Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile Metphistopheles Previous Previous Next Next
Woulda, coulda. Definitely shoulda. - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
A Møøse once bit my sister ...
Woulda, coulda. Definitely shoulda.
One of the longest-tenured New York governors of my life died yesterday, on the same day his son was inaugurated for what will hopefully be his final term. Sorry, Andrew: I knew Mario Cuomo. Mario Cuomo was a hero of mine. You are no Mario Cuomo.

Most of the panegyrics of him from yesterday and today mentioned his 1984 Democratic Convention speech, which, especially in hindsight, completely destroyed the myth of the preceding four years of the Reagan regime. But that's not what I remember him for. I remember his nonpartisan and nonsectarian commitment to justice; and I remember a tarmac.


Attorney education and admissions are entirely the province of the law schools and the courts, so Mario didn't sign my degree in 1984 or my license in 1985- but he was an important gatekeeper to the system in my first ten years in the profession. In New York, the Guv makes the final choices of judges on the state's highest court; elevates elected Supreme Court justices to the intemediate appellate branch; and fills the frequent vacancies that arise on many trial-level courts throughout the state.  In an age when judicial nominations were first and permanently becoming "litmus test" politicized (Clarence Thomas, anyone?), Cuomo reserved his appointments for the best jurists, regardless of their party or politics. He was largely hated by his own political party's patronage apparatus for doing so, but he rightly considered the courts to be the one place which should be as free as possible of such considerations.  His first Chief Judge appointment was of a Republican, Sol Wachtler, who went a little crazy late in his career and was eventually succeeded by a Democrat.  He never hesitated to name Republicans to the bench if they best fit the requirements of education, temperament and experience, and may have been the last of his kind in that regard.

Then there was the ultimate result of that "Tale of Two Cities" speech we've been hearing so much about in the past day. Mario's 1984 convention appearance was Too Soon in terms of his own political ambitions; he'd only been Guv for a year and a half, and it was Mondale's turn.  Still, that speech put him much closer to the on-deck circle, just as a rather long-winded address by a relatively unknown Bill Clinton got him a lot of press (much of it bad) four years later.  The 1988 campaign wasn't time for either of those two, as Michael Dukakis was destined to be Tanked and Horton'd into defeat. But by 1992, the White House was finally fair game.  Bush Daddy had done little to distinguish himself, the bloom had gone off the Kuwait War rose, and no Democrat stood head and shoulders above the others going into the start of that campaign (which, back then, kids, was only the previous year, not like now where Obama's successors have been jockeying since before the 2012 election).

December of 1991 was a memorable time for me: secure as a partner in a Rochester law firm, Emily well on the way to being born a month later, the Bills about to secure their second straight Super Bowl appearance. (One out of three ain't bad, when it's the most important one;)  But I was rooting for our Governor, as well: we all knew he was In It, and had he run, I have no doubt he would have been in it to win it:

To Democrats, the promise of Mario Cuomo was the promise of restoration. It was also the promise of victory. If they were going to break the GOP’s Electoral College lock in ’92, a Clinton or a Paul Tsongas or a Jerry Brown or a Bob Kerrey wouldn’t do it. They needed the stature of a Mario Cuomo.

He didn’t make it easy on them. For the rest of October, through all of November, and right up until that fateful Friday before Christmas, Cuomo issued a steady stream of utterly contradictory hints and head fakes. One day, it would sound like he was in. “What does my heart tell me?” he asked in late October. “Go out and tell them, Mario – take your best shot, whether you win, lose or draw.” But then nothing would happen. He talked of reaching a decision by the November election, and then by Thanksgiving, but those dates came and went. One of the party’s top strategic minds, James Carville, pronounced himself ready to help run a Cuomo campaign – then, after hearing not a peep from Albany, signed on with Clinton. Party leaders grew restless, and his would-be rivals, starved of media oxygen, became contemptuous.

As the New Hampshire deadline neared, Clinton said: “I always thought he’d run, and I always thought he’d wait until the last minute. He waited long enough to see which way the wind was blowing.”

Which brings us to that tarmac, a bit over 23 years ago:

It was Dec. 20, 1991, a Friday, and the filing deadline for New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary was at 5 p.m. All eyes, though, were on Albany, New York where 10 weeks of torturous and highly public vacillation were for Gov. Cuomo finally coming to a head. In the statehouse, he and his team sought a last-minute resolution to a budget impasse that – the governor had suggested more than once – represented the only significant obstacle between him and a presidential candidacy. A few miles away, a private plane sat idling at Albany’s airport, ready to whisk Cuomo to the Granite State on a moment’s notice.

...There was only one cable news channel back then, and throughout the day that Friday, CNN kept returning to a live shot of the idling plane. Any minute, Cuomo might board it, jet off to New Hampshire, and write his own chapter of history.

But it never moved, and by mid-afternoon it was clear that it wasn’t going to. When he faced the press, Cuomo stuck to his script about the budget. If there’d been a deal, he said, “I would travel to New Hampshire today and file my name as a candidate.” But that was – and still is – a hard one to swallow. With all of his pride and conviction, Cuomo never seemed like the kind of guy who’d farm out a decision like that to a bunch of opposition party state legislators.

I remember those images. I was rooting for our hometown boy to be the first since Rockefeller to make a serious run for the White House, with probably the best chance since Roosevelt (either of them) of succeeding. Yet it never happened, and we got the beginning of a Clinton  dynasty coming to Washington from New York (eventually) instead of a Cuomo one.


What would have been different? I don't see the hatred that Clinton generated, almost instantly, upon his ascension (some of it coming from Cuomo's own camp after relations between the two families got a little testy later in 1992). I don't see a President Cuomo agreeing to NAFTA, or signing off on the so-called "Defense of Marriage" or the end of federal financial regulation of banks, or caving to a so-called "Contract with America" and losing Congress after half a term.  His jurists would have been no worse, his foreign policy no less peaceful.

Probably that's why he's so hated on the right, 20 years after his final departure from public office.  For years, Rush Limbaugh denigrated him with an epithet-like mispronuncation of his last name as "Koo-moe," emphasizing his paisan status and all implied in that.  More recently, he has taken to calling him "St. Mario the Pious" in mockery of the former Guv's diversions, on issues such as abortion, from the Holy Mother Church playbook (never mind that Oxyboy's multiple unannulled marriages wouldn't be looked upon kindly at the Vatican, either).  I refused to listen to his claptrap today (oops- he had a guest host), but I'm sure there'll be plenty of dancing on his grave in his radio shows that lie ahead.

I just hope the diggers leave plenty of sod on top of the plot to handle the crushing weight.

Leave a comment