Mario Cuomo and the Shining City on the Hill
By Eve Berliner
The philosophic mind of Mario Cuomo.
By Eve Berliner
He is at once a mystifying mix of Lincoln and Hamlet - fiery and enigmatic, torn, intensely introspective, tempted by power and abhorring it, deeply religious, grappling with self-doubt, melancholia and the unanswered questions.
"Am I certain that I'm the very best there is?" he told a spellbound Silurian luncheon crowd at the Players Club on a crisp wintry afternoon in February. "I can never come to that conclusion."
He could have reached for the stars, the Presidency of the United States was within his grasp, he was on the brink of answering the call - 1983, 1987, 1991 - but he chose to stand apart, to decline the opportunity, to remain the political enigma he is, perhaps even to himself.
He could have had the Supreme Court nomination in 1993: "Would be wonderful, would be heaven," he tells his audience, but it would have taken him out of the fray. "I didn't want to give it up. I wanted to be in the game."
* * *
In 1984, Mario Cuomo electrified the Democratic National Convention with his moving and inspirational Keynote Address that revisited Mr. Reagan's shining city on the hill.
"There is despair Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city," he uttered; "...for the people who are excluded - for the people who are locked out - all they can do is to stare from a distance at that city's glimmering towers….
"The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail. The strong, the strong they tell us will inherit the land. We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact…lifting them up into the wagon on the way; blacks and Hispanics, and people of every ethnic group, and Native Americans - all those struggling to build their families and claim some small share of America…."
Mario Cuomo's eyes grew intense.
"We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound to one another."
* * *
Mario Matthew Cuomo was born on June 15, 1932 in the City of New York, a first generation American. His parents, Andrea and Immaculato [Giordano] Cuomo bid farewell to the dire poverty of Salerno, Italy in the late 1920's, in search of a better life. And when he came to this land of America, Mario Cuomo's father dug and cleaned sewers for survival.
By 1931, he was able to open a small grocery store in South Jamaica, Queens. Mario was born in the family's apartment above the store, the youngest of three, and spent most of his hours lost in reading and immersed in the world of radio serials.
"When my mother and father came [to America]," he told American Heritage Magazine in 1990, "they could not speak the language. They had no skills. They had one thing, a willingness to give labor. But it had to be at the lowest level. My father was literally, a ditch digger in New Jersey, literally."
Mario could not speak English when he entered public school; he spoke only Italian. By high school, his parents had enrolled him in St. John's Preparatory School, a Catholic high school of some academic rigor, where he was a good student and a terrific athlete.
"That struggle to live with dignity is the real story of the shining city," Mario Cuomo intoned to the nation in his stirring 1984 address. "And it's a story, ladies and gentlemen, that I didn't read in a book, or learn in a classroom. I saw it, and lived it, like many of you. I watched a small man with thick calluses on both hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example. I learned about our kind of democracy from my father. And I learned about our obligation to each other from him and from my mother."
The emotion rose from deep within him. "And that they were able to build a family and live in dignity and see one of their children go from behind their little grocery store in South Jamaica on the other side of the tracks where he was born, to occupy the highest seat in the greatest state of the greatest nation in the only world we know, is an ineffably beautiful tribute to the democratic process."
* * *
SCOUTING REPORT, PITTSBURGH PIRATES, 1951:
"Potentially best prospect. Could go all the way. Aggressive and intelligent. Very well-liked by those who succeed in penetrating the exterior shell. Will run over you if you get in his way."
Thus read the baseball scouting report of a young athlete named Mario Cuomo who at age 19 signed a contract with Branch Rickey for $2,000 to play centerfield in the Pittsburgh Pirate organization right out of high school - shortly after Mickey Mantle had signed with the Yankees for a mere $1100!
Cuomo - Glendie La Duke, as he was then known - was centerfielder for the Brunswick (Georgia) Pirates, a minor league team, when a wild pitch hospitalized him for a month with a severe head injury. Convinced that prospects for a major league career were crushed, he went home to Queens, enrolled at St. John's University, received a scholarship supplemented by playing semi-professional basketball, earned a bachelor's degree with top honors in 1953, and went on to St. John's Law School where he finished at the top of his class in 1956.
* * *
For Mario Cuomo, 3-time Governor of the State of New York, a thinker and a slugger like his hero, Joe DiMaggio, it has been a political life of action and passion, illuminated by the eloquence and humanity of his politics, his theology, his social conscience; a utopian pragmatist with deep spiritual roots to his democracy and the immigrantexperience that defined him.
He has been married for 50 years to Matilda Raffa with whom he has 5 children and 11 granddaughters!
A Lincoln scholar and aficionado, Mario Cuomo has just completed his second volume, as yet unnamed, about his great spiritual mentor and guiding light, Abraham Lincoln, a work that explores Lincoln's vision and truth and relevance in the murderous terrain of the 21st century.