Mario Cuomo is dead at 82. He is remembered mainly for his inaction, as a “Hamlet on the Hudson” who could not decide whether to run for president. His main contribution to American public policy is both slightly obscure and negative, having succeeded in frustrating the Reagan administration’s campaign to end the deductibility of state and local taxes against federal tax liabilities — an intelligent tax reform that was and is anathema in high-tax states such as New York. Governor Cuomo and President Reagan were forever matched — more accurately mismatched, Cuomo unquestionably the lesser figure — with the self-styled progressive embodying the conservative insurgent’s repeated observation that no one is so committed to the status quo as a Democrat defending a public program or a government-conferred benefit.
When an important conservative passes safely from this vale of tears and politics into memory, the Left and its media enablers immediately pick up his legend and use it as a cudgel against those conservatives who remain inconveniently among the living, the voting, and the campaigning. As many writers in these pages have pointed out, so-called liberals who would not have micturated on Ronald Reagan were he on fire in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue began, after he was gone, to loudly bemoan that today’s Republicans were not more like Reagan, who could at the end of the day set aside petty politics and share a convivial cocktail with Tip O’Neill. (Never mind that that isn’t even quite true.) In life, Reagan was to them a dunce, a coward, a madman, an enabler of greed who spent his spare time kicking AIDS victims in the groin — but in death, he’s Gipper the Friendly Ghost. William F. Buckley is used in exactly the same way, and even Barry Goldwater gets that treatment from time to time, especially among the aggressively anti-Christian.
I do not wish to use Governor Cuomo that way, in part because it is silly, and in part because even in retrospect he is not that attractive a political figure. But the fact that New York today has another governor by the name of Cuomo does invite comparison, and that comparison is not especially flattering to the incumbent, who shares his father’s loopy policy ideas (to the extent that Andrew Cuomo can be said to have ideas) but lacks his literary flair. Mario Cuomo was something of a Barack Obama before his time: Like the president, Cuomo came to prominence after making a highly regarded speech at the Democratic National Convention. Like the president, he never quite figured out that there was more to his job than making speeches. Take a look at the books written by and about Cuomo, you’ll find a couple of books about Lincoln, emphasizing his oratory, and a bunch of variation on the theme More Than Words: The Speeches of Mario Cuomo and Great Speeches, Volume IV.
In 2015 anno Domini, well-spoken mediocrity goes a long way — a longer way than it did in the elder Cuomo’s day, which is why Barack Obama became president and Mario Cuomo did not.
If the Cuomo-to-Cuomo timeline traces a depressing descent in American public and intellectual life, it is far from marking the deepest decline. Consider that the Senate seat occupied by Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York subsequently was filled by Hillary Rodham Clinton and then by Kirsten Gillibrand. The phrase “decline and fall” leaps to mind when contemplating that succession. It is a pity, though, that Herself stopped pretending to be a New York politician; she would have made a much better mayor of New York City than Sandinista leftover Bill de Blasio does, the job being about the right size for her intellectual scope and well suited to her talents, which are heavy on triangulating among lefty constituencies and light on things at which a secretary of state (or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, a president) might be expected to excel.
The lines of heirs and epigones can be illuminating. Consider: Much of what is wrong and distasteful about the modern Republican party can be compressed into the fact that John McCain, an authentic war hero and authentically unbearable poseur occupies the Senate seat previously held by Barry Goldwater. Terry McAuliffe sits in a chair previously occupied by Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, though that’s an unfair comparison, but George Allen looks pretty good in comparison, too. Jerry Brown, the New Age goof who occupies the governor’s mansion in California, was preceded by Jerry Brown, the New Age goof who had a couple of good ideas about taxes and budgeting, as well as by a noted organized-labor leader who went on to become president. Similarly, the line of Senate succession that led from Andrew Jackson to Lamar Alexander has had its ups and downs, its nadir being Al Gore.
But these things don’t move in straight lines: Texas ascended from Lyndon Johnson to Phil Gramm, and then on to John Cornyn, who is . . . not Phil Gramm. In Arkansas, the long march from Orval Faubus to Asa Hutchinson is practically one of those Darwinian “descent of man” illustrations. The evolution from Ann Richards to Greg Abbott in Texas is similarly inspiring.
National Review writers are all too aware that there are some shadows that are too large to step out of entirely. And we are not alone: Jesse Angelo of the New York Post excels at a very difficult job that is certainly made no easier by the knowledge that it used to be Alexander Hamilton’s. Bob Iger of the Walt Disney Co. must think every day about the man whose name is on the door. Jimmy Fallon surely knows that the words “Tonight Show” are silently accompanied by the name “Johnny Carson” for millions of people, including some too young to really remember why. There was a time when people seriously thought about trying to recruit Bill Gates to run for president; nobody is trying to draft Steve Ballmer.
There are, inevitably, whispers that Andrew Cuomo desires to run for president. The father gave that possibility a great deal of thought. The son should give it a great deal less.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent of National Review.