Charleston, S.C. - Mario Cuomo, governor of New York, came to town on Saturday the 16th. Before an exceptionally well-heeled audience, he gave a luncheon speech that was Old No. 1. As an example of the forensic art, it was spectacular. I've heard the governor many times before. He was at his best.
A brassy lady with orange hair caught up with me outside the ballroom door. She was the wife of one of the Fortune 500 executives who were having a conference here. ''Whaddid ya think?'' she asked. I said it was a remarkable performance.
''Piffawmance!'' She was not impressed. ''Shuah, some piffawmance. But tell me -- whaddid he say?''
As a matter of fact, the governor said a great deal, and a great deal of what he said made great good sense. But the lady with the Sunkist hair was right. A pundit has no business covering Cuomo. This is a job for the drama critic. The gentleman is the best freestyle, ad lib, catch-as-catch-can orator in public life today.
No one in either party is even close. Jesse Jackson is good. Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., when he gets all wound up, is top chop. If he could just get his voice down an octave, New York's Sen. Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., would be in the first rank. A couple of other senators -- Hollings of South Carolina, Bumpers of Arkansas -- are stem-winders of the old school. But nobody plays the harp like Mario.
Mr. Cuomo begins with a few jokes. He tells them superbly. One joke recalls the time he was introduced by an Albany mayor who had wearied of introducing him. The mayor looked up ''governor'' in the dictionary. Then he introduced Cuomo as ''a device attached to a machine to see that it does not operate improperly.''
He recalls the first time he went to the White House during the Reagan administration. Senator Moynihan brought him forward to introduce him to the president. Mr. Reagan needed no introduction. Smiling at Mr. Cuomo, Mr. Reagan said he would know Lee Iacocca anywhere. After the laughter dies, with perfect timing Mr. Cuomo confesses that he was on the verge of saying, ''Well, Mr. President, to some people we all look alike.''
Watching Governor Cuomo in action is like watching an eggbeater whip up meringue. His hands never stop. He snaps his fingers, jabs at the crowd, makes a fist, prays to high heaven. This was a tough bunch. I looked around. Nobody was whispering to anybody. Mr. Cuomo spoke for almost an hour, and he held them all the way.
After the jokes, he got serious. The stock market had fallen 120 points on Friday. Mr. Cuomo mocked the president and Congress for assuring the people that things are getting better. What was the market saying? ''We don't believe you!''
We are at a turning point, Mr. Cuomo believes. Nothing will be accomplished until the critical situation is acknowledged. Somberly, he dwelled upon the human aspects of the recession. Sixteen million people are out of work! You can feel the pain! He spoke of a secretary in Albany who seemed unusually happy. ''My husband has found a job!'' Mr. Cuomo repeated it: ''My husband has found a job!''
At times Governor Cuomo speaks as if he were playing scales at concert speed. Facts, figures, ideas, anecdotes, small jokes -- they rise and fall in fountains, in arpeggios, in glissandos of statistics. He talks about people in poverty, about school dropouts, about people who have no health insurance, about a woman who came up to him on a New York sidewalk, crying in despair. Her husband has cancer. Their savings have been wiped out. Mr. Cuomo looked all choked up.
Without getting maudlin, the governor recalls his beginnings. His immigrant father at first was a ditch-digger -- a ditch-digger! Neither parent could read or write either English or Italian. But they made it. They ran a grocery store. They made it! They believed in the American dream. They believed that every generation would do better. ''We can't take the American dream for granted any longer,'' says Mr. Cuomo. ''We cannot leave things the way they are.''
He plunges into his 10-point program: more capital, more investment, a lowered tax on capital gains, greater emphasis on education, a rebuilding of the infrastructure. It will be painful. Some entitlements must be cut. Wealthy families must pay higher taxes. He has said all this before. He says it well.
The governor of New York at 59 is slim and trim and getting bald. He's a presence. If he decides to run for the White House, George Bush will have a fight on his hands.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.