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Politics & Government

Mario Cuomo, Former 3-Term New York Governor, Dies At 82

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

New Year's Day was a day of transitions. Andrew Cuomo took the oath of office for a second term as governor of New York.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, died at age 82. There is no better way to remember Cuomo than to listen to the sound of his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARIO CUOMO: Thank you very much. On behalf of the great Empire State and the whole family of New York, let me thank you for the great privilege of being able to address this convention.

GREENE: It was the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. And Democrats were challenging President Ronald Reagan, who had spoken of America as a shining city on a hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CUOMO: But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there's another city. There's another part to the shining city, the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one, where students can't afford the education they need and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.

INSKEEP: Cuomo was speaking in support of Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale. For the record, Mondale was utterly crushed that fall in one of the most overwhelming landslides in American history.

GREENE: But Democrats took note of Cuomo's eloquence. They soon spoke of him as a presidential prospect.

INSKEEP: Might have known better - immediately after that 1984 speech, Cuomo caught a plane back to New York. He could rarely stand to leave his home state. That's how New York he was.

GREENE: And when his chance came to step on the national stage for the 1992 presidential election, Cuomo chose not to run. That cleared the way for another Democrat, and Cuomo spoke in support of him at the Democratic Convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CUOMO: Prayer is always a good idea. But our prayers must be accompanied by good works. We need a captain who understands that and who will seize the wheel before it's too late. I am here tonight to offer America that new captain with a new course before it is too late. And he is Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

GREENE: Bill Clinton won that election. But Democrats then suffered devastating losses in 1994. The losers included Mario Cuomo, defeated for re-election.

INSKEEP: In later years, the ex-governor turned to writing. He wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln and came on this program to talk about it. We had a little argument that showed Cuomo's mind at work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: President Lincoln never professed to belong to an organized church of any kind.

CUOMO: Well, that's absolutely accurate. If he was anything, he was a rationalist.

INSKEEP: And yet, even though he did not belong to an organized religion, Lincoln often did invoke God in his speeches and used the language of the Bible in his speeches, which is a way he's like modern politicians, isn't he?

CUOMO: He used the language of the Bible over and over in his second inaugural. How religious his references are, that's absolutely true. But he never talks about Jesus as God, and he doesn't talk about God. He talks about creator. He was clearly not a person who accepted any specific religious faith.

INSKEEP: In the second inaugural, there's the line about as God gives us to see the right. I mean, there are references to God.

CUOMO: Yeah, well - yes, but he never makes an argument for God.

INSKEEP: I just wonder if it says something about the electorate that politicians were addressing then and now...

CUOMO: Well...

INSKEEP: ...Something practical.

CUOMO: Well, yeah, let me ask you a really grubby political question - I'm better at this than you are because I lived that life for a long time - would a politician stoop so low as to use religion to get close to voters?

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

CUOMO: Yeah, I just - I hope I didn't do it too much because when I drop dead and I find out there is a God and indeed he has a big book with everything noted - yeah, of course politicians do it. Did Lincoln do it for that reason? All I know is Lincoln was a master politician.

INSKEEP: The late Mario Cuomo's career as a politician was pragmatic. Behind the soaring rhetoric was a governor who was often centrist, managing New York's slow recovery from the economic disasters of the 1970s. He worked on the pragmatic details of governing his state and his shining city. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.