Mario Matthew Cuomo was a rarity: a politician you could love.
Of course, if he were still alive and reading those words, I can imagine him rigorously parsing that sentence. He’d argue that he doesn’t fit into the category of “politician,” and he’d launch into a long, learned discussion on love. It would be, as always, a pleasure to hear him out, because one of his most endearing qualities was his boundless delight in the power of words, his vigilant guardianship of the English language.
Reporters are wisely wary of putting too much faith in any public official, and I’ve used that skeptical lens myself in writing long analytical pieces about Mario. But those he said-she said articles couldn’t mention how deeply I admired and enjoyed him. Now, retirement and sadness permit me to say some of that, leaving to others the balanced analysis.
My most vivid memory of him was on a flight to Indiana in September 1984, two months after his towering keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. We were headed for the University of Notre Dame, where he was to give a carefully crafted speech about abortion and the obligations of public officials. Knowing that this speech would stir a storm, we reporters kidded him that God wasn’t going to like it.
On the governor’s plane, one reporter donned a Roman collar and used make-believe holy water to sprinkle us against divine wrath. Moments after that goofy ritual, a horrific storm shook the plane violently. We joked, but we were scared. Someone screamed. The doors of storage bins flew open. Mario’s aide, Tim Russert, who later developed an image of fearlessness as a television sage, was terrified and bloodlessly white. A nonbelieving reporter blurted, “Oh, my God!”
But Mario remained supernaturally calm. I’m convinced that this reflected his belief that he was in the state of grace, on good terms with God. He was a man of faith who firmly embraced the church’s social teaching about serving the poor and seeking always the common good. He wasn’t driven by any poll, but by the bright polestar of his sense of right and wrong.
It was that sense that led him to stand up against the death penalty in his 1977 mayoral primary campaign against Ed Koch. He often told the story of his mother, Immaculata, warning him that if he persisted in opposing the death penalty, he’d lose. And he did. But he didn’t change his position. In the gubernatorial primaries in 1982, he again refused to support a new, wider death penalty bill, which Koch supported. That time, Mario won.
Fittingly, he revered a victim of capital punishment, St. Thomas More, for standing up for his beliefs — until his employer, King Henry VIII, had him beheaded. Another hero was the Jesuit priest-philosopher-scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. His works were rich and dense, but Mario actually read and understood, and liked to quote these Teilhardian words: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
In a way that stood apart from today’s rhetoric of the religious right, Mario was supremely comfortable with God language. A friend of his tells the story of visiting the little village in Italy where Mario’s parents had lived, and seeing a monument that boasted of their son, the governor. This friend later told him: “They gave you life, but you gave them immortality.” Mario corrected him: “They gave me life, but God gave them immortality.”
Though the Notre Dame speech aroused opposition by powerful prelates, Mario was an industrial-strength Catholic, guided by the church’s social teaching and grounded in its rituals. When we spoke by phone, he would invariably start with: “Keeler, say your Suscipiat,” a prayer that altar boys once said in Latin, and congregations now say in English. So I’d say the Suscipiat, and we got on with the conversation.
In any setting, conversation with him was fun. At news conferences, he was a master.
“No, no, that’s not the question you want to ask,” he’d tell reporters. “This is the question you want to ask.” And then he’d ask and answer it.
My earliest memories of conversations with him date back to his time as lieutenant governor, when his beautiful paneled office near the State Senate floor was a perfect spot to listen to his ruminations. And I loved sitting in his meetings with reporters, editors and editorial writers, where he outthought and outtalked them all, and still effortlessly finished eating his meal. It was like watching an elite athlete playfully dominating an opponent.
And Mario really was an athlete, an outfielder with big hands and a solid build. In fact, baseball was part of my last conversation with him. I’d expected to take five minutes to drop off a framed cover of a 1981 magazine piece I wrote about him. But this was Mario. Our chat went on for 45 minutes. A photo on his office wall led to a reminiscence of a 1985 event he shared with Mickey Mantle, when the iconic Yankee griped colorfully that Mario got a bigger signing bonus, though Mantle reached the Hall of Fame and Mario never got out of the low minors.
Self-deprecating stories like that were part of his persona. The reason he publicly gave for not running for president in 1992 was the need to stay in Albany and fight budget battles. But he told a friend in private that he simply couldn’t envision himself in that job.
His record as governor included significant accomplishments, such as his sterling, nonpartisan appointments to the Court of Appeals — including its first woman judge — and some things he regretted, like his massive prison-building.
So, if I had covered him daily for years, maybe I’d be more cynical about him. But what stays with me now, as it did when I left his office the last time I saw him: deep gratitude for spending time over the years with someone who was, as he might put it, sui generis — one of a kind.
Bob Keeler served as state editor of Newsday and is a former member of the newspaper’s editorial board.