NEW YORK — The caller from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is named Deveen--a high school student who stumbles a bit over her words but manages to get out the question that hangs over the airwaves like frost over Central Park.
Mario Cuomo, why aren't you in the '96 presidential race--if not as a challenger to President Clinton, at least as his running mate?
Very kind of you, Deveen. Very flattering. But President Clinton already has a terrific running mate, Al Gore. Now let me ask you a question. Are you Jamaican? I'm Jamaican too--from South Jamaica, Queens. Did you know that my Jamaica is older than your Jamaica? Anyway, here's my question. Were you hoping that Colin Powell would run? Yes? Why? Uh-huh, because we need a change. I understand.
The Cuomo Sidestep now completed, Deveen is soon off the line, and Cuomo is on to other callers to his weekly radio show. Again, the public has been properly distracted from the question that has hovered almost since newscasters first struggled to pronounce "Mario Cuomo" (MAH-ree-o KWO-mo).
And, again, it was not answered.
Defeated as he sought a fourth term as governor of New York last year, Cuomo sits on the sidelines during the Great Game of Politics, Election Year '96 version. He practices a little law with a large Manhattan firm. He makes some speeches. He does a few snack food commercials.
Each week he sails an urgent missive into center court via his syndicated radio show (36 affiliates, including San Diego, New York and Washington, D.C.). The only ground rule, he insists, is that all callers be "open-minded."
In October, he released a long-range game plan: "Reason to Believe" (Simon & Shuster), a 179-page retort to Newt Gingrich & Co. that takes on the "contract with America" point by point and offers a more humane alternative.
Is that enough?
The book, which has garnered mixed reviews, is full of Mario-isms. There's advice from his wise Italian-born mother, who died in the spring. There's an embrace of the values of hard work and compassion, developed in the neighborhood grocery store where his mother, father and the Cuomo children worked. There are political philosophies that favor the underdog and the working slob. Most of all, there's the belief that government is evil only when it does evil or when it is guilty of neglect.
Give the guy credit: In these days of shifting political beliefs and even shiftier values, he has been consistent. In one of the earliest speeches to place him in the national eye, his 1974 address to the then-fringy New Democratic Coalition, he pleaded the case of the middle class and argued for fairness and compassion in government.
It was those same ideas that led to mention of him as a potential president--the result of his simple yet compelling "tale of two cities" speech to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984, a keynote address that nearly obliterated Walter Mondale from the hearts and minds of delegates.
Ideas, plans, visions--that's Cuomo.
Doing--ah, there's the rub.
At 63, he remains enigmatic to the point of exasperating. All potential and too little actuality, he has frustrated, ticked off and finally angered the old-style Democrats and liberals he so visibly and eloquently represents.
It was not Republican George Pataki who won the governorship in New York last year; it was Cuomo who lost. People were just tired of him--tired of his lofty rhetoric, tired of being let down. Analysts can blame the loss on his opposition to the death penalty, the Republican tidal wave, anti-tax fervor. The real reason is the presidency. If he wasn't going to solve New York's problems, the least he could do was run for president--make all New Yorkers proud.
Sitting in his corner office in the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, high in the Citicorp Building in Manhattan, Cuomo puts aside his legal work for a few hours to talk about his book, his career, his plans.
Through the window behind him, the East River glimmers in the sun, the 59th Street Bridge (feeling groovy!) buzzes with traffic and his beloved Queens stretches flat and predictable clear to the Atlantic Ocean.
A words warrior with an advanced degree in intimidation, bullying, patronizing and charm, this day he is subdued, philosophical, open. He berates the "New Harshness" in the nation. He argues for community, love, a national agenda that doesn't boil down to Us and Them. He quotes the French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and worries that Americans have lost their ability to focus on the "sweetness of life."
He is a man of high intelligence and ideas. His radio show is filled with animated discussions about deficit versus debt, the budget-making process, the welfare dilemma--topics those kings of the airwaves Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh touch on only in tirades of name-calling and ridicule.
But when push comes to shove, Cuomo splits. Here's his telling of the night of the 1984 keynote address: