Mario Cuomo’s greatest speech

In this archive photo, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo kisses his father, Mario Cuomo, as he celebrates after defeating Republican challenger Rob Astorino, at Democratic election headquarters in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (Photo: Associated Press)
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who died today shortly after his son was inaugurated into another term into his dad’s former job, may well go down as one of the few politicians unable — or unwilling — to parlay a stemwinder political convention’s keynote speech into a subsequent presidential run.

It was 1984, when Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro were trying to knock off Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Thirty years later, nobody remembers any speech from that convention. Except that one.

There have been scholarly studies, in fact, that contend that speech set a new standard for political speeches using metaphor as argument.

But there’s a more significant element of that speech that’s a testament to Cuomo’s skill. It could be given today and not a lose a bit of meaning and impact.

Cuomo picked up the nickname Hamlet of the Hudson in 1992 when his indecision whether to run for president kept worthy candidates from taking a shot until the last minute. By the time he decided not to run, only Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts had announced. So big was Cuomo’s stature, that the field eventually swelled to just Tsongas, Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, and former California governor Jerry Brown.

Oh, and a guy who had given a disastrous keynote speech four years earlier — Bill Clinton.

  • Sam

    The 1984 keynote speech might be my earliest conscious memory of national politics. I was 8, living in Massachusetts with liberal parents, and that background + that speech = me being the only person in North America who was surprised when Mondale failed to crush Reagan in November.

    Re: Cuomo’s waffling in 1992, I have a vivid memory of a Saturday Night Live sketch called The Race To Avoid Being The Guy Who Loses to Bush. (Bush was still popular then, in the wake of the Gulf War.) It was a reverse debate in which all the candidates tried to paint themselves as the worst option for the nomination. Phil Hartman played Cuomo, and when the other candidates insisted that he was clearly the strongest Democratic candidate, he responded, “The real issue here is that I have mob ties.”

  • Jack Ungerleider

    In 1988 and 1992 there were two candidates I hoped would run for President. Neither did and I believe we are worse off because of it. One was Mario Cuomo the other was NJ Senator Bill Bradley.

    I grew up in NY and earned the right to cast a vote in time to watch Ronald Reagan win the presidency and Alfonse D’amato take the seat of another liberal lion of NY, Jacob Javits (one of the last truly liberal Republicans) in the 1980 election. This speech made a lot of people see Cuomo as the great hope for a return to the era of liberal politics that ended with Nixon’s election in 1968. Unfortunately he never ran, and we are still waiting. That’s why his speech resonates as much today as it did 30 years ago.