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Why Cuomo Said No

You would think Machiavelli was describing Mario Cuomo:

This Lord is very secretive, and I think no one but himself knows what he will do. His highest aides have often assured me that he never reveals his plans until he issues an order, and that is as late as possible, when the thing has to be done, and not otherwise.1

Actually, Machiavelli was reporting on the inscrutable Cesare Borgia. Hanging around the Duke’s court in Imola, Machiavelli complained to his superiors in Florence much as journalists in Albany lament having to explain to their editors why it is impossible to get a straight or simple answer out of Cuomo. Sometimes Machiavelli could not gain access to “the lord.” At other times Cesare would summon him late at night to berate him over the actions of his principals—like Cuomo explaining to a reporter why New York newspapers plot against the Governor of New York.

One should not press the Italian analogy too far—that can lead to the truly despicable whispers about Italian “connections” in Cuomo’s family. Nicholas Pileggi, the expert reporter on “wiseguys,” patiently followed up every rumor about Mafia skeletons in the Cuomo closet, and found nothing to them.2 He questioned the prosecutors who monitored all the tapes of bugged Mafia meetings and phone calls, who had found not even the normal name-dropping of big-time politicians in Cuomo’s case.

Another expert on the subject, the FBI’s Joseph Spinelli, who put Anthony Scotto and others behind bars, is a Cuomo appointee as New York’s inspector general. William Webster, when he was director of the FBI, made a special trip to New York to thank Cuomo for his help in the war on crime. Oddly, some of those who continue to circulate anti-Cuomo rumors without evidence would be the first to object to blanket accusations about Jews or African Americans. Racism comes in many varieties.

Others find the mystery of Mario in some psychic debility—his “Hamlet” hesitancy. Yet Cuomo can act rapidly in a crisis, as he proved during the Ossining prison riot that faced him immediately after he was sworn in as governor. In fact, he likes dramatic gestures that surprise others—and sometimes surprise himself. He took only ten minutes to decide that Soviet jets could not land in New York after the USSR shot down the Korean jetliner. I saw him reassign controversial space at a state hospital, on the spur of the moment, when answering a question at a public event.

Some people think of Cuomo as a tease, one who likes to keep others guessing, as he is purported to have done in the 1988 campaign. Yet he assured several Democratic candidates in that race that he would not enter. Why, then, did he keep kibitzing from the sidelines? He loves to “wargame” political strategies for himself and others—perhaps the one trait he shares with Richard Nixon.

Those who are obsessed by Cuomo’s mythical connections with the Mafia have not enough reflected on his admitted ties to another powerful organization, the Catholic Church. Cuomo’s biographer, Robert McElvaine, says of Cuomo: “His religion is central to everything he believes and does.”3 Republican presidents have been ostentatiously religious in recent years—in fact, we have had four in a row who called themselves “born again.” But the only modern Democrat widely known for his religion in the White House was Jimmy Carter, and that seemed to hurt him.

Cuomo’s religiosity is very different from Carter’s. He likes to quote the rosy cosmic scenarist, Teilhard de Chardin, where Carter quoted the gloomy Reinhold Niebuhr. But there is also a less sunny side to Cuomo’s theology. Like Jerry Brown and Eugene McCarthy, he was brought up in a clannish pre–Vatican II church, his attitudes formed before the acceptance of John F. Kennedy by the American electorate. Catholics of that era were outsiders, self-questioning but also dubious of others’ values. Brown, McCarthy, and Cuomo have all puzzled their followers by looking ironically at campaign excitement, as if from the sidelines, communing with themselves in public, asking whether the whole thing makes any sense. McCarthy used to make fun of his own followers’ zeal. Brown would quote Saint Ignatius on the need to go against (agere contra) one’s own impulses. There is nothing more infuriating to people working hard for a victory than to be told that defeat might be good for the soul. Yet Cuomo, in his published diaries, says: “I resist thinking of winning.”4 Cuomo even says he gave up professional baseball “perhaps because I enjoyed it so much.”5 At moments of victory, he goes off to ask his diary why he cannot feel elated: “For all my adult life, a monitoring device has controlled my emotional experiences.”6

