Shribman: Looking back at Mario Cuomo

David Shribman

Late at night the lights burned in the governor's study. Mario Cuomo was reading, he was writing, he was worrying, he was agonizing, he was brooding.

For as all the world knows, Cuomo, who died Thursday just after his son, Andrew, was sworn in for his second term as New York governor, knew misery and torment. He may have been a tough three-term governor, and yet he worried if his children, adults now, were learning enough in their work. He was in despair over poverty, hunger and pain. He was afflicted with doubts, persecuted by questions.

When he entered the Capitol here and saw a homeless man huddled in the foyer, should he stop and comfort him? Or should he rush upstairs to his office, where if he used his time just right he might help thousands? Is he motivated by vanity or by charity? Is he good enough to be president — or an associate justice of the Supreme Court?

Mario Cuomo wondered about all this, and perhaps a few things more.

But inside the governor's mansion, where all the anguish seldom was quenched, Cuomo sometimes let escape a sentimental side — not confectionary, to be sure, yet just short of maudlin. A man who dipped into the writings of the ancient Hebrews and who drew strength from the thoughts of Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit religious speaker, could nonetheless be felled by a few bars of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," a 1940 song about a "pug-nosed dream," a country dance held in a garden and a cottage built of lilacs and laughter.

In that song, a ballad that is the soundtrack of the private Mario Cuomo, there hides a poignant line: "There were questions, but my heart knew all the answers — and perhaps a few things more."

For in the end, for all the brilliance of his mind, for the eloquence of his tongue and the strength of his bearing, Mario Cuomo was ruled by his heart. That is what transformed him into the most enigmatic and perhaps most transfixing character on the American political scene in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Indeed, from the start he was a puzzle, the sort of young man who excelled at baseball but once missed a routine fly because he was reading in centerfield. The best-defined but most elusive figure of his time, he was a devout Catholic who found Yom Kippur "a good day to look back and prepare to move forward."

In speeches he quoted Dante, Galileo, Lincoln and Johnny Szarzynski, who played basketball with him as a kid.

But Cuomo was neither prude nor patsy. In basketball he had one jump shot but two elbows, and though he was taught to forgive, he never quite learned to forget. For decades a remarkable number of New York's most influential, powerful and best-known figures, citing Cuomo's vindictiveness, wouldn't speak about him for quotation.

Cuomo never forgot being snubbed by the toffs of Wall Street's leading law firms, who couldn't imagine a name like his in little letters on the left side of their engraved letterhead.

He never forgot that when his mother passed through Ellis Island, someone decided whether she was good enough to enter the country. So Mrs. Cuomo's son was driven — perhaps to prove himself, perhaps to redeem himself, perhaps simply to excel.

In the early 1950s, Cuomo walked away from the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball organization, choosing instead what he called "Our Lady of the Law." But before he departed, he left an unusual mark, and it is recorded in the archives of the Pirates farm system.

"I think Cuomo has the tools to go all the way if the best can be brought out in him," Ed McCarrick wrote in May 1952 as the new outfielder was set to report to Brunswick, Georgia. "It takes some time to get his confidence and to know the warmth that is in him."

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.