I was one of the journalists who covered Mario Cuomo when he was governor of New York in the 1980s and 1990s. The three-term governor, considered one of the liberal lights of the Democratic party, died on January 1, hours after his son, Andrew, was sworn in for his second term as governor.
I was more fortunate than most because I was bureau chief for a chain of business weeklies. I did not have to treat the governor’s news conferences as events for which I had to file a daily story. I could use his comments as background for in-depth pieces I would write about state policy, or include in my weekly column. So I had the luxury of viewing them almost as performance art — events that sometimes provided insights into the most complicated and tortured politician I’d ever encountered.
To understand what it was like to cover Mario Cuomo, you had to understand what it was like to work as a reporter in New York’s capital, Albany. The city is about two hours away from Manhattan, the place a good number of the state’s elected representatives called home. New York City, after all, is where more than a third of the state’s voters live and work.
Albany itself is an old city with cold, snowy winters, a downtown long on lovely brick buildings but short on interesting restaurants or cultural venues. If a city can have a personality, I would call Albany a cranky place; a town where civility wasn’t very pronounced and people tended to be suspicious of one another.
Perhaps they resented the sprawling state government complex, its acres of modern agency buildings flanked around a turn-of-the-20th-century state capitol that looked like a cross between a medieval castle and an institute for the mentally ill. Mount the steep steps of the capitol building, and go through the revolving doors, and suddenly you were in Manhattan again. The women were sleeker and far better dressed than those in the suburbs of Albany. The pace inside those doors was quick, the politics were cutthroat.
Reporters had to be approved for membership in the Legislative Correspondents Association in order to get access to the capitol press room. At the time I worked there, it looked like something that could have been created by Ben Hecht, the author of The Front Page. Reporters were jammed together, representing a variety of news outlets from all over New York. Computers were precariously connected to wall sockets that threatened to explode from overloaded circuits. The New York Times and Newsday had more private enclaves within the space. The Albany papers had their own space across the hall.
And there was a hierarchy. One reporter said that the Newsday reporters spoke only to reporters from the Times, and the Times reporters spoke only to God. What brought all of us together, however, was our singular frustration with Cuomo. Cuomo rarely gave direct answers to questions. Indeed, he’d usually respond to a question by posing his own question.
The Socratic Method can be a way of eliciting truth, but in Cuomo’s hands, it was a weapon. He did not have kind feelings for the Albany press corps. He seemed to view the media as an enemy to be foiled. Other politicians – Bill Clinton for one – courted reporters and knew how to enlist the media as an ally. I do believe that in his heart of hearts Cuomo thought that most journalists were out to get him.
Not that he was oblivious to the symbiosis that naturally exists between a governor and his state house correspondents. Annually, the reporters would perform a satirical show for the governor and Albany insiders, similar to the Washington journalists’ Gridiron show, but in my view, way funnier.
The dress rehearsal always got bigger laughs than the performance the following night. That’s because the governor attended the performance, as did his predecessors. And with each line, his staff would look over to see if Cuomo was laughing – in order to determine if it was safe for them to laugh, too.
I don’t recall how funny he thought it was, but one of my all-time favorites was the routine satirizing a typical encounter between Cuomo and a reporter. The setting was a high school class, and Cuomo was a student. The teacher asks Cuomo a simple question: “Did you do your homework?” Associated Press reporter Bob Bellafiore brilliantly captured Cuomo, who responds with a series of questions of his own. Was the teacher asking where his homework was? Was he asking whether he had done his homework? Was he asking whether the homework was physically in the classroom?
You had to be there to get the humor, but in truth, it was not that far from a typical Cuomo response to a question. You could not pin the man down. Reporters started bringing two tape recorders to press conferences, one to record his latest answers and another to play back his previous responses when he would deny having uttered them. The Governor would never explain. Nor would he ever admit to error.
I don’t think he behaved this way out of pride. Quite the opposite. I think he carried with him the sense that somehow he’d never be fully accepted. He was acutely sensitive to prejudice against Italian-Americans, something he felt blocked his aspirations early on in his legal career. Like Richard Nixon, he never felt like an insider. Those jokes he told about his mother, who always seemed unimpressed about the success he achieved, were self-deprecation tinged with a bit of hurt. And being an outsider, he was wary of any coverage that might be critical. So he always remained on the offensive.
Even the Governor’s annual baseball game with the press corps was played for keeps. Cuomo was notorious for larding his team with the beefiest State Troopers he could find. He always wanted to win.
It was this nagging self-doubt that haunted him, I believe. This sense that he would never be good enough. The irony of course is that reporters wanted so much to believe in him. The man’s oratory could soar, and he was faithful to a strong ethical code. He was not your typical pol. He opposed the death penalty when most New Yorkers supported it. He reminded America that the gauzy visions of Ronald Regan did not help the nation’s poor and oppressed.
People regret that Cuomo never ran for president, that he could have been elected. But I doubt that. The national press corps would have become disillusioned with the great orator from the 1984 Democratic convention, after encountering the prickly antagonist that the Albany press corps knew.
And Cuomo rose to power when Italian-American politicians often were assumed to have connections to organized crime. Indeed, throughout Mario Cuomo’s career, there were whispers about such ties. There was absolutely no evidence to back them up, but Cuomo knew that they’d surface in a campaign, anyway. I think the same fears may also have prompted him to pull back from a Supreme Court nomination during the Clinton Administration. Confirmation battles can be fierce and unforgiving. Indeed, his aversion to even the word, “Mafia” was so strong, he boycotted the “Godfather” films until 2013. (Now, of course, with the Court dominated by an Alito and a Scalia, these fears of Mafia connections seem ludicrous.)
I don’t think Cuomo shied away from running because he had something to hide. I just think he found the specter of battling these rumors day after day for months on end unpleasant, something to be avoided. He did not want to have to justify himself and his honor, after achieving a measure of success and respect he’d fought so hard to gain.
Perhaps I see in Mario Cuomo a little of my own father, also the son of Italian immigrants. My father never achieved the heights that Cuomo achieved. But they both grew up at a time when prejudice against Italian-Americans was common. My father always was dogged by the fear that he was not good enough, always afraid to take risks. He came so close to achieving so much more.
Cuomo always liked to talk about the difference between the poetry of the campaign and the prose of governance. Cuomo’s prose of governing did not soar. But he was a good and decent man. If he had the insecurity of a Nixon, he never let it get the better of him, never permitted it to violate his conscience or his core beliefs.
I hope that in his final decades, Mario Cuomo took pleasure in what he was able to achieve. If there is a heaven, perhaps the Governor will be able to engage Socrates himself in the exchanges that so frustrated the reporters covering him.