Books

Mario Cuomo, Lauded Speech-Giver, and Governor in His Spare Time

Governor Mario Cuomo at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 1991. (National Archives)
In a compelling new biography, George Marlin examines the political career of ‘Hamlet on the Hudson,’ full of promise never quite realized.

Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man, by George J. Marlin (St. Augustine’s Press, 340 pp., $35)

New York governor Andrew Cuomo currently basks in high approval ratings, despite his earlier mishandling of his state’s coronavirus outbreak, a testament to his skill at public relations and his lofty speeches promising to protect the state’s residents. The divide between political rhetoric and political reality is a running theme in the careers of both Andrew Cuomo and his father, Mario, who also served as New York governor, from 1983 to 1994. That is a theme of George Marlin’s superb new biography, Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man, in which he delves into the life of the man so many Democrats saw as their political savior during the Reagan years.

Few people outside of the Cuomo family understand Mario Cuomo better than does Marlin, the author of several highly regarded books. A scholar, banker, and former head of the New York Port Authority, Marlin has been a longtime fixture in the state’s Conservative Party, having run for mayor of New York in 1993. He possesses an unusual combination of historical expertise — in municipal finance, New York politics, and the American Catholic Church.

Marlin’s book is no hack job. He knew the elder Cuomo — and knows the son as well. Previous books about Mario Cuomo presented an overly romanticized picture of Cuomo and lacked a basic understanding of New York politics. A Catholic ethnic from Queens like Cuomo, Marlin gets inside Mario the man and the politician. We see a workaholic politician, a smart lawyer, a devoted family man, and a churchgoing Catholic. Yet the ultimate vision of Cuomo that emerges from these pages is less than flattering.

Behind his well-crafted image as a philosopher-prince, Cuomo was a sharp-elbowed political bruiser. He was extremely thin-skinned to even the softest criticism and was notorious for never answering questions directly. “People who knew him well often joked that Mario Cuomo was someone who was ready with a question for every answer,” one political reporter noted. As a college freshman meeting Cuomo for the first time, Marlin found himself on the receiving end of “a rapid-fire barrage of questions.” He found the whole experience exasperating. “Little did I know that I was experiencing the sort of verbal assault that was to become Mario Cuomo’s trademark in public life,” Marlin writes. “Although he intimidated me that day, I came away actually liking him.”

As governor, Cuomo trusted few people outside of his family. “What circle?” the famed journalist Jimmy Breslin once said of Cuomo’s tight circle of advisers. “There ain’t enough people to form a circle.” The inability to attract talented people to state government, the constant need to micromanage, and his refusal to listen to anyone beyond his closest friends and family were some of the reasons why Cuomo’s political career fell short of the grand expectations.

Cuomo grew up in Queens, the son of a grocer. As a boy, he excelled at school and at baseball, even playing for a time in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor-league system. After his dream of a baseball career died, he went back home and graduated from the liberal-arts college and law school of St. John’s University, got married, and began a family. Despite his grades in college, the Italian-American, Catholic Cuomo could never crack the world of white-shoe Manhattan law firms in the 1950s. The snub was a chip that he would carry on his shoulder for the rest of his life. Instead, he slowly made his name as a lawyer in a small Brooklyn firm.

After successfully mediating a controversy over a low-income, high-rise housing project in Queens in 1972, Cuomo was ready to enter politics and ended up appointed New York secretary of state. He used the largely ceremonial post to enhance his profile across the state. In 1977, he decided to run for mayor of New York, narrowly losing to Ed Koch in the Democratic primary. The following year, he was named lieutenant governor. He then ran for governor in 1982, narrowly defeating Republican businessman Lew Lehrman.

Cuomo’s national reputation took off in 1984 after his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention and a major speech at Notre Dame University. Marlin calls the Notre Dame speech Cuomo’s “most famous and significant speech — and the most wrongheaded.” With abortion politics polarizing the two parties, Catholic Democrats found themselves in a bind. Earlier in 1984, New York’s newly installed Archbishop John O’Connor announced, “I do not see how a Catholic, in good conscience, can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion.” When asked if he would excommunicate pro-choice Democrats, he responded, “I’d have to think about that.”

Legend had it that a young Chris Cuomo broke down in tears on hearing that his father might be excommunicated, causing an angry Mario to accept the invitation to speak at Notre Dame to defend his abortion position. Yet Marlin makes clear that excommunication was never a real threat but rather one that Cuomo shrewdly used to turn himself into a victim of pharisaical bishops. Whatever the backstory for the speech was, Cuomo’s remarks had a deep impact on Democratic politics and the American Catholic Church. “I accept the Church’s teaching on abortion,” Cuomo said in the Notre Dame speech, but he also argued that, as a politician, he could not impose his religiously based views on the public. Earlier in his career, Cuomo had opposed New York’s liberalized abortion laws, but as his political fortunes rose, his position on abortion became more flexible. Now his formulation “personally against abortion, but pro-choice politically” would become a popular position with Democrats.

