During his 1986 Gubernatorial re-election campaign, I was prepared to take a bullet for Mario Cuomo.
I was working in Cuomo’s NYC Press Office at Two World Trade Center for less than a year, when WNBC’s dean of political reporters Gabe Pressman phoned late one afternoon to tell me that NBC news received a death threat against the Governor and Coretta Scott King. Both were scheduled to speak at Town Hall, in Manhattan, before a gathering of Local 1199, a union being torn apart by internal strife. Understandably, Mrs. King cancelled. Cuomo, ignoring advice from staff and State Police, went ahead.
A few minutes before we arrived at the West 43rd Street building, Cuomo, seated in the front passenger seat of the unmarked State Police car, turned to me in the back.
“Steve,” he asked, “Do you believe in heaven and hell?”
I panicked. Good god, he was genuinely worried about the death threat if he was thinking of an after-life, I thought. I was silent for a moment. I had less than 60 seconds to answer Mario Cuomo, who thought deeply about such matters.
“Well, Governor,” I said, buying a few more seconds to think, “I’m not sure I’m smart enough to know whether heaven and hell exist.” I paused. “But, I believe in acting as if they do.” As we pulled up in front of Town Hall, Cuomo turned to face me, and smiled.
“That’s a very good answer, Steve; a very good answer,” he said. The student had pleased the mentor. I was gratified by his praise, and terrified at the same time.
We got out of the car and were surrounded by a phalanx of undercover NYC cops who escorted us in through Town Hall’s small kitchen. My mind instantly replayed the scene of Robert F. Kennedy, life bleeding out of him, on the kitchen floor of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. Cuomo greeted all of the kitchen workers and my eyes darted around the pots and pans, anticipating a pistol pointed our way. I was ready to throw my body in the way of an assassin’s bullet, determined not to have another RFK blown away.
New York Times reporter Jeffrey Schmaltz, then Albany Bureau Chief who was covering Cuomo that night, noticed the ashen color of my face.
“Was there a death threat against the Governor’s life tonight, Steve,?” Schmaltz asked me. I looked straight at him. I couldn’t bullshit Jeff Schmaltz. I respected him too much as a journalist, and liked him too much as a person. It was hard for me to hide what my face revealed.
I nodded my head, “yes.” The Governor and his entourage of police, staff and reporters, including myself and Schmaltz, moved backstage , barely out of sight behind the curtains. We could hear shouts and catcalls coming from the balcony. Union leaders were having trouble keeping the crowd under control. Then, Mario Cuomo was announced as the next speaker.
The crowd broke into sustained applause, upstairs and down, cheering Cuomo just for showing up, knowing that Martin Luther King’s widow had cancelled. Mario Cuomo, instead of ignoring the division among the union members, seized on it, delivering a passionate appeal for 1199 members and all of organized labor to come together and “fight our common enemies of inequality, poverty and the need for more jobs, more education, and more access to health care.” The Governor’s words brought the crowd to its feet and brought the union’s warring factions together, fleetingly, on a night when everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, like a black and white newsreel, frozen in time.
Jeff Schmaltz gave me a wink, acknowledging Cuomo’s accomplishment, and later showed me the obituary he had drafted in case the threat on The Governor’s life materialized. I sucked in my breath, stunned.
“It comes with the territory, “ Jeff said. “All of us who cover public figures carry these around. We just have to fill in the blanks, if it comes to that.”
Cuomo got back in the unmarked State Police car waiting for him out in front of Town Hall on West 43th Street, and phoned his long-time secretary, Mary Tragale, who, earlier, urged him not to challenge the threat on his life.
“Well, they missed,” he joked.