Class acts

November 15, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

THE TALKING HEADS can argue about whether it was a vote against the president, against the party, against liberalism, about whether it was the revenge of the white male voter or the reaction of the middle class.

And the Republican pols can spout pieties about working together for the American people while Newt Gingrich goes straight for the neck flesh, calling names, talking trash, practicing his patented brand of "I'm-OK-You're-Scum" attack politics.

But one thing I know for sure, looking back on this election. And that is that this country lost its two most compelling and charismatic political figures when Mario Cuomo was rejected by the voters of New York and Ann Richards by those in Texas.

Nobody knows better than journalists how annoying Mr. Cuomo could be, how hypersensitive and self-righteous.

"Lincoln had bad press too," he once mused. Write a sentence he thought did him wrong, and he'd track you down, from airplane, car, Albany, and talk you to death with St. Augustine and Thomas More.

Ah, but what talk it was. What other contemporary elected official could have a major publishing house collect his speeches, as introspective and uncompromising as the man himself?

"We campaign in poetry," he said at Yale in 1985, in what seem now prophetic words. "But when we're elected we're forced to govern in prose. And when we govern -- as distinguished from when we campaign -- we come to understand the difference between a speech and a statute. It's here that the noble aspirations, neat promises and slogans of a campaign get bent out of recognition or even break as you try to nail them down to the Procrustean bed of reality."

The governor is who he is: in an age when the self-made man has given way to those constructed by consultants, that is worth celebrating So, too, is Ann Richards, a woman with a nuclear reactor of a personality and her own wiseacre way with words.

On the stump, she likened her opponent's criticism of her record to a husband's criticism of his wife's ironing -- lots of hard work with little recognition: "He says: 'Why did you fold 'em and put 'em in the drawer? I like 'em on the hanger.' "

"I think we've reached a point in our politics when we don't have any fun anymore and it really bothers me a lot," she said of her own personal style.

Some of the fun went out of the business on election night, but more than that, too. To the era of sound bites Mario Cuomo brought deep thoughts and an examination of conscience. To a political arena self-important and often inhumane, Gov. Richards brought charm as thick as cold honey and a palpable humanity.

In a line of work that makes a virtue of hiding flaws, she was an inspiration in her openness about her alcoholism. "One of the ways I really stuffed the pain of not being perfect at everything was to drink," she said.

In 1984, Mario Cuomo told the Democrats gathered in San Francisco: "We would rather have laws written by the patron of this great city, the man called 'the world's most sincere Democrat' -- St. Francis of Assisi -- than laws written by Darwin." Maybe that's an old-fashioned notion, and these two were old-fashioned politicians, wedded to an idea of right and wrong that had as much to do with compassion as it did with judgment.

The rap on them both was that their charisma and their character did not translate into governing, although Mario Cuomo was elected three times and Ms. Richards' one term saw an economic upturn.

Perhaps she could not overcome the covert voter sentiment that women cannot be tough on crime, though she had overseen many executions. Perhaps he could not overcome his unwavering opposition to the death penalty: the new-fangled way to handle that would have been to have a convenient epiphany and change course, but he didn't.

Instead it was the voters who changed course, leaving these two behind: liberal, Democrat, old news. Just as, once, in Hollywood, stars had faces, so there was a time in this country when politicians had voices, when it was they, and not basketball or guitar players, who struck fire from the imaginations of the American people, who dazzled the crowd. These two were part of that vanishing breed, two class acts.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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