Mariomania hangover

MARTIN NOLAN

December 26, 1991|By Martin Nolan

FOR Democrats, the 10-week binge of Mariomania was exciting and left only a residue of empty calories. After the withdrawal of Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York Friday, six major presidential candidates remain, and life moves on.

For the media, however, Mariomania has left a massive hangover. Betrayed by a skewed sense of history and a weakness for soap opera soliloquies, the press can convert this contrite katzenjammer into a useful New Year's resolution: From now on, regard political ambition as a felony and treat each suspect as innocent until proven guilty.

Cuomo was not the sole culprit in this saga. His public career has marinated in the media. Dithering in the spotlight came naturally. The press persisted because the governor provided the essential elements of hot copy: He could talk and, with a notoriously thin skin, he could bleed.

His predecessor in Albany, also his benefactor, Hugh Carey, said years ago of Cuomo: "You know, you guys in the press invented him. Mario doesn't know politics; he knows media."

Carey named Cuomo secretary of state, then chose him in 1978 to run as lieutenant governor. Cuomo's first bid for public office was the high-profile task of running for mayor of New York City in 1977.

"Retail campaigning," which wins New Hampshire primaries, was alien. The glare of the klieg lights was as natural an experience for Cuomo as the sore feet lesser politicians acquire while knocking on doors, campaigning for the city council or the state legislature.

Cuomo often confused publicity with power, as did many of his accomplice-victims in the media. He also considered New York the center of the universe. Throughout his seance of indecisiveness, Cuomo advertised his parochialism. His light travel schedule was evident, but the swirl of press speculation swelled.

"OK, I'll think about it," was all he said on Oct. 11, uncorking the elixir. And the supposed sophisticates in the media chug-a-lugged.

By Nov. 7, Cuomo hinted he was kidding when he said, "My stomach tells me I can't leave the state in the middle of a $700 million deficit."

For weeks thereafter, he insisted that New York was more important than the United States.

Not everyone was swayed by the soul-searching. Timothy Russert, Washington bureau chief for NBC News, had worked for Cuomo and predicted a no-go. David Broder of the Washington Post said on CNN Thursday night: "He's not running. He's strung us out, he's made us look like fools and he's going to have a laugh."

A laff riot it was. Chartered airplanes sitting on the runway at Albany, an empty podium outside the State House in Concord and wandering hordes of feckless Fourth Estaters all became props in a Marx Brothers classic directed by Cuomo, "Disappointment on Deadline."

"What's the difference between God and Mario Cuomo?" asked one weary newsie. The answer: "God doesn't think he's Mario Cuomo."

Many Democrats were disappointed at Cuomo's announcement because the remaining field suggests a small-state syndrome that has crippled previous candidacies. Walter F. Mondale, Jimmy Carter and George McGovern inherited a tradition going back to William Jennings Bryan of earnest, pious small-towners lacking the sophistication to win.

But Cuomo is as provincial as any public figure, certainly more so than successful New Yorkers in national politics. The media misinterpreted history and bought the myth of New York's importance in an increasingly non-urban electorate.

In 1944, when two New Yorkers, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey, ran against each other, the state's Electoral College prize was 47 electoral votes. In 1992, New York will cast 33 votes, its population having fled south and west. California, which Republicans win regularly, cast 25 electoral votes in 1944. Next year, it will cast 54 votes, one-fifth of the votes needed to win.

New Englanders can take solace in the fact that of two famous former athletes from St. John's University, Frank Viola is more decisive. He wants to pitch for the Red Sox next season and, unlike Cuomo, is not afraid to pitch inside.

Will Cuomo and his co-conspirators in the media give up the teasing game of what-about-a-deadlock and maybe-a-draft? Sure they will. And Elizabeth Taylor is going to live happily ever after in quiet wedded bliss.

Martin F. Nolan is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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