NEW YORK -- Mario Cuomo stands in the dimly lighted hallway outside the NBC sky box, high above the floor of the Democratic Convention.
One of the two best speakers the Democrats possess -- the other, Jesse Jackson, will arrive in a few minutes -- Cuomo is throwing out lines, seeing what will work for his big speech Wednesday when he nominates Bill Clinton for the presidency.
"Ex-u-ber-ance," the governor of New York says, rolling the word around on his tongue like a fine wine. "We are exuberant and we are generous. We are a nation that can afford to be generous and still be great!"
Now he is cooking. Now he is sweeping himself off his own feet.
"The others are saying be cautious," he says. "Be careful how zTC much you love. Hold back. But we are capable of loving and generosity and greatness."
Cuomo goes into the sky box to appear on "Meet the Press" just as Jesse Jackson shows up. Jackson goes into a holding room, where he can watch the Cuomo segment of the show.
As Cuomo speaks, Jackson takes careful notes. Jackson likes Cuomo, would have liked him or New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley as vice president, but Jackson now sizes Cuomo up as competition for the hearts and minds of the TV viewers.
Meredith Brokaw, the owner of a chain of successful New York toy stores (who happens to be married to Tom Brokaw), leans over. "Today, 'Meet the Press' has the two most articulate people in the Democratic Party," she says.
"Yeah," Jackson replies. "Cuomo and Tom Brokaw."
Though Cuomo lavishly praises the Bill Clinton/Al Gore ticket on the air, in private he is considerably less enthusiastic. Jackson, though endorsing the ticket, is unenthusiastic both on the air and off, and this is the difference between the two men.
Cuomo plays the game. He is a loyalist; he does what needs to be done for the sake of unity.
Jesse Jackson plays the game only to the extent necessary. He is loyal only to his own agenda, to his own supporters.
Cuomo finishes his segment of the show, and Jackson moves over into the sky box. On the air, Jackson is lukewarm about his own party's ticket and seemingly much warmer to Ross Perot, referring to Clinton as "Clinton" but to Perot as "Ross."
Afterward I ask Jackson if he would accept a vice presidential spot if Perot offered it to him.
He shakes his head. "I would not consider it," he says.
Jackson wanted a vice presidential nomination this year, but from the Democratic Party. He was not on Clinton's short list or long list, however, and now, with some contempt, Jackson tells me how Clinton called him at 11 a.m. last Thursday, the day Gore's selection was announced.
"But I had known it was going to be Gore since 3 a.m. that morning," Jackson says. "Clinton said on the phone that it was Gore and that was all. The call lasted about a minute."
And that was that. In past election years, the question was: What does Jesse want? This year, Bill Clinton made the question: Who cares what Jesse wants?
Unlike Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton promised Jackson no planes, no staff positions, no planks in the platform.
"He wants distance from me," Jackson says. "This is his game. We have had no private meetings; no private discussions. . . . I have commitments to campaign in certain congressional districts. That is where I will campaign.
So you don't want a plane?
"I do not want a plane!" Jackson says. "I do not want that kind of relationship with them! I want to be free. Free!"
Four years ago, Jesse Jackson was the man who got 7 million votes in the Democratic primaries. Four years ago, Jackson was a contender. Four years ago, Jackson was big news.
Today, he is none of these things.
Today, Jesse Jackson is free.
And he does not sound as if he likes it.