Because they question the very terms in which issues are posed, all three of these men—Cuomo, Brown, and McCarthy—have been called “Jesuitical” (a charge they encourage, perhaps, by quoting the Jesuit Teilhard). But in fact only Jerry Brown was schooled by Jesuits—McCarthy went to a Benedictine college, and Cuomo to a Vincentian one (St. John’s). When he is in his underdog role, Cuomo says he cannot pretend to theological sophistication since he “only” went to the Vincentians, who are known more for mission work than for education. Though he quotes Teilhard, Cuomo was notably reluctant to discuss him when I brought up quotes from Teilhard’s central book, The Phenomenon of Man: “I’m not smart enough to understand The Phenomenon of Man, but I find The Divine Milieu rewarding.”

Cuomo spoke little English when he entered grade school—he had lived in his Queens neighborhood, working in his father’s grocery store, surrounded by those who spoke the Neopolitan dialect or heavily accented English. He quickly became not only polished but glib in his language skills, and confesses there was a time when he was ashamed of his parents’ accent. Even now he rarely uses Italian in public, admitting that “we learned the most terrible, corrupt Italian.” He says his wife’s Sicilian was even worse. He makes various popping and grunting sounds, and says, “It should have been accompanied by drums.” His wife, Matilda, has learned standard Italian in her frequent visits to the country. “She is the Queen of Italy,” he boasts of her, but Cuomo shows little interest in returning to his parents’ home, Upper Nocera (Nocera Superiore), outside Salerno. He was invited there for the earthquake relief effort in the early Eighties, but he has not been back since.7 He says the people would make too much fuss over him—resisting elation again.

But resistance may not be very difficult for him. Cuomo is famously reluctant to travel. He has never lived outside New York, except for the summer he spent in Georgia, as a minor-league outfielder, between his junior and senior years at St. John’s. He had never lived outside New York City until he moved to the governor’s mansion in Albany. When he gives an out-of-town lecture, he asks for a chartered plane to get back to Albany a few hours earlier than a dawn flight could deliver him. During the 1988 Democratic convention, he flew down twice for specific appointments—and flew right back, not missing a night of sleep in his own bed.

I asked his wife why Cuomo does not travel with her on her many trips abroad. “He has a tremendous sense of responsibility toward the citizens of New York.”8 In fact, he tries to run the state as his father ran the family grocery store, in the store morning and night, overseeing everything, having practically no life outside it till a heart attack made him start spending time with his grandchildren.

But the son’s dutifully long hours are not just a matter of responsibility for “the store.” Cuomo’s early diaries contain self-criticism for not spending time with his family (despite the centrality of family to his political rhetoric). He stayed after hours no matter what he was doing, even when that was teaching law or shooting the breeze with fellow legislators in Albany. To watch him finding excuses to stay at the state capital—including long talks with journalists—reminds one of the person who stays till the last people leave a party for fear the others will be talking about him if he goes earlier. The man who will not travel elsewhere is surprisingly willing to stay away from home to guard his own limited turf.

One of the many appealing things about Cuomo is his identification with outsiders. He was given his first political boost in the press by a group of then young journalists who had lost Robert Kennedy as a hero and thought they saw something of the same truculent identification with underdogs in Cuomo—writers like Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield, Ken Auletta. They had watched him, as a bright young law teacher, take on the cause of Italian homeowners in the Corona section of Queens, who were about to lose their property to the city. Cuomo’s success in negotiating their rights made Mayor John Lindsay appoint him as the arbiter of a highly charged dispute in Forest Hills over the construction of public housing that would have been occupied largely by low-income blacks. He worked long hours there, to the distress of his wife, who saw his legal fees dry up.9 McElvaine and others note how uncomfortable Cuomo was in his unsuccessful 1977 race against Ed Koch for the mayoralty, where he was seen as the organization’s man handpicked by Governor Carey. He was liberated in 1982 when he ran against Koch again and beat him for the governorship, running as an outsider and a populist.

