.

Mario Cuomo was New York’s governor from 1983 to 1994. A fiery orator, he became one of the Democratic Party’s most forceful voices on the need to address economic inequality.

In his famous 1984 speech at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, the son of Italian immigrants criticized the record of then-President Reagan, arguing that the more accurate description of America was not Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” but a “Tale of Two Cities.”

That was his moment:

He wove a spellbinding narrative using lessons he said he learned as the son of a grocer in New York City.

“I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day,” Cuomo said in the televised speech. “I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet – a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language – who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.”

The convention hall was filled with shouts of “Mario! Mario!” but Cuomo was not seeking the nomination, even though some delegates regarded him as more compelling than Walter F. Mondale, whose loss to Reagan was one of the most lopsided in U.S. election history.

They should have gone with Cuomo, but he had no ambition to be president. He had his hands full with New York, but he did have a great back-story:

Cuomo was born in New York on June 15, 1932, the son of Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo. Both were immigrants from Salerno, Italy. His father dug sewers until he had enough savings to open a grocery store in a poor section of Queens. The youngest of four children, Cuomo was born in an apartment above the store. He spoke only Italian until he entered school.

After graduating from a Catholic high school, he was recruited by the Pittsburgh Pirates to play center field, but a head injury from a fastball during a minor league game prompted him to return to school. He attended St. John’s University in New York on a scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1953 and a law degree in 1956.

And then he started helping out, in local and then state politics, to make things better for folks, because he could. He didn’t want power, he wanted to make things better for folks, and he could do that in New York. He was never sure he could do the same in Washington:

As governor, Cuomo pushed education reform, promoted women and minorities, and created social programs that supported the mentally ill and AIDS victims. He repeatedly vetoed legislation to restore the death penalty in New York and closed the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant on Long Island. He was personally opposed to abortion but was one of the most prominent Roman Catholic supporters of abortion rights.

He just wanted to be fair about things, and that’s rare. Jonathan Alter says here that Cuomo’s allegory “of the United States as a family whose members take care of one another remains a more soulful and coherent governing philosophy than anything Democrats have managed since.”

Current Democrats fake that all too often, and former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol explains what Cuomo was saying:

That metaphor – the nation as a family – was a favorite of Cuomo’s, and, though it’s as timeworn and trite as a trope can be, Cuomo gave it new meaning – as a moral summons, as a philosophy of government, and as a rejoinder to Reagan’s emphasis on the individual above all. “We believe in a single fundamental idea that describes better than most textbooks and any speech that I could write what a proper government should be: the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings – reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race, or sex, or geography, or political affiliation,” Cuomo declared. “We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another.” This, he said, was the Democratic credo: “We believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need.”

On the floor, the speech brought catharsis. It was all the things that Democrats wished themselves to be but no longer felt they were as a party. It was bold, in its willingness to take on a popular President directly; it was unapologetic, stating its beliefs clearly and without equivocation; it drew its indignation from some inner store of strength and conviction, not from mere calculation.

Cuomo wasn’t faking it, but Michael Tomasky prefers another Cuomo speech about the separation of church and state:

Go read it. Called “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” it was learned and even profound here and there, and it was honest in a way I don’t think any politician would dare to be today. The seedlings of his potential greatness as a leader are sprinkled throughout it. He could have been the inheritor of what Bobby Kennedy was becoming when he was assassinated – the kind of pol who, through a combination of intellect and street sense, had that cross-racial demotic touch that too few liberals have. His track record as governor didn’t give us reason to think he’d have been a great president, but then, neither had Franklin Roosevelt’s; maybe the power would have made him more resolute.

