Whatever Cuomo's faults, the country will miss him

November 24, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It would be a mistake to write the final post-mortem on the extraordinary 1994 election without noting the passage from the political stage of an extraordinary figure, Mario M. Cuomo. We shall not see his like again.

There was no mystery in Cuomo's defeat. The opinion polls showed New Yorkers thought that their governor had been around too long, that he talked too much, that he was to blame for higher taxes and a deteriorating quality of life and -- most of all -- that he was too liberal.

There is no point in arguing after the fact about whether those perceptions were accurate. But whatever his faults, Cuomo was a politician of special gifts that made him larger than life and a central figure in the Democratic Party and national politics for a decade.

Cuomo will be remembered first for the speech he delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, a rhetorical tour de force that marked him as a politician with special gifts and an apparently limitless future. And he will be recalled later for his public agonizing early in 1992 about whether to finally compete for the Democratic presidential nomination he obviously wanted but could not bring himself to seek.

HTC But reporters who dealt with him for years -- during his mayoral campaign in 1977, his term as a lieutenant governor, his 12 years in Albany, his marches up and down the hill toward a presidential candidacy in both 1988 and 1992 -- will remember him for his passion, his intellectual curiosity and his willingness to run against the grain.

He was a politician who could immerse himself in substance with obvious relish. We can remember a day when, running for mayor against Ed Koch, he held a news conference on his proposals for improving ambulance service in New York City. He outlined the plan for a dozen reporters, answered a few perfunctory questions and prepared to move on to the next stop.

But a young reporter for a Columbia University radio station stopped him with more detailed questions that made it clear she knew a great deal about the issue. Cuomo wheeled around, sat down with her at a conference table and spent another 30 minutes -- his schedule be damned-- discussing the intricacies of enforcing laws against gouging by ambulance services.

Given his massive self-assurance, he could be remarkably thin-skinned. We can remember more than one occasion when, irked by something that had been written or said about him on television, hewould telephone and launch an argument of 30 or 40 minutes about why the reporter had been dead wrong and needed to get his head straightened out.

He loved to argue. We can remember a day in 1990 when we flew with him from Albany to Buffalo in a slow state plane and spent two hours conducting an interview that turned into an arm-waving shouting match as Cuomo dismissed the premises of our questions, then launched into convoluted expositions of his true positions on the matters at hand.

Cuomo could be insulated from reality, as when he insisted that there was no such thing as a Mafia or that he really never thought about running for president. He could be vexing and deliberately contrary. He could be remarkably provincial. Waiting for his decision in 1992, a reporter who had known him a long time suggested only half in jest that Cuomo wouldn't run because, "He's probably thinking, 'St. John's is going to have a good team this year and I'll miss all the games.' "

In his first years as governor, Cuomo bridled at the notion that he was an old-fashioned liberal. But it was impossible to deny. He stood fast against the death penalty when other liberals fled in the face of opinion polls showing them to be on the "wrong" side of the issue. He stood fast on abortion rights. He used federal programs such as Medicaid to the limits because he was convinced it was necessary to provide the care to those who could not afford it. He refused to turn his back on welfare.

It was this liberalism that persuaded many Democrats that Cuomo could never be elected president, even if he had won the nomination in this era of the "new Democrats."

But Mario Cuomo was a political leader who defined agendas of his own rather than observing those set by others. And Mario Cuomo was such a vivid and forceful voice for his own ideas that you had to wonder how far he might have gone. The one certainty is that he would have made it interesting. He was never plain vanilla.

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