Why Mario Cuomo Never Became President

Why Mario Cuomo Never Became President

Mario Cuomo called in November of 1989. Until then, I had never been “Mario-ed,” which refers to the common experience of New York journalists who would innocently pick up the phone and hear the booming voice of Mario Cuomo challenging some news article or wrestling some idea to the ground.

The governor wanted to talk about abortion. As a Catholic, he embraced the Church’s position. (“You teach it; I accept it. I’m in the club.”) But as an elected official, he doesn’t think an anti-abortion law or amendment should be shoved down the throats of people who do not share Catholic principles.

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Many names floated by—Cardinal Spellman, George Will, Gloria Steinem (“I tried to tell Gloria, wherever you are on choice, 1.5 million abortions a year is way too many.”) As Howard Kurtz, then at The Washington Post said, it is virtually impossible for the best note-taker to scribble more than half of the words that pour by during telephonic Cuomofication. I began jotting down five-word summaries of each aria, hoping I could reconstruct the whole libretto later.

After another twelve minutes or so, I dimly sensed that Cuomo was circling closer to something he wanted to say.  He left it for me to figure out and finally I did. I had just written a column that mentioned Cuomo in passing. Although the governor had always described abortion as a complex moral issue, I wrote, moral nuances seem to be disappearing, since the Cuomo of late 1989 “felt embarrassed, as a male to be saying anything about abortion at all.” Cuomo told me that this impression came from a truncated wire-service report of an Arizona speech. In the next line of the speech, he had added the “however:” As a morally concerned person and elected official, he must speak out.

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This was said with no hint of complaint or grievance. It was tucked away in a rolling upbeat monologue. Quickly activating my vocal cords during a brief pause, I said, Governor, if I got it wrong, I’ll make a correction.” “No, no!” Cuomo replied at quite a high decibel level. “I don’t want to look backward. I want to move ahead”

Cuomo gave me his home phone number, told me to call any time for a chat, then hung up. The governor of New York had just spent three-quarters of an hour not asking for a correction. This is nowhere near a world’s record for being Mario-ed. He has been known to call the same reporter three times in a single day.

Cuomo’s phone calls revealed him as very smart and utterly without pretense. He liked reporters and engaged them directly, though, of course he thinks he’s smarter, and most of the time, he’s right to think that. Mario never went behind your back or over your head. He came right at you. Most politicians are fearful of speaking three unscripted sentences. Cuomo was happy to let his reputation ride on long, daily orations.

But the obvious downside of his phonomania was the staggering amount of time it took. If it amounted to four or five hours a day—no one knew—that was a huge chunk of the workday not devoted to running the state. That problem was magnified by Cuomo’s unwillingness to delegate. Just as he acted as his own press secretary, he acted as his own everything, which meant problems that should have been solved at lower levels piled up on his desk while he was schmoozing with Jimmy Breslin or Pete Hamill.

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He had little taste for administration or the kind of arm-twisting and head banging required to push strong legislation through a divided legislature. He was primarily an inspired talker, trained in the two most nit-picking yakety-yak polemical occupations the world has yet devised: theology and law.

Call this his Jimmy Carter side: high idealism, remoteness from the carrot and stick process of getting laws passed, little delegation, few management skills. Like Carter, he started to think about running for president just when the magic was wearing thin at home. The editorial writers of Newsday criticized him in conventional anti-Carter language for his “willful, contentious, suspicious, self-righteous, short-sighted way of governing.”

But he also had a Ronald Reagan side: he was a superb communicator who actually stood for something. No one can quite calibrate the market value of that, though Reagan gave us a pretty good idea of the number of deficits it can overcome. By the time I got around to writing about Cuomo’s call, the 1992 campaign was starting and I thought the Democrats would be wise to roll the dice with Mario.

Later I had second thoughts. The Mario who stays in Albany all the time, who whiled away so much time gabbing with reporters, had a serious flaw we can only speculate about. Though confident and loquacious, he was somehow a profoundly reticent man stuck at the level of talk and ideas. He really didn’t want to reach outside his comfort zone for any brass rings, and so his moment had passed. 

This piece, originally published in U.S. News and World Report, was adapted by the author.

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