I received a text message from my eldest daughter on New Year’s Day.
“Mario Cuomo is dead”.
I frowned, lips tight, sitting alone watching a college football game.
I think she sent me that text because she knew what it would mean to this old Italian American liberal.
Mario Cuomo is dead.
I recalled sitting watching the Democratic Convention with my wife in 1984. Mario, in his first term as Governor of New York, the first Italian American Governor of New York, was going to deliver the Key Note Address.
Ronald Reagan was President. And he was popular.
Cuomo had a reputation as a fine public speaker. In 1984 he was, as they say, “up and coming”.
What he delivered to the Convention and the nation was one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. It was simply electrifying. He took on Reagan’s policies, his “Shining City on a Hill” tooth and claw.
Cuomo was not simply liberal; he was a proud LIBERAL! He was not at all ashamed or reticent about what liberals had accomplished since Franklin Roosevelt. He reveled in the accomplishments. The speech was to say the least a barn burner. Liberals were screaming with hysterical joy hearing words that even one of their own had not uttered in years. I had no doubt that Cuomo could have had the nomination that night – except that Walter Mondale already had the nomination sewed up.
I don’t remember ever being more proud to be an Italian – American.
Cuomo would gain a reputation as one of the greatest speakers of the century.
He added to his reputation when he took on religion and politics, criticizing the church’s effort to pass laws on “morality”. And he did it at Notre Dame in South Bend. He incurred the wrath of New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor who almost excommunicated him.
Cuomo grew up in South Jamaica New York, behind his father’s grocery store. His parents were from Southern Italy. My grandparents were from Southern Italy; my grandfather had a Latticini Freschi, a dairy story – he lived behind it. Cuomo was a good enough athlete to play baseball for a Pirates farm team in Florida until hit in the head by a pitch. He never played baseball again. Instead he enrolled in St. Johns University and law school, entering politics.
He was elected Governor in 1982 and after his 1984 Convention speech was considered a front runner for the Presidential nomination in 1988 and 1992.
He declined to run and became “Hamlet on the Hudson”. Ten years ago in an interview he said that going from the back of the grocery store to the New York State House in one generation was enough. Our dreams of President Cuomo died with the election of Bill Clinton. Cuomo had again refused to run.
Cuomo followed in a long line of Italian American anarchists, socialists, syndicalists and leftist / liberals beginning with Carlo Tresca and Luigi Galleani, ending with the outbreak of war with Italy, the assassination of Tresca and the death of Vito Marcantonio in the 1950s.
Increasingly Italian Americans have been taken for granted as just another conservative Catholic group.
Mario Cuomo spoke of the things which were important and transcendent. Listen to his Convention speech – it could have been written yesterday. Italian Americans, as a people, have forgotten our proud political heritage. We are a people lost in America.
Unfortunately today our most illustrious sons are the demi-fascists Scalia and Alito.
You did good Mario. Real good. You made us proud.
Cuomo’s DNC speech – part 1 of 4 – all available on Youtube