by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
January 8, 2015
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- American politics isn't kind to the losers. And as far as the conventional political wisdom goes, Mario Cuomo was a loser.
He was a liberal in a conservative era. He was a governor who accomplished little of significance. He gave great speeches that moved the rank-and-file of his party, but then got sold out and marginalized by his party's leadership.
And when he died on New Year's Day at the age of 82, it had been years since the former governor of New York had been thought of as an A-list politician.
But Mario Cuomo deserves better than all this as his legacy, especially in a political age where poetry is discouraged and dreaming is not permitted.
Will we ever hear a prominent Democrat deliver words like these, given at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco?
With Ronald Reagan peddling his "Morning in America" myth to the electorate, it was Cuomo - in nominating Walter Mondale as the Democrats' standard bearer for President - who dared to challenge President Reagan's insistence that our nation was "a shining city on a hill."
"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.
"In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can't find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit in your shining city."
Cuomo called out the social Darwinism of the Republican Party, and reminded Americans that "the difference between Democrats and Republicans has always been measured in courage and confidence."
"The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail," he said. "We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have, more than once.
"Ever since Franklin Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees - wagon train after wagon train - to new frontiers of education, housing, and peace - the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way; blacks and Hispanics, and people of every ethnic group, and Native Americans - all those struggling to build their families and claim some small share of America.
"For nearly 50 years we carried them all to new levels of comfort, and security, and dignity, even affluence. And remember this, some of us in this room today are here only because this nation had that kind of confidence. And it would be wrong to forget that."
And then Cuomo laid down the credo that he believed Democrats were duly bound and obligated to uphold as the Reagan Republicans were trying to tear down the legacies of FDR's New Deal and President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.
93We believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need.
"We believe in a government strong enough to use words like 'love' and 'compassion' and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities," he said.
"Our government should be able to rise to the level where it can fill the gaps that are left by chance or by a wisdom we don't fully understand. We would rather have laws written by the patron of this great city, the man called the 'world's most sincere Democrat,' St. Francis of Assisi, than laws written by Darwin.
"We believe in a single fundamental idea that describes better than most textbooks and any speech that I could write what a proper government should be: The idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another's pain, sharing one another's blessings - reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race, or sex, or geography, or political affiliation.
"We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another, that the problems of a retired school teacher in Duluth are our problems; that the future of the child - that the future of the child in Buffalo is our future; that the struggle of a disabled man in Boston to survive and live decently is our struggle; that the hunger of a woman in Little Rock is our hunger; that the failure anywhere to provide what reasonably we might, to avoid pain, is our failure."
Despite those words, President Reagan won re-election in a landslide, and the Democrats started their move to the right. The Democratic Party would turn their backs on the principles espoused by Cuomo, and stop defending the people who were being repeatedly smashed in the face by bad Republican policy. Even worse, they would embrace many of those bad policies.
Three decades later, all but the willfully stupid can see that the Reagan years were a disaster for America that we are still trying to recover from.
And the Democratic Party that gave us President Bill "welfare reform, NAFTA, and deregulate the financial industry" Clinton and President Barack "continue all of President George W. Bush's worst national security policies and refuse to jail the crooked bankers" Obama has become a craven, cowardly shell of itself.
Maybe there are some brave men and women willing to take back the soul of the Democratic Party and again uphold the principles of commonwealth, self-government, and the public interest. They'd do worse than study the speeches of Mario Cuomo and see how these principles can be given words that will inspire and enlighten this nation.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.