It was 1983, and the newly elected governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, was flying on a small state plane from upstate down to the New York City. Tim Russert, his brilliant young press secretary, and I, a political journalist, were with him.
He was speaking that evening to a gay-lesbian dinner in New York City, and cracked that he and Bella Abzug – the bombastic, left-wing former member of Congress – would be the only straight people in the room.
This was 1983. As the conversation proceeded, I acknowledged, that while liberal on racial matters and women’s rights, I sometimes felt uncomfortable on gay issues.
Cuomo, who died Thursday at 82, could be an overpowering presence. At 30,000 feet over New York state, he got a very serious look, put one of his giant hands on my arm and noted my wife and I had just had our first child, an infant boy.
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“Every time you think about this, ask the questions: Should that boy be able to teach school? Should he be denied a job because of his sexual orientation? Should he be able to join the Army? Should he enjoy the same education and housing opportunities that you enjoy? Should he be an automatic delegate to the Democratic or Republican conventions?”
The issue then became pretty clear – even the one negative; no, he shouldn’t be an automatic convention delegate.
Cuomo went on for about 15 minutes about the virtues of diversity and God’s creations and our responsibilities here on earth. It was powerful.
There are few, of the thousands of politicians I’ve talked to over the years, capable of leaving that mark.
Cuomo was the most dynamic and charismatic Democratic politician of the 1980s and early ’90s. His speech at the 1984 San Francisco convention was a clarion call for Democrats to fight what he called the political Darwinism of Republican policies that left many behind.
When Cuomo, a devout Catholic, spoke at the University of Notre Dame, he set the model for progressive Democrats who championed assistance for the poor and might oppose the death penalty but rejected the Catholic church’s rigid position against abortion.
He liked to say that politicians campaigned in poetry and governed in prose. His poetry is better remembered than his prose.
In contemporary America, there hasn’t been such a powerful national politician who never ran for president. Twice he probably could have won the Democratic nomination, in 1988 and 1992, but chose not to run. He also turned down a chance to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cuomo was such a quintessential New Yorker that he never would have been comfortable elsewhere. He waged titanic races against Ed Koch, who died last year, losing for mayor of New York City and then winning for governor, where he served three terms.
He lived to see his children achieve success, including his son, Andrew, who Thursday was sworn in for a second term as governor of New York. Andrew possesses his father’s forcefulness and toughness, but little of Mario’s charm.
That night more than 30 years ago, Tim Russert and I went out and had more than a few drinks and told political stories, but I never forget the lesson on tolerance in that plane that day.
Albert Hunt is a columnist for Bloomberg View.