The populist instincts are still strong in Cuomo, despite his time in power. He is even uncomfortable with the fact that his son Christopher is a senior at so “establishment” a school as Yale. “I’m not impressed by the Harvards, the Yales, the Stanfords. I would rather see him at SUNY Binghamton—we have a lot of good schools in this state.” He thinks students are not really tested at the elite schools. They are graded too easily because “the assumption at Yale is that if you’re smart enough to get in…. He [Christopher] just did a paper on the weekend. I watched him writing at his computer, and I told him, ‘You haven’t been in the damn library. Let me see that paper.’ He said, ‘Oh no…’ but I said, ‘Just let me read it.’ I hacked it up. I told him, ‘You’re better than this. The trouble is that you’ve been doing this for three years.’ ” The voice of Cuomo’s own hard-working father is not hard to find in such exchanges.

Cuomo is, by broad consent, terrific at oratory, debate, and campaigning. The record is less clear when it comes to governing. He runs a one-man show. Even he admits that others live in his shadow. “They say, ‘He sucks up the air in the room.’ That just means, ‘He’s big and loud!’ But do people think I could do it all myself?” It is said that Cuomo drives talented people away from him. Even in answering that charge, he gives grounds for believing it. Listing the talented people who have worked for him he mentions Evan Davis as a brilliant lawyer making (probably) over a half-million dollars now, though he stayed for five years with a demanding boss: “I threw back some of the legal work he had done [saying], ‘This isn’t good enough.’ ” In effect, Cuomo treats even those he respects as if they were his son Christopher, whose homework has to be corrected.

Journalists, who can be flattered by his attention to their writings and his attempt to manipulate them as consultants, are also wearied by his constant hairsplitting. For instance: I said that he claimed, in his published diaries, that his private religious views and his public views are “perfectly attuned.” Before I could get to the question based on this, he interrupted: “I probably never said ‘perfectly attuned’! Garry Wills said that. I probably said something like ‘compatible,’ or ‘a natural extension of….’ ” I had the book and could open it to the passage: he had said “there is a perfect consistency.”10 He got the (lame) last word, as usual: “I knew I wouldn’t say ‘attuned.’ ” It is hard to get to serious questions when one must keep battling through such thickets of preliminary quibbles. The story also illustrates a claim made by his older brother Frank: “I’ve never heard him admit it when he was wrong.”11 When I asked Mrs. Cuomo to comment on those words, she said: “He knows when he is wrong. He has his own way of admitting he is wrong—by changing his behavior. He is a good listener.” Not even she claims he will voice the admission that he erred.

Cuomo thinks that the journalists and the critics are the prima donnas, that they ignore his basically sound priorities and shrewd negotiations to object to his competitive manner. No one can question the competitiveness. Commenting on Bush’s vetoes, he said that recent disputes over first names tempt him to pay the President a compliment. “I would admit he is even good enough to have a fine Italian name—Vito Bush.” And when his son says that Cuomo only objects to Yale because Bush went there, his father answers: “And he only batted .251 [on the Yale baseball team]. I wonder what I got? I bet it was nearer .351. I’ll save that. Maybe after I nail him with Vito Bush, we’ll get the batting average out.” Cuomo’s college batting record was .360.

He talked, in this recent interview, a week before his withdrawal, as if he were already running. Asked whether “New York” would be a code word used against him, he agreed that it would, but “I’ll like to take that on”—explaining why his city is the greatest, most exciting in the world, one being invigorated by “the new immigration.” Listing his own assets as a president, he included physical stamina (which he certainly has) and moral strength. “It is a time for strength. It’s a skinhead time, an angry time, a mean time—a perfect time for strength, for a strength that is harsh like Duke’s, and that is what we’ll get if we don’t get a sweet strength. This is no time for blandness. Strength will win.”

