Mario Cuomo an unapologetic social liberal

Mario Cuomo has passed, we all knew it was coming.

He was a huge part of my life. It started after I had written a column during the gubernatorial primary between him and Ed Koch. The headline was, “Meet Governor Koch.” For years Cuomo told me that he kept it in his top drawer just to torture me.

It seemed impossible that this obscure Queens lawyer could beat the ballistic, bombastic Koch, who was Mr. New York and who had beaten Cuomo in a previous primary for mayor of New York.

Well there I was, a youngish professor, running a series of public radio stations feeling sorry for myself. Cuomo would never talk to me, I thought, because I had picked the wrong horse. Well, one day I got a call from a Cuomo press secretary, Steve Morello, that he wanted to talk to me so I went down to the capitol, hat in hand, and met with Morello.

The phone rang and Steve said, “Guess who’s here with me, Alan Chartock,” and he told me it was the governor on the phone and he wanted to see me. So I went down to his office and there he was.

Within moments he was asking whether he could be on my radio show. “Anytime” I said. “No,” he said, “I mean every week.” And so it began on virtually every public radio station in the state. Twelve years together, arguing, having fun, with the single brightest, funniest, clever man in the world. Yes, I mean that; in the world.

I ended up writing a book about that relationship, “Me and Mario Cuomo.” It was a history of our adventures. First there were the 12 years when he was governor and then several more years when he was just Mario.

He could do any dialect, he could tell stories like the one about the Blue Spruce where his father exhorted the boys to get shovels and rope when a giant lightning burst felled the tree in front of the family’s new home in Queens. Imitating his father’s Italian accent, Cuomo intoned, “Come oona boys, we’re a-gonna pus her up.”

Years later the grandest blue spruce in the world was in front of that house. Needless to say, we all cried as the can-do story ended. Then there was the one about Ginger the dog. “Ginger is dying,” he read from his diary on the radio. He should have treated Ginger better and every animal owner’s heart melted.

When had a governor ever showed a heart like that of Mario Cuomo? Simple answer: never. It sure wasn’t his predecessor the dour Hugh Carey or his successor, the plastic George Pataki. Nope, Mario was one of a kind, an unreconstructed Rooseveltian social liberal who believed that everyone had to have a fair shot in life.

He may have polled but let me tell you when it came to things he really believed in like his refusal to embrace a death penalty or his fight for a woman’s control over her own body he didn’t give an inch. He stood up to his own church and to the cleric whose words on the front page of a New York tabloid threatened that he would “Burn in hell.”

He once asked me whether I believed in the concept of hell.

“Yes sir,” I responded. “Where is it?” he asked.

“Right here Governor,” I answered.

He allowed that I might make a good Catholic.

One time he called me a “putz” on the radio.” I told him that was a dirty word but undeterred, he said it three more times, “Putz, putz, putz.”

When I told him the word meant penis he assured me that the correct Yiddish word was schmuck. I told him that was true but “putz” was worse. Shortly after the show was over he called and said that we had to do the show over again.

So after all those years on the radio together I mourn for my friend Mario. He was a huge part of my life. I will be forever grateful.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 1/9/15

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