Mario Cuomo: Don’t Ask What Might Have Been

A particular memory has kept me from sharing the anguish of the “What might have been” essays written this week about liberals’ four-time loss of Mario Cuomo as their tribune: the most recent loss, of course, having been in his passing, at 82; and, before that, his 1994 loss of a fourth term as governor to the little-known (and still little-known) Republican George Pataki; and, before that – and most fatefully, I think — his declining President Bill Clinton’s 1993 offer of a nomination to the Supreme Court; and, before that, his declining to run for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination against Clinton himself.

I can’t let my own memories of the “Hamlet on the Hudson” rest in peace without telling about a particular twist in the saga of these serial disappointments. It turns on something that Cuomo told me in the spring of 1982, when he was lieutenant governor and I was following his first Democratic primary campaign for governor. What he said lay buried for 32 years in the long Village Voice story I wrote that June:

“If somebody could convince me I’d make a greater contribution to mankind as a judge in the [New York State] Court of Appeals, boy, I’d be happy as a clam,” Cuomo said as we rode the Taconic State Parkway from Albany to Westchester in his state-trooper-chauffered car on a brilliantly sunny day. “I’d love to be on the Court of Appeals personally, to be able never to have to go to a cocktail party, never to have to do anything you don’t want to do, just show up, listen to arguments, study, read, tell the truth. Can you imagine that? Never really have to compromise. You listen, you write your review, you can be Oliver Wendell Holmes, always in dissent.”

Yet, in 1993, Cuomo famously declined President Clinton’s offer of nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving me to wonder angrily in a Daily News column why this St. Johns University-trained legal mind would pass up a lifetime opportunity to out-argue his rival high-Catholic intellectual Antonin Scalia to stay in Albany sparring with Alan Chartock, president of the local NPR station, on his weekly “Me and Mario” show. A Justice Cuomo might have fended off, or at least discredited, in forceful, eloquent dissents, the Court’s handing of the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush and its disastrous 2009 Citizens United ruling.

The bitterest irony is that, if his comment to me meant anything, it was that he sometimes dreamed of doing almost precisely that. So what had changed?

Perhaps the experience of being governor had made judicial life seem too tame; one side of Cuomo always reveled in a politics as rough-and-tumble, as the kind of basketball he liked to play. But I think beneath his buoyancy he had a more tragic sense about the rest of us and our republican prospects than he let on. Even in 1982, after spending a lot of time with him, I felt constrained to end my account of him and of us this way.

“If there is movement in Cuomo’s life, it’s not so much a rising of social classes to remake our economy as it is a chain of handings-on across the generations. He is a man still happy in the gifts of those who came before; happy, too, at the prospect of giving and teaching those who will go after. That is his strength. But… it could also prove his undoing.

“For too many people in our tightening political economy, the family ties and values he loves have been broken or twisted so that they bear no fruit in good health or fresh opportunities. And as openness and hope become overwhelmed by fear and hatred in enough people’s lives — openness curdles to bitterness and hope shrivels to a craving for revenge — hard-pressed voters turn to leaders with a streak of malevolence resembling their own — leaders who reassure them perversely by showing them where they can extract vengeance for their own diminished lives….

“A guy who goes around in the middle of it talking about conciliation and harmony willy-nilly gathers around him those who resist the politics of despair and are trying to expand the possibilities for reason and hope, But where will he lead them? As he [campaigns], Mario Cuomo will be trying to show us his answer. The battle will tell us something about who he really is and what we as a society really are.”

Cuomo won that battle, against his former mayoral rival Ed Koch, but he felt that he’d won, only barely, against something worse: “I have never seen the anger of the people and the fear of the people as high as it is now,” he told me during the campaign. “You see it expressed in the bitterness with which people ask for the death penalty. I mean, just as an expression of the dissatisfaction of the people’s soul, it’s unique…”

Cuomo ended up relying on a commingling of logic and faith that he thought good leadership could summon in the people. I doubt that our society’s political culture and concentrations of power had strengthened his reliance on that commingling by 1993, when he turned down the Supreme Court nomination. Although he disappointed us, perhaps we, too, had let him down.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.