Cuomo constantly portrayed himself as a modern-day Saint Thomas More, a man of moral conscience struggling in the political arena. It was an odd comparison. More lost his head for following his conscience and defending the Church against the temporal authority of Henry VIII, while Cuomo bucked the Church in order to placate the secular political sphere. Cuomo knew there was no future for him in the Democratic Party without finessing the abortion issue. A real call to conscience would have been to stick to a pro-life position despite pressure from Democratic liberals. When it came to the death penalty, Cuomo had no trouble defending the Church’s position (although the Church’s attitude toward the death penalty at the time was more complicated), placing himself in opposition to a majority of New Yorkers. It is hard to get past the conclusion that Cuomo’s abortion stance was a matter more of political expediency than of deeply felt conscience or philosophical examination.

Still, those 1984 speeches positioned Cuomo for a leap into presidential politics in 1988. Despite months of teasing reporters and voters with his “will he or won’t he” routine, Cuomo took a pass on the race. “He loved ‘playing mind and word games’ with inquisitive reporters about his real intentions,” writes Marlin. The 1992 presidential election looked readymade for a Cuomo run. George H. W. Bush looked weak, especially after a mild economic recession in 1990–91, while Cuomo had easily won reelection in 1990.

For months, Cuomo toyed with Democratic Party officials and the press. The “Hamlet on the Hudson” could not make up his mind about running for president. On the day of the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary, an airplane was waiting on an Albany runway to fly Cuomo to submit his paperwork. Less than two hours before the deadline, Cuomo announced he would not be running because he had to deal with the budget process in Albany. No one bought the excuse.

Marlin makes clear that Bill Clinton was ready to appoint Cuomo to the Supreme Court in 1993. Cuomo considered the president’s offer, but then refused to take his phone calls. Finally, he told the Clinton team he was not interested. “Mario Cuomo, one of the brightest and most dynamic Democrats of his generation,” Marlin writes, “turned down opportunities to run for the nation’s highest office and to be appointed to the nation’s highest court.” After recounting Cuomo’s tortuous decision-making process, Marlin asks the question that millions of Americans in the 1990s asked: “Why couldn’t he bring himself to accept either?”

Marlin posits a few theories. Regarding alleged Mafia ties, he makes clear that Cuomo was never associated in any way with organized crime, in either his personal life or his legal career, although there had been talk about the brutal beating of his father-in-law. Did Cuomo really want to subject his wife to rumors about her father? Marlin also spends a good deal of time delving into an obscure legal dispute between Cuomo and his old law firm over tens of thousands of dollars and implies that Cuomo was not anxious to have those details made public. Marlin concludes: “It is in the realm of probability that Cuomo’s distrust of the media, his fear of investigative reporting into the lives of family members, the Mafia whispers, and the lawsuit against his firm were factors in his decision not to seek federal office.”

Cuomo’s refusal to leave Albany came back to haunt him in 1994 when he failed to win a fourth term during that Republican landslide year, losing to a little-known state legislator named George Pataki. The defeated Cuomo landed a job at a Manhattan law firm and became an in-demand speaker, making real money for the first time in his life. He lived long enough to see his oldest son, Andrew, become governor — dying on the night of his son’s inauguration in 2015.

Beyond the grandiloquent speeches lauding the New Deal, Cuomo was never able to operationalize liberal politics in the Reagan years. If anything, Cuomo’s actual political successes leaned rightward, including the building of more prisons and relatively conservative fiscal policies and tax cuts. A new New Deal never came about.

Marlin’s Cuomo was a man trapped between his roots in the working-class Italian Catholic neighborhoods of Queens and the demands of an increasingly liberal Democratic Party so desperate for Cuomo to come to its rescue. As Marlin makes clear, Mario Cuomo was always more of a myth, noting that “Cuomo’s legacy was best described by his son, Andrew Cuomo, who admitted that his father was ‘more accomplished as a speech-giver than as a governor.’”

Fast-forward to today and Cuomo the younger is caught in his own political bind, navigating between suburban, upper-middle-class gentry liberals and the harder-edge progressivism of the state’s Working Families Party, dominated by public-sector unions and minorities. Through all of this, Andrew grapples with the failures of his father and is desperately aware of the need to succeed where Mario could not. Perhaps in that story George Marlin has the topic of his next book.

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