His press conference, announcing that he would not run after all, showed that he is never bland. Cuomo sometimes runs a press conference like a seminar, grading his pupil-reporters as he makes them recite. But at his best he can orchestrate these sessions with a wit and bravura to match John Kennedy’s in his famous joustings with the press. Cuomo, characteristically, let us see what we would be missing as he lovingly kissed his presidential bid goodbye.

Why wouldn’t he run? The New York budget is a real (though not an insuperable) obstacle. Even in the interview in which he described with relish the prospect of running, he made little counterarguments that had nothing to do with the budget. “I think I can make the case against Bush: Can I make it in twenty-nine-second sound bites? Maybe not.” The system does not allow intelligent discussion. His office does that. His press room. The turf he controls. Cuomo, for all his quick mind, humane instincts, decency, honesty, is essentially provincial. His mind acts rapidly in the small arena he prefers. He is not at ease when he cannot be setting the terms of each encounter, even if it is only a conversation with a reporter. He tries to write the article for an interviewer while the interviewer tries to ask questions. “You haven’t got anything yet,” he will cheerfully observe. One cannot get what he will not give.

Besides the young staff he can test and chide and tutor, Cuomo has few around him who can challenge him. His closest adviser is his son Andrew. His old friend from law-clerking days, Fabian Palomino, carries on non-stop teasing with Cuomo which sounds like a catcher’s banter to keep a pitcher “up,” or like the locker-room boasts and bets that—with the ribaldry removed—Cuomo’s daily conversations resemble. It is a small world of intense mutual challenge and joshing friction—and much of it is just plain wasted energy. An outsider who spends time in that atmosphere soon feels claustrophobic. But for Cuomo it is home; and, like the Italians he first defended with passion, he is not leaving home.

  1. 1

    Macchiavelli: Legazioni commissarii, scritti di governo, edited by Freddi Chiappelli (Laterza, 1984), Vol. II, p. 365 (December 21, 1502).

  2. 2

    Nicholas Pileggi, “The Cuomo Rumors,” New York, 1987, pp. 44–51.

  3. 3

    Robert McElvaine, Mario Cuomo: A Biography (Scribner’s, 1988), p. 62.

  4. 4

    Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo: The Campaign for Governor (Random House, 1984), p. 299.

  5. 5

    Cuomo, Diaries, p. 14.

  6. 6

    Cuomo, Diaries, p. 320. On the verge of victory in 1982, he wrote: “I get ready. What are the advantages of losing? ‘Obscurity.’ Call it ‘privacy’ and make it a virtue” (p. 349).

  7. 7

    Nocera is an interesting place in its own right. Its sister city a little farther down the mountain slope (Nocera Inferiore) was the Latin town Nuceria, invaded by Hannibal and Spartacus. (Spartacus had his camp of rebel gladiators close to he summit of nearby Mount Vesuvius.) Manfred’s wife died in the fortress of Nocera. A number of good things—e.g., the painter Francesco Solimena—came, like the Cuomos, from Nocera.

  8. 8

    In his diaries (p. 280), Cuomo suggests another reason for not liking ceremonial trips with Matilda (who is active in exchange programs for students from various countries). About greeting strangers while campaigning, he wrote: “Matilda seems to love it, although she denies that. I don’t like it….” I asked Mrs. Cuomo about this passage, and she answered, “I’m a people person. As a child, my father would take me to the openings of his department stores, and I was the center of attention.”

  9. 9

    Cuomo, Diaries, p. 70: “I can’t blame Matilda for being angry at my refusal to make money as a lawyer even while serving. She doesn’t see it as a commendable effort to create no false image of conflict: she sees it as selfishness on my part.” When I read this passage to Mrs. Cuomo, she admitted she had money worries after working as a teacher to put her husband through law school: “We lived on a sofa bed in the living room [of his parents’ house], waiting for my sister-in-law Maria to marry and move out of her room.”

  10. 10

    Cuomo Diaries, p. 17.

  11. 11

    McElvaine, Mario Cuomo, p. 118.

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