Melissa Rusinek carries one of Mario Cuomo’s quotes with her everywhere she goes. “To comfort the afflicted, sometimes you have to afflict the comforted,” reads the quote she jotted down during a course she took with Cuomo during the 2008 election campaign.
If you need reminding, 2008 featured President Barack Obama’s message of “Hope” pitted against Sen. John McCain and Sarah Palin, “going rogue.” If it seems like a million years ago to you, I can assure you that you aren’t the only one.
The 2016 election has effectively erased any clear memory of inspiring political rhetoric. But speaking to Rusinek, and a number of others touched by the words of Mario Cuomo, has slowly, painstakingly brought a shred of hope back into my life.
Let me explain.
In the closing days of the 2016 presidential election I found myself no longer worrying about which candidate would win. I stopped envisioning years of scandal and investigations likely to follow a Clinton candidacy. Or the hate mongering, free-speech-undermining and sheer stupidity sure to accompany a Trump win. Both had lost me months before; instead I found myself drifting off, enveloped by memories of my commute from the rural outskirts of Greene County to middle school in the city of Albany and back again. After the grunge tapes had long outworn their welcome my mother and I would unfailingly switch back to WAMC, where we’d listen to Alan Chartock interview Mario Cuomo. After a few of these flashbacks I realized I was daydreaming about the first politician who ever reached me.
“Ever since Franklin Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees–wagon train after wagon train–to new frontiers of education, housing, peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; 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. For nearly 50 years we carried them all to new levels of comfort, and security, and dignity, even affluence. And remember this, some of us in this room today are here only because this nation had that kind of confidence. And it would be wrong to forget that,” Cuomo said in his 1984 keynote speech at the Democratic national convention.
Mario Cuomo: Poetry and Prose, the recent documentary by WMHT’s Matt Ryan, crystallized for me why these memories were so preoccupying and why Cuomo’s words kept creeping into the back of my head.
Mario Cuomo took a piece of my mind and my soul at a very young age. His thoughts on unity and fairness turned politics into the only language that made sense to me.
After a few WAMC fund drives and a large pledge (for a an 11-year-old), I owned tapes of Cuomo’s speeches and his interviews with Chartock. Imagine that, a rockstar politician with rhetoric capable of converting and capturing the young. It feels so long ago.
I soon found myself obsessing: Was I the only one? How many people did Cuomo reach, and in times like these, when politicians seem unable to communicate with anything but the rhetoric of fear, and sound bites and talking heads obscure actual meaning, will we ever again see someone as influential and gifted as Mario Cuomo?
I called Ryan in October to ask him what spurred the creation of his documentary. Cuomo passed away on Jan. 1, 2015. His death shook state government to its core; Gov. Andrew Cuomo postponed his State of the State address and members of the legislature who knew Cuomo mourned in a way that is rare in Albany. Cuomo was known to be exceptionally collegial with his colleagues from both sides of the aisle; his friendships lasted lifetimes.
Ryan said he initially started thinking about the importance of his documentary during the state Democratic Convention in 2014. Andrew Cuomo was accepting his party’s nomination–delivering a stump speech that had become more than familiar to most members of the Legislative Correspondents Association. “There was a moment during an applause line where Mario stood and quickly fell back down in his chair,” said Ryan. “I could tell he was getting frail. That’s where I got the initial urgency.” It helped that WMHT also had a treasure trove of footage of Cuomo during his three terms as Governor.
In 1984, Mario Cuomo delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention which propelled him to political stardom. In the speech Cuomo famously addressed President Ronald Reagan, telling him “This nation is more a tale of two cities than it is just a shining city on a hill. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces you don’t see, in the places you don’t visit in your shining city.”
Many wanted Cuomo to run for president in 1988, but he declined. It was assumed that Cuomo would be the Democratic nominee in 1992. Legend has it that in late December 1991 a plane was waiting for Cuomo at an Albany airport to take him to New Hampshire to meet the filing deadline to run in the Democratic presidential primary. Instead of getting on that plane Cuomo stayed in Albany to deal with an obstinate legislature and stalled budget negotiations.
Chartock, who interviewed Cuomo once a week on WAMC for the long-running show Me and Mario, remembered how Cuomo thirsted for debate and thrived on the written and spoken word. “Cuomo of course was a brilliant speaker and thinker of immense confidence,” Chartock told me in October. “He loved to engage in debate with anyone. He’d call up someone at a tiny paper in the boondocks to debate in the middle of the night, but the guy also thought a great deal about what he said, what it meant.”
Last month, I gave Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, a call to see whether he thought we might live to see another politician, from any party, with the rhetorical ability of Mario Cuomo.
“Mario offered a vision of the country that seems so far away now,” Muzzio told me. “It seemed possible then and it seems so impossible now.”
Muzzio lamented that Cuomo’s approach seems so absolutely foreign compared to that of today’s politicians. “Certainly the gift of transformative politics is a rare thing and so is the gift of transformative dialogue. We don’t grapple with big ideas or big concepts anymore. It’s all small bore, tactical and strategic.”
Muzzio went on to warn that the outcome of the 2016 election (yet to have been determined at the time of my interview, we hope) was going to be damning for the country regardless of who won. “If Trump wins it is an unmitigated disaster for American politics and one it will not soon recover from. If Hillary wins it is deadlock, investigations and attempts at impeachment.”
I was depressed, nearly defeated, but then Muzzio offered me a slight ray of hope. He reminded me he had taught a course with Cuomo, and his students from that class still carry a flame for Cuomo. “The 2008 Presidential Election: Where We Are as a Nation, Where We Want to Be, How We Get There” was taught by Muzzio and Cuomo from September to December 2008, and Rusinek isn’t the only one who holds Cuomo’s words close. Her fellow classmates Ben Guttmann, who was interviewed by The New York Times about the class at the time, and Chris Parker, both spoke to me about how the course impacted their lives.
“I remember the first day of class,” Guttmann said. “We were in this cruddy little room and Mario walks in and and it’s like a mirage, like he isn’t even real, but he made us feel very comfortable.”
They recalled sitting in a circle–all 22 students–so that Cuomo was in the middle of a discussion instead of in command of a lecture hall. How he quoted Lauryn Hill: “How you gonna win if you ain’t right within?” and how he handed out signed pocket constitutions to everyone at the end of the course. Rusinek carries hers in her purse.
They all say the news of Cuomo’s death shook them. Rusinek remembers thinking “Who’s going to speak for us now?”
As for whether there is someone who might take his place as the voice of the Democratic Party, or even as a politician from any party with the gift of rhetoric–none of them were holding their breath.
“Mario Cuomo and Barack Obama think about problems in paragraphs,” said Guttmann. “They take complicated issues and look at the big picture. They aren’t thinking in 140 characters, and we need more people like them.”
Ryan said that while he was filming his documentary he spoke to politicians on both sides of the aisle as well as journalists who all pined for Cuomo and his ability to express his political belief in a way that captured the imagination–that truly inspired.
“When I think about Mario, he was one of those rare individuals where you can hear a pin drop when they speak,” said Ryan. “I can only think of two other politicians who did that in my lifetime: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I do think there has been a precipitous downturn in political rhetoric. I think Mario was unique.”