I looked up to Mario Cuomo the first time I ever met him. He was standing in the batter’s box at Joe DiMaggio Park in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco on the July morning of the day he was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention later that evening.
It was a softball game that had been assembled by Herb Caen, the iconic San Francisco Chronicle columnist, and Tim Russert had suggested to Cuomo that he ought to drop by for an at-bat to show a pack of hung-over newspaper guys he still had a little game in him. Caen was pitching and I was crouched behind the dish, catching. Marty Nolan, Dave Nyhan, Curtis Wilkie, Tom Oliphant, and myself, all from the Boston Globe, were in the field as the Governor of New York took off his suit jacket, handed it to Russert, rolled up his sleeves and grabbed a bat in a manner that indicated he had done the same thing many times before.
I still remember the first words I ever spoke to him too: “Hey Governor, you’re wearing cop’s shoes,” as he stood there, a pair of black cordovans on his feet. I don’t recall his reply but I do remember he laughed while he took a couple practice cuts, his thick hands gripping the bat lightly.
Caen threw. Cuomo swung. And the ball came off the bat like a laser, streaking over second base on a line, landing on the asphalt outfield, splitting the fielders and rolling all the way to a far concrete wall.
Cuomo never moved. Simply dropped the bat, retrieved his jacket, watched the ball keep rolling, smiled and said, “ Thanks for taking it easy on me Herb.”
Now, he’s gone and his words are being recalled and repeated in the many tributes being written and recorded as if his speeches contained the singular substance of the man. But Mario Cuomo was so much more than well-crafted phrases. He was a living, quite visible and vocal reminder of the soul, the heart, the strong spirit behind the greatest story ever told: the American dream.
One year after he effortlessly lined that shot into left center field at Joe DiMaggio Park, he was in Cambridge where he gave the Class Day address at Harvard graduation ceremonies. And what he said on June 5, 1985 fits the mood of the moment three decades later.
“America was born in outrageous ambition, so bold as to be improbable. The deprived, the oppressed, the powerless from all over the globe came here with little more than the desire to realize themselves. They carved a refuge out of the wilderness and then, in 200 years, built it into the most powerful nation on earth. A place that has multiplied success for generation after generation of its children. I’m one of those children.
“…We built an America of great expectations…We struggled to provide those things for everyone. For brown, black, and white. For every state and every region and every town. We, the people, created a government that enabled us to do together, as a country, what no one of us could do so well – or at all – by ourselves…We reached out constantly to include the excluded…We did it hesitantly at times – sometimes reluctantly – but gradually – inexorably – we always moved toward the light.”
Today, many feel as if that ‘light” is no longer a 100-watt bulb but, instead, a cost-saving 50-watt where more than a few of us simply have to live in shadows. But that was never Mario Cuomo. He was a dreamer, an idealist, grounded in the reality he observed around him. A practical man who refused to run from the dreams that always drove him. A soldier in the service of ideals and aspirations that formed his core. A governor, a politician, a national figure? Sure, all of those and more but something else, something bigger, was his constant moral compass and focal point of any conversation I ever had with him: His family, your family, the idea that almost anything – any trouble, any ill, any hope – could be explained or outlined in the framework of a neighborhood, global idealism defined as if the world were one big block.
At times, Mario Cuomo seemed to have the humility of a Jesuit and the goals of an emperor. He had a big-picture view of life and politics that was framed forever by beliefs instilled in him by his parents, his faith and his unswerving loyalty and love for his wife, his daughters, and his two boys, whom he spoke of as if they were queens and kings. He sought and received any parent’s ultimate reward: the success and happiness of his own children.
So now it is a warm June day in 1992. Tim Russert and I are driving back to the Albany airport after taking our kids to the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. We call the governor to see if he’s got time for a visit.
Our kids were seven and eight years old and were without a clue that only months before a whole political party had clamored for Cuomo to run for president. The governor’s office looked larger than a football field to the little boys, but when they walked in, it wasn’t Governor Mario Cuomo who was there to greet them. Instead, it was Mario Cuomo, father, baseball guy, who was there for them with his smile, his laughter, his warmth and a flood of baseball trivia questions.
One of the kids had a ball in his hand, and Cuomo took it and tossed it back and forth to an eight year old. The kids had a gift for him too, a tee shirt with ‘Baseball Spoken Here’ stenciled across the front. And he had a gift for them: the lasting memory of time spent with a man who was bigger than the big dreams he had for those little children.
Across all the years, whenever I’d bump into him in New York City or speak with him on the phone, he’d always inquire about those boys, where were they in school, how were they doing in life. Whatever frustrations or disappointments he felt about politics never surfaced. Only an optimism rooted in his own sense of self and the route that had taken him from a home where his parents did not speak English to a position on our national landscape where his own voice and his own words could make people believe that the dream he lived could be theirs too, if only we listened and paid attention to who and what we really are as a country.
In July 2004, Cuomo was interviewed by his old pal, Tim Russert, for Tim’s CNBC show. Here is a snapshot of who Mario Cuomo was:
Tim Russert: Do you wish you had run for president someday?
Mario Cuomo: No
Cuomo: No. I don’t think I was good enough to be a president and you – you know, I – I really – I remember an editor – I won’t share his name but you can guess who it is. He was at The Times, and he says, ‘I don’t think you got the fire in the belly.’ I said, ‘Show me a politician with fire in the belly and I’ll spritz his mouth with seltzer.’ I said, ‘Who – who wants fire in their belly? That’s ego.’ I – I never felt that way about the presidency, as you – as you probably know. I – to – to say to yourself, Tim, that you’re better than all the other people out there who are available to lead this country, and therefore much of the world, that takes a little more self confidence than I ever had, I think. “
Mario Cuomo wasn’t wrong about too many things in his life. But he was wrong right there.