Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Mario Cuomo: Poetry and Prose in Politics

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The phrase “campaigning in poetry and governing in prose” was coined by the late and former New York governor, Mario Cuomo.  In the interests of full disclosure, I have been an admirer of Mario Cuomo ever since he gave the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Since he passed away on January 1, the media have been replaying this landmark speech. 

Cuomo’s later address at the University of Notre Dame in September 1984 on the Catholic politician and pluralism was also a classic.  It has been considered a model for governance in a diverse and pluralistic society.  He was quite the orator.

The DNC speech was meant to be the Democratic response to the so-called Reagan Revolution and the conservative vision of Republican politics back then.  While President Reagan spoke of the “shining city on the hill,” Governor Cuomo countered with his version of the “tale of two cities.”  It was a call for greater equality and more social justice.  It explored how government can help provide opportunities for jobs, fight to reduce poverty, and contribute to the overall prosperity of American society.  Above all, the Cuomo speech may have been the last hurrah of the liberal, progressive vision of America.

To some, the speech may be an eloquent expression of another time in history, and that its message is no longer as relevant or as electorally viable today.  To those who believe this, it may be worthwhile to give it another listen.  If anything, economic inequality has risen and poverty levels remain unacceptably high in developed societies.  Cuomo spoke of America then, but he might also be speaking about America today.  As a Canadian, I believed his message transcended the U.S. border, with relevance for Canada then and now.

The eulogies for Cuomo are coming daily, and reflect the widespread admiration for the man and his work.  Some make reference, with some regret, to his refusal to seek a higher office such as the presidency, or a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.  I have no doubt that he would have served honorably in both offices.  His reluctance to go beyond the governorship of New York has a lot to do with the kind of individual he was.

Cuomo was grounded in convictions, values and service.  His years in office and beyond reflected that.  Yes, he was never reluctant to use the “l” word (liberalism) and present his vision of a progressive role for government.  Convictions and values were important to him, but he was, above all, a family man.  If one judges by the success his children have had and the strength of his family life, it says a lot about the governor’s example.

I recall the briefing notes (while I was chief of staff to Québec Premier Robert Bourassa) that indicated that the governor had to end the meeting by a certain time to be back in Albany, as he never liked to sleep away from home.  Similar anecdotes about his family life have been repeated by some close collaborators in media interviews since his passing away.

Cuomo was not born into wealth and considered public office a higher calling.  In the conduct of his public service, he will be remembered for his civility in debate and in the overall “give and take” of politics.

I was saddened by his passing away.  I had the good fortune of meeting him in 2011 while I served as Québec Delegate General in New York.  The Mario Cuomo I met was a courteous, sincere and pleasant man who recalled his various meetings with former Québec premiers.

I recently heard an interesting anecdote about Cuomo.  While meeting with then-Québec Premier René Lévesque in 1984 in the Lake Champlain region, a young girl who was about eight years old asked what he was planning to do about the environment.  Cuomo got down on one knee to be at the young girl’s height and replied:  “It all depends on what we are willing to deprive ourselves of today to leave a better world to others that we may never know.”  You could say that Mario Cuomo lived his life in poetry.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada, Mario Cuomo, New York
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