I did not know Mario Cuomo personally, but I came to admire him a lot—not for his role as a politician and three-term governor of New York, but for his citizenship, service, and truth-telling about the obscenities of xenophobia in the United States. When I think of Cuomo, I cannot help but to think of another giant in our country’s history, albeit in a different arena: the so-called “method actor,” Marlon Brando (1924-2004). Like with Cuomo, it is not because of what made him most noteworthy; rather, it is for his unrelenting support for pluralism and the acceptance of all people. Brando was, for example, a participant, alongside a few other celebrities, in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963—where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. On several occasions, Brando waxed eloquent on network news morning programs about racism in the United States and how it is a perennial and pernicious blight against arguably the greatest country in the world.
Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention is compared with two speeches at the 1984 convention of the same political party: Jesse Jackson’s party-unity speech and Cuomo’s “Tale of Two Cities” keynote address. Cuomo’s speech detailed how a child of Italian immigrants, stereotyped and maligned in this country, became the governor of the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. His understanding of ethnic bigotry helped him to dislike systematic oppression of all people and to fight for the disadvantaged. He could always be counted on to argue for humane treatment of others, which is something sorely lacking in the body politic today!
Cuomo was an ardent opponent of capital punishment and fought tooth and nail against the death penalty. His impassioned rhetoric against government-sanctioned killing showed prescience for the racial disparities in the criminal justice system long before it became somewhat fashionable to assert. In addition, Cuomo was a defender of woman’s rights. Despite his personal antipathy of abortion in line with his Roman Catholicism, he nevertheless advocated that the government stay out of women’s reproductive decision-making.
Whenever we embark upon characterizing a person’s life and legacy once he/she has passed, we are inevitably faced with the fact that all human beings are flawed. Knowing that no one is perfect and that all make mistakes, reflectors on an individual’s biography or obituary are faced with the moral dilemma of assessing that person’s triumphs and tragedies. It is often difficult to ascertain what is fair in such an endeavor, and much, quite frankly, often depends upon one’s own biases and presuppositions—philosophical, political, and otherwise. The figures mentioned herein—Brando, King, and Jackson—all had their foibles, idiosyncrasies, and missteps, but they also defended the highest ideals any human being could ever hope to preserve. Needless to say, the same could be stated about Cuomo.
What happens on a daily basis, however, regardless of the sociopolitical platform, is the engagement of faulty reasoning and the lack of critical thinking. It is much easier to use logical fallacies in our disagreements than to argue constructively about purposes and effects of structures, policies, procedures, services, and practices. One of the most common types of illogic is the argumentum ad hominem, which is attacking and discrediting a person’s character, and not the content of that person’s perspective. Such misguided attempts at invalidating an argument by attacking the person are ubiquitous and should not be tolerated anywhere.
Cuomo was elected for three terms as governor, and prior to that tenure he was in other governmental and public service capacities. I listened to him a few times in the 1980s and was enamored of his willingness to be inclusive. His decision not to run for the nomination of his party for president in 1988 and 1992 surprised me. I learned later of his procedural agony in choosing not to run. What stands out for me, as we mourn his passing and learn from his life, is his anchorage upon the saying of his mother, Immaculata, found toward’s the end of the first chapter of his book, Reason to Believe: “that what is right is usually also what is necessary; that in helping one another we almost always help ourselves.”