The Measure of a Man
Earlier this week, former Governor Mario Cuomo was laid to rest. The scene outside of his funeral was somber, stately, and serene, everything dusted with a light coat of snow. That seemed just right for a politician who, for all his enormous appeal, never played to the crowd. He didn’t care what other people thought, he cared what he thought. His own deeply held principles guided his actions and wrote a legacy of accomplishment built on common sense, compassion and respect.
Mario Cuomo was a loyal Democrat, but he proudly called himself a pragmatist. His ability to balance ideology and a commitment to getting things done yielded great results for the State of New York. He introduced broad fiscal reforms that strengthened our economy, and led the nation in environmental protection and conservation initiatives.
The son of Italian immigrants and a devout Catholic, he grew up in Queens where he served both as an altar boy and a friend to the Jewish community, delivering groceries to a local synagogue. Mr. Cuomo experienced ethnic prejudice in the late fifties when, as a young lawyer, scores of prominent New York City law firms declined to hire him. Perhaps this informed his commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and justice.
He fought for the rights of the poor, the elderly and the disabled, championed improvements in public education, and aggressively addressed the AIDS epidemic. He was the first governor to appoint women and minorities to prominent judicial seats.
Mr. Cuomo was notably sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of Jews. He was instrumental in the creation of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and to fighting intolerance in all its forms. His advocacy on behalf of observant Jews resulted in the passage of numerous bills enabling us to balance religious practice with secular laws.
Mr. Cuomo spoke his mind no matter the consequences. His passionate and outspoken opposition to the death penalty likely cost him the New York City mayoral election in 1977. And, despite his personal opposition to abortion, he supported a woman’s right to choose.
Mario Cuomo was a special sort of politician. He was a seeker of knowledge, a pursuer of truth, a student of life. He also wrote books, good ones. I came upon an interview he gave in 2004 after the publication of one of them, Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever. He was asked what his favorite thing about Abraham Lincoln was. Here is part of his answer:
“Lincoln talked a lot about religion, the basic spiritual truths that every religion starts with. What is your relationship with other human beings? And what is your mission? Well, Jews say the mission is Tikkun olam, repair the universe. And Christians say be collaborators in the universe. Lincoln wasn’t a Christian and he wasn’t a Jew, but he said exactly the same thing. Your whole mission is to try to make this place better, make this living experience better. We don’t have anybody who talks that way now, and that’s why I wrote the book.”
Mr. Cuomo did more than write the book. He talked that way and he lived that way, and he made this world a better place.
Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge