It was the summer of 1977. I was fourteen years old at the time and keenly interested in politics. Not issues per se—what does a kid know about such things anyway—but the political theater. I’d been collecting political buttons, too, since the acquisition of my very first—a small blue and red “Nixon for President” pin-back—when I was just six.
There was a hotly contested New York City mayoral race raging back then, and I was enthusiastically tuned into the spectacle. After a rather unimpressive first term, including coming perilously close to the city under his charge declaring bankruptcy, Mayor Abe Beame had his sights set on a second term. A lot of people wanted Beame’s job that summer. Congresswoman Bella Abzug was christened the early front-runner. She was nationally known and as vociferous as they come. Viscerally, the youthful me couldn’t stand her. In mayoral debates, which included the eventual winner, Ed Koch ,and runner-up, Mario Cuomo, Bella lived up to her bellicose reputation. She badgered Mario Cuomo in one encounter for having already accepted the Liberal party nomination for the general election, while still contesting the Democratic party nomination. Bella wanted an answer as to how Cuomo—who had never been a member of the Liberal party—could accept such a backroom deal. (He was considered Governor Carey’s handpicked candidate to replace the diminutive and ineffectual Beame.) “I’d like to have an answer,” she said over and over and over, cutting off Cuomo time and again as he attempted to do what she asked. “Well, when you close your mouth, I’ll answer!” he finally—and very loudly—exclaimed in exasperation. The debate’s live audience, in chorus, emitted an appropriately shocked but nevertheless highly entertained gasp.
Politics was a whole lot more honest back then. And nobody was more genuine to me than Mario Cuomo that summer. When he visited my neighborhood—Kingsbridge in the Bronx—on his Cuo-mobile, the fourteen-year-old me was in attendance, hoping to both see the candidate in person and pick up some campaign spoils, which I did. And there he was in the flesh, looking an awful lot like relations on my father’s side of the family. With his shirtsleeves rolled up, Cuomo spoke of his plans for the city, which was in pretty bad shape all around, although I didn’t seem to notice. I loved the 1970s—high crime, graffiti, and dirty streets notwithstanding.
When a local took exception to the candidate’s stance on capital punishment and attempted to heckle Cuomo into submission, he got more than he bargained for. Mario Cuomo climbed down from his Cuo-mobile and spoke face-to-face with the heckler in question. The cowed fellow was suddenly, and without warning, in a civilized conversation—candidate and constituent now reasoning with one another. Why was the death penalty even an issue in a mayoral race? Because one of Cuomo’s opponents, Ed Koch, had made it so to win over as many crime-weary voters as he could.
Unfortunately, from my youthful perspective, the good guys lost in 1977. A couple of years later, Mario Cuomo—having been elected lieutenant governor of New York State—visited my high school in the East Bronx. Thoughtful and poetic in his remarks, he was nonetheless confronted with a tough question from a classmate of mine, an unkempt genius of a kid who sketched Rubik-type cubes to pass the time. Boy Einstein wondered how a practicing Catholic politician could publicly support abortion on demand. He essentially accused this pubic servant of engaging in a form of sophistry—i.e., saying that he accepts the church’s teaching that abortion is murder, but doing nothing about in practical reality because, he says, he has no business doing so. Cuomo, as I recall, gave his usual eloquent retort, a tribute to his intellect and, too, to the Catholic high school I attended, which—at least back then—celebrated differences of opinion and welcomed free-flowing give-and-takes.
Mario Cuomo may have, in the end, been a better philosopher than politician, but he was a man of principle. Unlike the petty man who defeated him in the Democratic party primary for mayor in 1977—the same man whom Cuomo defeated in the Democratic party primary for governor of New York State in 1982—he exhibited both sophistication and heart, which are in short supply nowadays among the political ruling class. Mario Cuomo will definitely be missed.