SAN DIEGO – Have you heard the one about the conservative columnist who mourned the passing of a liberal icon?
At least, I’m often told that I’m “conservative” – usually by liberals upset at something I wrote.
There is truth in the adage: If you’re young and not somewhat liberal, you don’t have a heart. And, if you’re older and not more conservative, you don’t have a brain.
When I was younger, I was more liberal. It was as a young man, between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, that I first heard the finely tuned cadences of Mario Cuomo. Watching his powerful and poetic keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, I was mesmerized.
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For the next few years, I read all I could find about Cuomo, and followed his speeches on C-SPAN.
One of my favorites is another address Cuomo gave in 1984. At the University of Notre Dame, he spoke about how elected officials might reconcile their personal faith with their public duties. He talked about being a Catholic, drawn to his church by love, but asked this, about calls to ban abortion: “Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin?”
Who talks that way? I went on to a career in journalism where, over the last 25 years, I’ve met and covered hundreds of politicians. It won’t surprise you to hear that most of these people are not the sharpest knives in the drawer.
By contrast, the three-term governor of New York, while known as one of the great orators of his generation, was also a skilled writer and profound thinker. I heard him speak once in Fresno, California, and he was funny, smart and immensely likable. He spoke from the heart not just about his passion – politics – but also about his father and his children.
And so when I learned recently that Cuomo had died, it was almost like hearing about the passing of an old family friend.
Just two months earlier, I had visited CNN headquarters in New York to appear on the morning show “New Day,” hosted by Chris Cuomo, the governor’s son. Off camera, I took a moment to show Chris something I’d brought from California – a framed letter, from 1985, that his father had sent me in response to one I’d sent him praising his speeches and his example, and mentioning where I planned to go to college.
The letter was supportive but certainly not lacking in Cuomo’s trademark bluntness, closing with the line: “Good luck at Harvard. But why aren’t you studying in New York??!!” Chris smiled, and thanked me for showing it to him.
“Hey, I’m a big fan of your dad,” I said.
What I’m not a fan of are politicians who think we all have short memories. Former President Bill Clinton – in a joint statement with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton – called Cuomo “the very embodiment of the American dream.”
That’s more flattering than what Clinton said about Cuomo in a taped phone conversation with alleged mistress Gennifer Flowers that took place before Cuomo announced that he would not run for the Democratic nomination in 1992. Clinton, who was then governor of Arkansas, was already in the race. He was concerned that Cuomo would soon enter it and cruise to the nomination.
At one point, Flowers said that she wouldn’t be surprised if Cuomo “didn’t have some Mafioso major connections.”
Clinton responded: “Well, he acts like one.”
Clinton later apologized, sort of. He said: “If the remarks on the tape left anyone with the impression that I was disrespectful to either Gov. Cuomo or Italian-Americans, then I deeply regret it.”
Cuomo accepted Clinton’s apology, but not before giving it a failing grade.
“What do you mean ‘if'?” Cuomo said, referring to Clinton’s statement, when questioned by reporters in Albany. “If you are not capable of understanding what was said, then don’t try apologizing.”
Then came the brutal honesty, delivered like a hammer.
“This is part of an ugly syndrome that strikes Italian-Americans, Jewish people, blacks, women, all the ethnic groups,” Cuomo said.
Who talks that way? Not enough of our elected officials, that’s for sure. Afraid to say anything controversial, most of them have become skilled at saying nothing worthwhile.
It’s just one more reason to mourn.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.