A Hard Case

[Bernard of Clairvaux] seems to have preserved as much reason and humanity as may be reconciled with the character of a saint.”

—Edward Gibbon

To the governor of New York, language is a device for making oneself look better than one probably is. To the mayor of New York, language is a device for making oneself look worse than one could possibly be. The governor would seem to have entered upon the third of his wrestlings with the mayor with the advantage of intention. Charm would not belong among the absolute virtues if it were not the product of unwearying effort to keep one’s bad side out of sight.

Diaries of Mario Cuomo offers an abundance of charm. There beats through its pages the pulse of an artisan ancestry. We might be reading the notations of a cottage handicraftsman. Writing as governor-elect and awaiting inauguration, Cuomo digresses to provide us with a short treatise on the shining of shoes, and even those purists who might be puzzled by the intrusion of liquid polish into that rite must commend this entry as a model of technical exposition. By now he has ascended to the possession of five pairs of shoes; and there is every reason for confidence that, even if he gets to ten, he will go on shining them all himself.

But then the governor seems to manage his private life and his public career the way a peasant would his farm. An endearing scent of domesticity pervades these diaries; it seems only natural that when Mario Cuomo set out to expand his holdings, to the astonishment of his neighbors, he felt it a duty to the modern to solicit the counsel of the professional political agronomists. But he then proceeded to plant and plow in accordance with his own instincts and handled his own affairs with so close a hand that, when it came time to choose a chief steward and overseer, he selected his son Andrew.

Mayor Koch’s autobiography achieves its most alienating pitch in those passages where he savors the pleasures of a woman’s tears; and Cuomo’s diaries are at their most engaging when he records an occasion when a woman has set him to reflecting upon his inadequacies. His mother makes it plain that she is far from assured that he did not disgrace his inheritance when he chose politics as a vocation; his wife cannot understand why he refuses to ease his family’s straitened fortunes with the private practice of law during his intervals of freedom from the none-too-taxing toils of a lieutenant governor; his eldest daughter tells him that his aspirations to be governor are just an ego trip. There is something irresistibly old-fashioned about any man who cherishes Woman by no means least because she is so fruitful an inspiration for feelings of guilt.

We would be foolish to assume that the nobility of impulse that breathes through these diaries is an unvarying manifestation of Cuomo’s full …

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