Mario Cuomo's 'Reason to Believe'' is an unequivocal credo from an enduring enigma.

October 29, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The first time I ever laid eyes on Mario Cuomo in the flesh was on the evening of July 16, 1984, in the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. Relatively obscure in the national arena, he was designated keynote speaker of the Democratic Convention.

I was on the floor, plying my scrivener's trade, standing by the Michigan delegation, which contained some of America's toughest, most unsentimental practitioners of the business of politics.

Mr. Cuomo rose to the lectern. He was not imposing. His voice began softly, gently. The chatter and buzz went on, delegates knitting together the muscles and gastrointestines of their party.

Slowly, his words began to take hold. The chatter dwindled, the buzz began to hush. It was not a long speech, but by half way through there was not a sound in the hall, as Mr. Cuomo wove wondrously the fabric of family and faith as the grand tapestry of the nation and the party.

In a voice that reasoned more than it orated, he built to this conclusion: "For the love of this great nation, for the family of America, for the love of God, please make this nation remember how futures are built."

I looked aside at the craggy-jawed, steely-eyed delegate I was standing by. Tears were coursing down his face.

If a new spirit of the Democratic Party was not born at that moment, a new hero was. Mr. Cuomo had invoked a sense of humane political purpose as no one had in a very, very long time. Democrats found themselves believing in their party's destiny again. Mr. Cuomo's spirit became the ecstasy of a convention that had been resigned to defeat and emptiness.

His very own words

Now, having been denied a fourth term as governor of New York by the conservative Republican rip tide, Mario Cuomo has written a book, "Reason to Believe" (Simon and Schuster. 191 pages. $21).

Mr. Cuomo writes his own stuff. Here, he writes well.

It is well-titled, a book about politics, faith and reason. There are few public people in America who are as convincingly innocent of hypocrisy as Mr. Cuomo.

His eloquence, his energies come from the certainty of his personal experience and that of his mother and father coming from barren hills near Salerno. His mother is dead now. He celebrates and mourns her, and turns both into a political credo:

"I count it almost a mercy that my mother will not have to witness the hour when America walks out on sixty years of the most humane and intelligent progress any government has ever achieved, because the nation was seduced by a new mythology that insists the strongest among us are sufficient unto themselves and the rest are not worth the bother."

The core of the book continues in this manner, almost entirely reactive. It is possessed by the task of exorcizing twin demons: the Contract with America and Americans' skepticism about the capacity of government to accomplish its goals.

That the pendulum of public enthusiasms will begin to swing back is undoubtable. The pendulum always returns from its extremes, and contemporary history suggests that present Republican/conservative roll is approaching its generally acceptable ideological limit. But that it will return to something close to idealized 1950s-1960s liberalism is deeply doubtable. Yet that, as I read this book, is what Mario Cuomo is proposing.

Mr. Cuomo is calling for an act of massive political taxidermy. The liberalism that he sees in retrospect as a lovely, humane and moving program of governance is now dead of its own doing. It dodo-ed. Yet this book, in sum, seems to be saying, hey, we were right, it works and with a little polishing up it will work again, so let's get on with it.

The worst error that a politician can make is to slide into the trough of believing those who don't agree with you are, by self-definition, stupid.

Mr. Cuomo's ideological enemies are neither as dumb nor as indifferent to human misery as he makes them. And he may be missing the main point of the almost messianic appeal of what he dismisses as "the new Harshness."

Beneath all else, this is his greatest expressed worry: "A disorienting loss of faith in some larger, transcendent, binding truth to believe in, to follow, to hold on to against the tide."

Eloquent, heartfelt

Like it or not, many in the new Republican majority are driven by just such a belief in the transcendent truth of their vision.

They are seldom, if ever, as eloquent as Mario Cuomo at his most heartfelt: "We lost three heroes to madmen. We lost a President to ignominy. We lost a war to hubris. In the space of twenty years, we lost much of our reassurance and our inspiration and we couldn't find anything to take their place. We had no great unifying causes - World War II was the last - no orthodoxies, no heroes. We couldn't figure out what to do about the hole in our hearts."

And who could resist his description of the economics of the Contract as "deja voodoo?"

There is a notable coincidence in Mr. Cuomo's book going to market in the very week that the U.S. Congress is voting out the core legislation of the Contract's fiscal structure. It is the reconciliation bill that, more than any other act of the new majority, speaks for them.

A historian in the dimly distant future could do a lot worse than looking for an explanation of today's polarity in politics in a comparison of Mr. Cuomo's book and a competent explication of the reconciliation bill.

Whether this book's vision will be the creed and faith of whatever comes after today's politics is beyond determining. But the traditional liberal alternative has never been more soundly explained than by Mario Cuomo.

Which raises again that haunting question: Why did he not actively seek the presidency when it was his to win?

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