But he was too ambivalent to seek that power. I know he was a big reader of Augustine, and it’s been many years for me since I cracked The Confessions, but I seem to recall something about the centrality of self-doubt. It was always sure central with him. I’m not saying he was a tender little flower. He did become governor, after all, in one of roughest-and-tumblest political environments in the country, and he lasted three terms. But self-doubt, while a healthy quality for human beings to have, is alas not a plus for politicians. (His son appears to have learned this lesson in spades.) Maybe that’s always what Cuomo wanted deep down: to be a good public citizen first and good politician only second. Would that more of them were like that!

James Fallows remembers him this way:

Among politicians of the past generation-plus seen as national-level contenders, he was the most accomplished and engrossing public thinker.

(This is also Obama’s strength, and presumably he will overtake Cuomo through the scale of the issues he has been involved in.) Most public officials know, or fear, that they need to buff away the complicated or challenging parts of their views before presenting them in public. That’s assuming they ever had, or kept, such thoughts. Mario Cuomo was notable in trying always to talk up to his audience, not down. You see that especially in his Notre Dame speech [on church-state]. It’s an example worth reflecting upon.

Rhetorical success, like presidential effectiveness, involves more separate elements than you might think. It helps to have a good voice and physical bearing; to have actor- or announcer-type skill in presentation; to have an ear for sentence-by-sentence euphony; and to understand the intellectual and emotional shape of speech. Mario Cuomo had all of these, and our public life was richer when he was an active part of it.

Time’s Joe Klein’s remembers the details, however, and remembers Cuomo’s principled opposition to the death penalty during the 1982 gubernatorial primary – even if all the polls showed the people were for it and his opponent, New York Mayor Ed Koch, was for it:

He made it the central issue of his campaign. We went from town to town in upstate New York, just a few of us – all the press and smart money were with Koch at that point. Mario would hold town meetings, knowing viscerally that he could only win their votes if they knew what kind of man he was. And he needed the death penalty for that. If they didn’t ask him about it, he’d ask them, “Doesn’t anyone want to ask me about the death penalty?”

He would tell them whether they wanted to hear it or not. He would tell the story of how one of his daughters was accosted by a thug on the street in Queens who burned her breast with a cigarette. “Did I want to murder that guy? Absolutely. My son Andrew got into the car with a baseball bat, looking for the guy. I would have torn him apart with my bare hands if I’d ever found him … But would have that been the right thing? No. It would have been the barbaric thing to do. That’s what we have government for – to protect us from the barbaric side of human nature.” The state, as an exemplar of moral rectitude, had to abide by the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”

People would come up to him after the meetings and say, “I’m still not sure I agree with you on the death penalty, but I certainly respect your position.” In the end, they decided to vote for him. They voted for him because Mario Cuomo was a man to respect, a man who respected them well enough to tell them what they didn’t want to hear.

They felt an affinity with him, and in the New Yorker, Ken Auletta insists here that Cuomo was “incapable of faking conviction” even if he had flaws:

History will not record that he was a great governor. His budgets were almost always late. His reflectiveness and reclusiveness did not dazzle legislative leaders. And his flight from San Francisco [after his 1984 convention speech], like his choice not to run for President in 1992, may have indicated a reticence that would not have served him well as President. Or maybe it camouflaged insecurity that was both disabling and wonderfully human. Unlike most politicians, who have no interior lives, he was worthy of a novel.

There is no novel, and Cuomo never ran for president, and Ben Smith tries to understand what happened:

Cuomo was a giant of the 1980s, in some sense the truest leader of the opposition. It would have been natural to imagine then that when the pendulum swung back to the Democratic Party, Cuomo and his policies would be elevated. Instead came Bill Clinton, who ran against his own party’s left and promised something new, something a little more respectful of Ronald Reagan than you would have expected, and something divorced from the party whose hero Cuomo had been. Clinton would have run against Cuomo, of course, had Cuomo run. But Cuomo’s son went to work for Clinton. And Andrew Cuomo – sworn in for his own second term in Albany the day his father died – has governed like a man who learned from his father what not to do. Andrew is an expert in the raw and unapologetic use of power, and a master of triangulation.

