Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cuomo's Tale of Two Cities

"So, here we are at this convention to remind ourselves where we come from and to claim the future for ourselves and for our children. Today our great Democratic Party, which has saved this nation from depression, from fascism, from racism, from corruption, is called upon to do it again — this time to save the nation from confusion and division, from the threat of eventual fiscal disaster, and most of all from the fear of a nuclear holocaust."

Mario Cuomo
July 16, 1984
San Francisco

The keynote speaker at a convention is expected to establish the theme to be built upon.

In 1984, the Democratic Party was still demoralized from its loss of the presidency in 1980. The task facing New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, as he prepared to deliver the keynote address at the Democrats' convention in San Francisco, was twofold: to make the delegates feel better about themselves and to define their mission in 1984.

That was really a fine line to walk. At the same time Cuomo was building up his party and its presumptive nominees, he had to tear down an administration that had been getting approval ratings in the 50s since before Thanksgiving.

He succeeded on both counts with a speech that is rated the 11th–best speech in the 20th century by American Rhetoric. It really was one of the best rhetorical performances you will ever witness, and it was especially impressive given that his message was not the one that the majority of Americans wanted to hear — and it was one of several impressive speeches delivered at that convention.

At the time, Cuomo's address propelled him to the front of the pack of would–be candidates for the 1988 and 1992 presidential nominations, but he declined to run both times. There were even those who said — as people often do after hearing an inspiring convention speech — that Cuomo should have been on the national ticket in 1984, even though few outside New York knew who he was until 30 years ago tomorrow night.

Cuomo began by challenging President Reagan's assertion that America was a "shining city on a hill."

"[T]he president is right," Cuomo said. "In many ways we are a shining city on a hill, but the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. ... Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a 'Tale of Two Cities' than it is just a 'Shining City on a Hill.'"

As I say, Cuomo's speech catapulted him into the lead in polls of Democrats just before the official starts of the 1988 and 1992 campaigns, but Cuomo was reluctant to enter either race — to the point that his indecision led to his being nicknamed "Hamlet on the Hudson." Actually, Cuomo's dawdling was a familiar refrain by 1992, but, in 1988, I knew many Democrats who fretted (perhaps correctly) that their party would lose the presidency for a third straight time because Cuomo would not seek the nomination.

His hesitance was baffling. The nomination seemed to be his for the taking — and I believe that one of the great what–ifs of history is the one about Mario Cuomo and the presidential campaigns of 1988 and 1992. I don't know anyone who thinks that George H.W. Bush — no matter what one may think of him in general — could have come close to matching Cuomo's eloquence in the debates in either campaign.

But there came times in both campaigns when his diffidence was too frustrating for Democrats who craved a leader.

Cuomo certainly was assertive 30 years ago. He sounded like a man warming up for the general election campaign as he criticized the Republican deficit.

"The president's deficit is a direct and dramatic repudiation of his promise in 1980 to balance the budget by 1983," Cuomo declared. "How large is it? The deficit is the largest in the history of the universe. ... It is a deficit that, according to the president's own fiscal adviser, may grow to as much as $300 billion a year for 'as far as the eye can see.' ... It is a mortgage on our children's future that can be paid only in pain, and that could bring this nation to its knees."

Speaking of children, there has been talk that Cuomo's son, Andrew, who now holds the office his father once held, may be angling to give the keynote address at the 2016 convention.

If he gets the assignment, will he do as well as his father did not once but twice? To be sure, if he does get tapped for the keynote job, he will face a far different set of challenges than his father did.

I imagine, though, that Andrew Cuomo wouldn't be likely to criticize the deficit spending of a president from his own party — unless, by 2016, deficit spending has fallen far from the voters' grace, and fiscal austerity is in style.

If that is the case, he can probably borrow very — pardon the pun — liberally from his father's speech 30 years ago, and few, if any, of his listeners will know that he didn't think of it first.

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