New York Times Reporter Matt Bai: 'Something Awesome' About Sitting Next to Liberal Titan Mario Cuomo

April 12th, 2011 12:48 PM

Matt Bai, chief political correspondent for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, celebrated the “grace and gravitas” of former New York State governor and perpetual Democratic presidential hopeful Mario Cuomo, “Papa Doesn’t Preach – Mario Cuomo would be a perfect elder statesman, if only his son’s generation wanted one.”

Bai talked to the elder Cuomo, whose son Andrew is governor of New York, at his office at a Midtown law firm. The profile begins with Cuomo in charmlessly pedantic mode, with a lecture on the precise meaning of the word “proud.” Bai admired him as one of the liberal “titans of the day.”

If you were a kid in the Northeast during the 1980s, as I was, there is something awesome -- in the literal sense -- about sitting across a desk from Mario Cuomo, even if he now misplaces names and occasionally grasps for the point of an anecdote that has fluttered just out of reach. He was, at that time, the anti-Reagan, a powerful and resonant voice of dissent in the age of “Top Gun” and Alex P. Keaton. Cuomo, Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson were the three titans of the day who seemed to possess the defiance needed to rescue liberalism from obsolescence.

In contrast, Bai’s reporting shows hostility toward conservative ideas and people, notably a July 18, 2010 story in which he conjured up a fiction of “hateful 25-year-olds” hurling racial slurs at Tea Party rallies.

Bai seems to take the decline of liberalism personally:

Now, of course, American liberalism is again in retreat. Bruised by the Democrats’ electoral defeat, President Barack Obama, who once embodied progressive hopes more than any Democrat since Cuomo’s day, is cutting community-development block grants and corporate taxes. Meanwhile, in state capitals across the country, a new generation of governors is seeking to roll back social programs and the gains of government workers. Chief among these governors, poignantly, is Andrew Cuomo, whose own austerity measures include billions of dollars in cuts from state spending on Medicaid and education, even as he resists new taxes -- and proposes to let lapse a surcharge on the wealthy. Andrew sounds just like his father (he has the same outer-borough accent that makes “because” sound like “be-KAWCE”), but the substance of his message more closely resembles that of his other political tutor, Bill Clinton.


Cuomo’s most repeated quote holds that you “campaign in poetry” but “govern in prose.” The prose of Cuomo’s time in office, like that of most governors, reflected a good deal of ideological flexibility. It was the poetry, really, a body of oration unrivaled in contemporary politics, that made Cuomo a liberal hero. The most enduring of his speeches, and the one that introduced him to most Americans, was the keynote address to the Democratic convention in San Francisco in 1984, in which Cuomo took millions of viewers on a rhetorical tour of what Ronald Reagan called his “shining city on the hill” -- its slums, its homeless shelters, its shuttered plants. Fifteen years later, a survey of more than 100 scholars nationwide ranked Cuomo’s address the 11th-best American speech of the century. By comparison, Ted Kennedy’s “dream shall never die” speech came in 76th, while Bill Clinton’s eulogy at Oklahoma City landed at No. 92. (Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” was No. 1.)


Perhaps Cuomo did what he could for the cause of liberalism in the years that followed, but there is little in the record to account for it. Instead, voters continued to lose their faith in government, and the left continued to search in vain for another spokesman with Mario Cuomo’s grace and gravitas.