Andrew’s father wasn’t interested in such things, but David Frum throws cold water on all of this:

Cuomo never forgot his origins in the immigrant working class that idolized Franklin Roosevelt and elected John F. Kennedy. Cuomo memorably compared Walter Mondale to polenta, the bland, mushy cornmeal staple of the Italian poor. Cuomo’s most famous speech ended with this haunting evocation of his deceased father: “I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.”

Yet the huge majority of Italian-American voters, like the huge majority of Irish Americans, Polish Americans, and all the other white ethnic groups who once rallied to Roosevelt and Kennedy have now deserted Roosevelt’s and Kennedy’s party – not to return unless they have earned a college degree and gained comfortable professional work.

In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert shifts that perspective:

There were a lot of phrases that Cuomo liked to repeat, and most had a melancholy cast. “You go from stone to stone across the morass” was one. “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose” was another. Cuomo’s dark broodiness, his affinity for suffering, lent him moral gravity. His great gift – and it was an important one at the time – was to make listeners feel that politics was a serious business and that civic life matters.

Now THERE’S a concept. It was important at the time, but maybe it’s still important, and Kolbert ends with this:

Many times, I heard him say that the inscription on his gravestone should be a short one: “He tried.”

He did. Who is trying now?

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Man Who Didn’t Fake It

  1. Rick says:

    Back in the early 1990s, one Christmas present I could always count on was a renewal of my subscription to New York Magazine from my mother-in-law. I think she thought the reason I liked that rag was because I missed the city, but the real reason was I liked reading the Joe Klein columns, and when Klein left, I think to go to Time, I told her she could let the subscription lapse.

    My favorites of Klein’s columns were the ones he did on what he imagined were late-night visits Mario Cuomo got from Satan, who would drop by periodically in hopes of getting the wavering governor to run for president:

    “You have a great mouth, a masculine presence — long time since we had a Democratic nominee who was a stud — and now you’ve got the Kennedys, too. I can see all those toothy kids out there stumping for Cuomo. You have a chance to make politics glamorous for the first time since JFK. You add a few jocks, some talk-show intellectuals, movie stars, like Redford, and some of the Democrats’ greatest hits — guys like Jody Powell — to your entourage just to show you’re not parochial,” the Devil said. “It’s Cuomolot for real.”

    “You’re setting me up,” Cuomo said. “You work for Bush and those Mayflower boys. They always win.”

    “Oh, please. I remember the real Mayflower boys,” the Devil said. “Bunch of sexually repressed religious fanatics. I have much better luck with Catholics — at least you acknowledge my temptations. You let me get my foot in the door. Look at the fun I had with Kennedy. I need a man who consciously struggles against the power of evil: I may lose, but at least I’m in the game.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I was a big Cuomo fan. I thought he was the best thing we Democrats had! He was not just a great speaker, he was a great liberal thinker, maybe the only one of his day.

    Still, I would get frustrated at the beginning of every election cycle as the press would spin speculation on whether he’d put his politics where his brain was and declare his candidacy — speculation that seemed to go on way the hell too long for the good of the party, and would always end with his respectfully declining, but vowing to continue being a voice for blah blah blah, fade to silence.

    Oh, well, I would tell myself, at least he’ll keep articulating what Democrats should stand for — which is good, right? But as it turned out, not so much, since once the ghost of his candidacy went away, so did he, since the press would stop quoting him.

    But I did really enjoy Klein’s deconstructing the mind of Cuomo, who was, in my opinion, even today, a great American.

    And there’s always the chance that whatever potential we ultimately saw in Mario Cuomo was him at his best — a great speechifier, a great brain, a great articulator of the idea of the nation as family, but maybe, had he been elected president, possibly a great disappointment — a man who couldn’t deliver.

    We’ll never know, but I eventually gave up on him, finally realizing that this country really doesn’t need a president who has to work that hard at deciding whether he even wants the job.

    Rick

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