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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 nature. He has, in fact, no small quotient of resentments and aggressions. When his affairs turn sour, he can act as badly as any of the rest of us. In 1977, when he ran for mayor of New York and found himself in over his head, many of us who held him in the highest esteem were taken aback to hear him say that the baseless rumors of Congressman Koch’s affectional preferences deserved serious attention because any mayor of deviant bent would do a grave damage to the city.

These unappetizing expressions may be explained, if hardly excused, by the particular circumstance that had overborne the tolerance he had so long schooled himself to achieve. He was an outer-borough man, bred in Queens and tutored at St. John’s University, which, mother of governors though it has since turned out to be, was hardly Columbia’s law school or New York University’s.

His law practice was based in Court Street in Brooklyn, close enough to the East River for the magic and malefic towers of Manhattan continually to intrude their assertions and perhaps to some measure their reminders of his provinciality. Then the city beguiled him with its false promises, and Governor Hugh Carey and the publishers of the New York Daily News and the New York Post all pressed him to run for mayor and then successively deserted him. He was rebuffed and he recoiled; he felt himself lost in Sodom, and all the old parochial mistrustings of the unfamiliar took hold of him, revived and reinforced because the unfamiliar had been so painfully unwelcoming.

In time his decency reproved the sin and his calculations corrected the mistake. But he never quite got over his consciousness of being an outsider; even on the day after he won the Democratic primary, he would write, “it’s the little guy against the big guy; the underdog against the favorite. It’s nuclear freeze and ban the bomb; it’s ‘save the whales’ and Peace Corps; it’s ‘us’ against ‘them.’ And ‘us’ won.”

The “us against them” motif seems entirely in character; but those who agitate to save the whales and ban the bomb make odd company for anyone who appears, with a number of admirable deviations, as committed to conventional values as Cuomo does. But then they are outsiders too; and he had formed his battalions where he could find them, which was not only apart from the castle but beyond its very moat.

They were, of course, not his first choice of comrades. His diary abounds with entries about failed attempts to win over the insiders. His earliest hope was that he could put his case into the care of David Garth, that grandmaster of the up-to-date in electoral techniques. Garth’s commitment to Koch instead was the deepest disappointment he had. Thereafter, the experience of being rejected by every politician in touch with the practicalities became so habitual that even the assurance that a former assemblyman from the Bronx would stand by him was enough to light up the day.

Still, these humiliations may have been for Cuomo one of those gains that disguise themselves as losses; to have acquired Garth would have instantly marked him as one already anointed. That is so perilous a condition to a temperament like Cuomo’s that after he had conquered the primary and set out for a general election whose outcome every wise man took for granted, he gave way to his aggressive instincts and, in his own words, so “dissipated [my advantage] by my own conduct” that he came close to losing.

He is inarguably one of those candidates who run best when they can perceive themselves as behind. That is a position demanding extremities of selfdiscipline. One surmises that a conditioning for such discipline was the real purpose of these diary entries and that the prime object of the instruction they afford was the diarist himself. They are purgatorial and even inquisitional, and continually echo those words in the general confession where the sinner reminds the recording angel that he has done what he ought not to have done and left undone what he ought to have done and that there is no health in him:

For God’s sake, you know the truth! The truth is that the only way to make anything of your life is to be what you know you’re supposed to be…. You know—because it’s the only logic—that the test is Timothy’s: “to fight the good fight. To finish the race, to keep the faith.”

I haven’t. I’ve fought a thousand fights but not enough the good fight…. I’ve not—truly enough—kept the faith. I’ve hurt people by bad example, even my own family. I have too often permitted people to know what I believed was right then witnessed my violation of my own truth. That is the truth and it is part of the pain in my own chest.

There is an inescapable banality about any such seeking after the cathartic by way of the calisthenic. It is the early hours of the morning and the diarist is looking into his very soul as though it were his television set and Bonnie Prudden were looking back at him and all the other penitents and reciting the appointed movements that would shape the flesh to meet the torments of the rest of the day.

Cuomo was equipping himself to avoid both the giving and the taking of offense. His prior electoral ventures had taught him how indispensable both those precautions were for a nature curiously divided between the stiff-necked and the self-mistrustful. His pride was of the high and tender sort apt to be cankered by the recognition that he owed what dim refulgence he had gained to Governor Hugh Carey, who had made him secretary of state and tried to make him mayor. Even the office of lieutenant governor was not his own achievement; he had been the governor’s running mate and his own success had been subsumed in the governor’s.

They had eventually fallen out as this most capricious of patrons and prickliest of retainers were bound to do. But, before their breach, Carey was accustomed to speak of Cuomo the way some duke of Mantua might when he observed that he was not precisely a man of virtue himself but could without immodesty own to possessing a chaplain who was.

But Cuomo’s sermons began first to pall and then to sting. In the spring of 1981 Carey was no longer content merely to watch him struggle for life but began to weigh him down further with unconcealed disdain. In those days, Cuomo’s early-morning thoughts were scourings over unhopeful avenues of survival; he wondered whether Carey would even permit him to run for lieutenant governor or whether, for that matter, he wanted to. He was alternately drawn to and shrank from the perils of directly challenging Carey in the Democratic primary. Then the governor at last decided to retire from the wars and Cuomo determined at last to enter them.

His preliminary canvasses extracted more abjections from him than rewards from anyone else; it seems clear from his painstaking notes on the results of these solicitations that only the highest degree of affection for his person could dispute the general consensus that his ambitions were beyond his resources. He sought Garth’s advice and was told that he “shouldn’t wear a vest…, [should] meet Steve Ross, and [should] not tell anybody we’re meeting.” This amiable condescension could not obscure the assessment of most of the informed, which, as Cuomo sometimes judged himself, was that he was “evasive, pedantic and a loser.”

