“It’s an old story. It’s as old as our history. The difference between Democrats and Republicans has always been measured in courage and confidence. The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail. ‘The strong,’ they tell us, will inherit the land. We Democrats believe in something else. We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift this nation from its knees—wagon train after wagon train—to new frontiers of education, housing, peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way; blacks and Hispanics, and people of every ethnic group, and native Americans—all those struggling to build their families and claim some small share of America. For nearly 50 years we carried them all to new levels of comfort, and security, and dignity, even affluence. And remember this, some of us in this room today are here only because this nation had that kind of confidence. And it would be wrong to forget that.”
So said Mario Cuomo in his now-famous 1984 speech to the Democratic National Convention, one of several addresses by the three-term governor that are being replayed this morning in the wake of his death Thursday at age 82.
Along with Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama, Cuomo was one of the Democratic Party’s oratorical heavyweights in the past 40 or more years, but was the only of that group one never to run for president. Considered a pre-campaign frontrunner for the 1992 nomination, he dropped out early, a move that put a little-known Arkansas governor at the head of the pack. His speech nominating Clinton at the ’92 convention in Madison Square Garden was another on Cuomo’s highlight reel (This reporter exaggerated an illness during a family vacation in South Dakota to stay in the hotel room and watch it):
Just over two years later, the hopes that Cuomo articulated at MSG seemed to evaporate on an evening when Republicans seized control of Congress and several statehouses in the 1994 midterm elections. Cuomo himself was defeated, and he conceded with a speech that your correspondent witnessed from the back of the room as an 18-year-old college freshman. No video of it seems to exist online, but here’s one key passage:
Now, my greatest hope, my, my greatest hope for this state and—and maybe even for the nation beyond, the reason—the reason we wanted to run, the reason we thought it was important is that we sensed all across this nation a negativism, a harshness, a divisiveness, a willingness to pit people against one another, even a cynicism that we didn’t like. It’s not appropriate for this country and it’s certainly not appropriate for this great state.
We’ve been given too much, we have been too fortunate to become bitter and negative—that’s a dangerous thing. My great hope is that this state will grow together, put aside the divisions between upstate and downstate, between communities, between colors, between sexes, between sexual orientations and that we will remember what the proper direction is for us as a state and for the nation and please understand that this state has known from the beginning what the proper direction is; it’s part of your seal. It was the slogan that helped launch the state.
The word is excelsior, and I’ll leave you with words that I’ve used over and over all through this campaign that say it much better than I could say it: Where are we supposed to go? What direction are we supposed to travel in? E. B. White told us: remember New York is to the nation what the church spire is to the village—the symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up, not down, not backward, up.