Connect-the-Dot Politics

Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo: The Campaign for Governor Mario M. Cuomo Random House, 484 pp.

WHY? WHY DID Mario Cuomo offer up 400 exhaustive and, at times, exhausting pages chronicling his ascension to the governorship of New York State? Political books are rarely written merely to enrich the intellectual content of bourgeois existence. Sen. Gary W. Hart (D-Colo.) did not churn out A New Democracy because he fancied himself a renaissance man, nor did Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.) pen a how-to nuke freeze guide because he could only express his heartfelt convictions in mass market soft-cover.

The answer, in this crucial election year, is self-evident. Cuomo intends to play a major role in the Presidential race, if not as the vice-presidential nominee, then as a campaign Svengali. And because the words in these pages are so loaded with a spirit of certitude, the diary is both fascinating and disappointing as a blueprint for action by one of the country's most promising liberal pols. If one manages to wade through pages of irrelevant detail--lots of short, simple sentences, topped off by the gee-whiz exclamation point--one will find a clearer definition of the Democratic raison d'etre than any offered up by milquetoast Walter F. Mondale.

The discovery should be no surprise, even to those inured to the pandering platitudes proffered by Hart. Mondale, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Cuomo's credo is defiantly traditional and defiantly conventional. He states in the regal third-person: "...HE WILL [govern] ON THE BASIS OF TRADITIONAL DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES, WHICH HE HAS CONVERTED INTO SPECIFIC IDEAS THAT ARE TRADITIONAL AND DEMOCRATIC." Cuomo's vision shines brightly because it is so forthright--government can and should help those who can't help themselves--and so innocent, unsullied by the ravages wrought by deficit spending and the gimmicky neo-liberalism developed by egg-heads in response to President Reagan. Cuomo recites a manifesto only a slight bit rhetorically different from that uttered by FDR, JFK, and LBJ.

Yet this arguably courageous stand in favor of active government makes no impact, because Cuomo never works through the practical arguments of why we should accept liberalism or what exactly his version of liberalism means beyond welfare politics. Ronald Reagan has emphatically shown that liberalism does not cut the mustard politically in the '80s, but Cuomo doesn't go beyond lofty rhetoric in refuting this limited vision.

Liberalism is under attack from all sides--political, cultural, and philosophical--and as a political creed it sorely needs a defender, a knight in shining armor. Yet Cuomo, a deeply religious man, approaches liberalism as he does Catholicism, reciting the party line as an article of faith rather than as the product of intellectual inquisition.


TIME AND time again, Cuomo touches on the key issues of latter-day liberalism--busing, quotas, the death penalty, race relations, labor relations--only to leave the reader grasping for straws. Recounting a February 21, 1981 speech to a Glen Oaks Jewish group, Cuomo writes:

A decade ago you would have expected a group like this one to be sensitive to the concerns of the minorities, open-minded, compassionate--in a very general sense, 'liberal.' No such thing today. There is a fear, an insecurity and an impatience with government that makes these embattled middle-class people lecry of any suggestion that they be called upon to make sacrifices for the people economically beneath them. For the most part, this group would not even understand that the recent closing of a "white" school in Rosedale was required by the Constitution. They oppose busing, period!

Cuomo then proceeds to drop the topic leaving the reader wondering exactly why the issue should be so simple--they oppose busing, ergo they are selfish, period, exclamation mark. But, in the aftermath of major deterioration in many school systems where students are bused, and the violence and "white flight" that greeted Black students in yellow buses in South Boston in 1974, the concept of busing is no longer blindly accepted, even by many self-described liberals. Yet Cuomo blithely dismisses his audience, without actually telling us--or himself--why they are wrong.

The book fails to present an adequate argument for good old-fashioned liberalism for several reasons, not the least of which is that Cuomo was too lazy to present a cogent narrative. He relies instead on notes written at the dining room table at 5:30 a.m. or after a vigorous 15-hour day of campaigning. Were Cuomo a more fluid and captivating writer, the diary form would have been acceptable, but Mario is no Hunter S. Thompson, and his prose is more akin to a connect-the-dots game than a straight narrative line. Though the account is quite lively when describing Cuomo's and Koch's battle down to the wire for the Democratic nomination, the diary form is woefully inadequate when it comes to shedding light on events, motivations, and philosophies.

Just as Cuomo complains in his diaries of the triumph of the superficial over the meaningful, so too does his account skirt any developed coherent discussion of the man's deepest beliefs and convictions. "People are susceptible to simplistic--and erroneous--answers." Cuomo writes, before launching into: "The whole criminal system needs rehabilitation, unemployment must be relieved, a loss of spiritual values has created a vacuum--but many people believe the answer is the electric chair. It's easier to believe that, I have to find a way to tell what I believe is the truth--and get it understood."

But Cuomo never outlines what he would do to make the criminal system more efficient. Nor does he articulate any striking policy proposals in any of the areas he touches upon. While Cuomo rightly decries the simplistic, gut response to problems, he, in return, offers only sincere, well-meaning, but equally simplistic Democratic platitudes.

ONE EXPLANATION for Cuomo's lack of substance on these issues is, of course, that he is describing a hectic primary and general election campaign, a quest he describes as distasteful and degrading: *

It's a business that can make you forget--at least in the frenzy and heat of the campaign--who you are, what you are, and what you're supposed to be. Because the goal is so complete--taking so much of one's energies and concentration--unless one is very careful, everything else is eclipsed. That happens in life all the time: a temporary delight can be so tempting that it makes us forget a greater good. That happens in a concentrated way in a campaign.

Why did Cuomo choose to write about his campaign, rather than about his first year in Albany? Is it because the Rocky theme music that set the tone for his underdog effort in the campaign would seem out of place for a man who is trying to play kingmaker in the Democratic party? Or because the Governor's handling of early budget troubles has led many to believe he's not quite as compassionate as he would have us believe?

Compared to the usual lot in Albany and among Party brass. Cuomo is better than most. He has his heart in the right place. But if he hopes to resuscitate the Democratic party and once again craft a liberalism that is a valid option in a post-technological society, he must do more than think nice thoughts.

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