Last month, Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the New Yorker, blamed Mario Cuomo for virtually everything that’s gone wrong with the United States for the past 20 years. Actually, it was all the Hillbilly, Bill Clinton’s fault.
In his piece entitled, “Mario Cuomo: A Miscarriage of Justice” ( January 12, 2015), Hertzberg wrote that had Cuomo been more open to accepting an “offer” from Bill Clinton ( an offer, by the way, never actually made by Clinton himself) to be nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court:
“It’s possible, verging on probable, that some of the lamentable five-to-four decisions of the past twenty years would have turned out differently. That includes the very worst, the worst since the nineteenth century. By the time Bush v. Gore reached the docket, Justice Cuomo would have had seven years to build relationships with his colleagues. His practical experience of elections and election law would have magnified the customary effects of his persuasiveness, intellectual suppleness, wit, and personal magnetism. If just one of the Republican Justices—O’Connor, perhaps—had been coaxed to see beyond party, then a one-vote majority of the Supreme Court might not have nullified the choice of a half-million-vote majority of the electorate. And that in turn would have meant, at a minimum, that William Rehnquist’s successor as Chief Justice would have been an appointee of President Gore—quite likely, Mario Cuomo.”
Aside from the improbable “Ifs” in the article presuming specific actions by Justice Sandra Day O’Conner and Al Gore (and minimizing the brilliance of Brooklyn-born Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) Hertzberg, the long-time New Yorker writer, missed the most obvious fact. Mario Cuomo disliked Bill Clinton. Having worked with Cuomo during several major confrontations with the Arkansas Governor, it’s accurate, though understated, to say they were not friends.
On the day after Clinton won the NYS Democratic Presidential primary in April, 1992, Governor Cuomo phoned me at our World Trade Center office, where I worked as the Director of his Press Operations. His voice sounded sullen. “A superficial candidate for a superficial age, “ he said to me about Clinton. Cuomo expressed to me that he thought Clinton was as shallow and duplicitous as politicians come. Still fresh in our minds was the Arkansas hillbilly’s guffaws on tape, when Jennifer Flowers, at her January tell-all press conference, said about Mario Cuomo that “I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some Mafioso major connections. ” Instead of correcting one of his mistresses for the use of an ethnic slur, Clinton goofily yupped, “Well, he acts like one.”
The writer Jimmy Breslin, not a fan of Clinton’s who would have loved to push Cuomo into the presidential race, was at the Flowers’ press conference and immediately faxed us the transcript of the her secret tapes, containing Clinton’s comment. Cuomo went ballistic, cursing out Clinton in private, and demanding an apology to all Italian Americans through the pages of the NY Daily News , the New York Post and Newsday.
Clinton, battling for his political life in the New Hampshire primary which was a few weeks away, made matters worse. He proffered a pitiful apology that started with the phrase: “If Governor Cuomo or other Italian-Americans found my remark disrespectful…” That slippery and insensitive qualification of the word “If,” incensed Cuomo even more. “What does he mean, “IF,” Cuomo argued. Clinton simply didn’t get the depth of his insult, which if uttered against Jews or Blacks would have ended his campaign.
Amazingly, Cuomo put that grotesque personal and group slander behind him, and gave Clinton’s nomination speech at the Democratic Convention that summer. I was with him back stage in the rehearsal room at Madison Square Garden the day of the speech, when Clinton’s staffers, insulted the New York Governor in another way: by presuming to tell Mario Cuomo how to deliver a speech at a Democratic Convention.
Cuomo listened to their impudent instructions, inserted Clinton’s name a few more times to end their whining, read through his speech quickly, and bolted from the back room of the Garden that afternoon, leaving Clinton apparatchiks apoplectic and apprehensive. They had no idea what Cuomo would do or to say that night before a global audience.
We walked up Seventh Avenue, from the Garden to a hotel suite at the Sheraton, Cuomo shaking hands with New Yorkers along the way, many of whom shouted “Mario!” once they saw him. Their high spirits lifted his. They knew who he was. And, so did he.
Steve: Fascinating insider’s account and a beautifully told story. The two may have both been titans of 20th Century politics in America, but they were, as your story so poignantly points out, very different men guided by two very different sets of beliefs and standards for human behavior.
Thanks, MC. More to come. I’m excerpting some portions from a book I’m writing…
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