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Mario Cuomo, 1932-2015: a champion of liberalism

Mario Cuomo spoke at the JFK Library in 1995.
Mario Cuomo spoke at the JFK Library in 1995. Globe file/Boston Globe

Mario Cuomo never ran for president. Now in death, he should be judged by what he did — not by what he didn’t do.

What he did — as a passionate Democrat who served as New York’s governor from 1983 to 1994 — was embrace the idea of transformative government as a force to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. With Ronald Reagan in the White House, that concept was under fire for much of Cuomo’s time in office; today there is even more skepticism about it. But Cuomo never retreated from his belief that government exists for all, not just the rich and well-connected. And he was blessed with a special gift — the ability to express his personal gospel in a way that could entrance the nation, as he famously did in his 1984 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention.

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In that speech, he took aim at Reagan’s depiction of America as “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,” proclaimed Cuomo. But there’s another part, said Cuomo, where people can’t pay their mortgages and “middle class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate. . . 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.”

The beauty of Cuomo’s rhetoric and the power of his delivery catapulted him to the top of the list of would-be Democratic presidential contenders. The pundits wanted him to run, knowing his eloquence and intellect would lift the campaign. But Cuomo took his time pondering, earning the title “Hamlet on the Hudson.” He decided against entering the 1988 campaign, and said no again in 1992. In 1994, he lost the governor’s office to Republican George Pataki.

Prickly and mercurial, Cuomo, like all politicians, had a healthy ego. Yet for years he refused to sit for an official gubernatorial portrait, and one was not completed until 2012, after friends secretly commissioned it. Saying no to a presidential run should be judged in that same spirit, especially since Cuomo understood what some great orators fail to comprehend.

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“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose,” said Cuomo.

The poetry wins hearts. The prose breaks them. By his choice, Cuomo will be remembered for the poetry.