Then Mayor Koch chose to run for governor, and his intoxication with his public image proved so epidemic that most of the Democratic leaders rallied to him as swiftly as they could cast away the strings from which they had been languidly dangling Cuomo. He was left alone to confront the inevitability whose apparition had driven from the field everyone else who had been of a mind to make the race.

It is hard to imagine that he could have become governor in any circumstances easier than these because there could be none for which the strains of his morning exercises would so well have prepared him. He was reduced to the company of a host of amateurs who wished him well and a few professionals who wished Koch ill; there was no adviser with the proven authority to mold and warp him; he had the assistance of no calculations it would have helped him to take seriously except his own.

He had, for want of what would probably have been worse, to be himself his manager. And he divined his situation with more acuity than almost anyone else on the scene was ever able to do. From the very beginning he was aware of the modesty of his own public persona beside Koch’s; but he also understood that the mayor, as happens with great stars, had lost a little too much of his old solicitude for the feelings of others and that his insensitivity had stirred a swarm of resentments. Fear more than liking explained the allegiance of many a public official enlisted with him; he had cultivated a reputation for punishing anyone who gave him cause for a grudge. “I don’t believe the Mayor is as vindictive as some think he is,” Cuomo observes, “but the appearance works well for him.”

That reflection may be taken as willed effort to suppress his natural disposition and do justice to a rival in whose face the smallest lapse from the commands of chivalry might be fatal. We can well suspect, if only from a few fugitive undertones, that among the resentments the mayor had inspired, Cuomo’s were by no means the least lively; but he understood that they were so perilous to show that he must labor to hide them even from himself; if the mayor were arrogant, he must be especially modest; if the mayor were negative, he must be the more positive.

As late as the middle of May, when the primary campaign was well along, Cuomo understood that “For the moment…this race is dominantly Koch against koch, and Koch is winning. His popularity is still high, although I would guess it is not as high as it was two months ago. The decline, however, is only because there is beginning to be a contest, not because I have brought people to my side by what I have been perceived as saying.”

He could only wait and hope that, by prodigies of self-conditioning that may have extended to some accomplishments in the way of self-deception, he had produced that most marvelous of contrivances, the natural man, and would be accepted as a pleasant alternative to the mayor’s particular version thereof.

I’m more and more convinced,” he was writing by August, “that what people want is simple. Before everything else, they want to believe in something uplifting, pure, good.”

By then he had struggled out of the water; and the lifeguards he had longed for were hastening to assist him to the shore. Pat Caddell, President Carter’s pollster, had completed his chores in the Massachusetts primary and could give Cuomo his full attention.

Two weeks before the primary, Caddell produced a poll analysis that left him “convinced that he has figured out the election.”

His polls show that a large number of the Koch voters would shift to Cuomo given certain “new understandings.” Ironically, the “new understandings” are all points I have been pushing hard without a poll.

He had been right all along; and these diaries are a handbook of those tactics for running from behind that the Democratic candidates for president seem this year to be busily disregarding. But those of us with small taste for such uneasy employments will find larger fascinations in the intimations of a divided soul that has somehow succeeded in holding its polarities together.

Cuomo is singular for a public man in the impression he conveys of being nowhere comfortably at home. Much too late in his game, he is caught up in troublesome meditations about “the fragility of my political support”:

Dedicated liberals suspect me because I’m a Catholic; the Italians and the other middle-class ethnics are put off by my position on the death penalty.

No matter how inured he must be to the condition that, even in its least deplorable aspects, the political process is practice to deceive, he is never secure against sudden assaults by the knowledge. He makes the ritual pilgrimage to the South Bronx:

No matter how many times I see it, I am stunned each time by the devastation of some of the neighborhoods—and some of the people. The hulks of buildings—empty window frames looking like a hundred eye sockets…side by side with populated tenements, people sitting at the windows smoking cigarettes, waving at a politician they don’t know and who probably can’t help them much.

It’s such a hard business,” he muses in that bad time when the movement to Koch looked “inexorable.” It’s a business that allows you—indeed, forces you—to see yourself at your dumbest and your worst.”

What one finally, if uncertainly, feels in these ruminations is the presence of the animula vaga, the wandering soul that is not altogether at home even when it is home. Somehow there grows the sense that these journals have a larger function than to wall up every bad impulse beyond all chance of escape, and that Mario Cuomo keeps his diaries almost as adolescents do because they feel alone.

He wakes up from a quarrel over a nullity with the wife he adores, and notices, “It was a silly dispute and I should have been smart enough to handle it. Certainly, outside the house I would have had no difficulty in reconciling and pacifying. There is something about intimacy that tempts you to be less patient.”

He spends the last Thanksgiving he will ever know in life with the father he cherishes, and what he most vividly remembers from the day is: “I argued too much as usual: even I found it unpleasant.”

His blood and his hearth are the things largest in his heart, and yet he cannot find entire ease even with them. Mario Cuomo, we begin to suspect, has come through a good deal of almost secret damage; and that may explain why, however much against their author’s will and intent, these pages lead us as frequently as they do to infer the presence of a pretty hard case after all. But then continual wars to beat back the interior assaults of one’s own devils are not the least case-hardening of employments; and the governor could not refresh us as much as he does if a readiness to bear that lonely battle were more common in our public life.

  1. *

    Edward I. Koch, with William Rauch, Mayor (Simon and Schuster, 1984).

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