January 5, 2015

Mario Cuomo's Words Still Ring True

Tomorrow, former NY Governor Mario Cuomo will be laid to rest.

His classic 1984 Democratic Convention address will live on, stored as it is among the Top 100 speeches at American Rhetoric. There will always be people who will talk about the tale of two cities vs the shining city on the hill, the comparison between the middle class reality as Cuomo saw it, and what Ronald Reagan saw when he looked out the window at his world.

One of those people talking about Cuomo mentioned that there wasn't a lot of detail in the speech, that it would have been better if he had included more 'meat' beyond the quotable parts with which we're all so familiar.  I disagree with that assessment; there was a lot in the speech that doesn't make the highlight reel, and that still rings true today.   Here are a few examples:

On how to win an election:
We must get the American public to look past the glitter, beyond the showmanship to the reality, the hard substance of things. And we'll do it not so much with speeches that sound good as with speeches that are good and sound; not so much with speeches that will bring people to their feet, but with speeches that will bring people to their senses. 
On creating a party platform:
To succeed we will have to surrender some small parts of our individual interests, to build a platform that we can all stand on, at once, and comfortably...
On the middle class::
And in between (the rich and the poor) is the heart of our constituency - the middle class, the people not rich enough to be worry-free but not poor enough to be on welfare; the middle class, those people who work for a living because they have to...White collar and blue collar. Young professionals. Men and women in small business desperate for the capital and contracts that they need to prove their worth.
On key themes:
We speak for young people demanding an education and a future.  We speak for senior citizens, for senior citizens who are terrorized by the idea that their only security, their Social Security, is being threatened.  We speak for millions of reasoning people fighting to preserve our environment from greed and stupidity.
And on the credo of the Democrats:
  • We believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need.
  • We believe in a government that is characterized by fairness and reasonableness, a reasonableness that goes beyond labels, that doesn't distort or promise to do things that we know we can't do.
  • We believe in a government strong enough to use works like 'love' and 'compassion' and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities.
  • Our government should be able to rise to the level where it can fill the gaps that are left by chance or by a wisdom we don't fully understand. 
  • We believe as Democrats that a society as blessed as ours the most affluent democracy in the world's history, one that can spend trillions on instruments of destruction, ought to be able to help the middle class in its struggle, ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute.
  • We believe in firm - firm but fair law and order.
  • We believe proudly in the union movement.
  • We believe - we believe in privacy for people, openness by government.
  • We believe in civil rights, and we believe in human rights.

On the night before Mario Cuomo is laid to rest, and as the 114th Congress gets to work, it might do us all well to think about Cuomo's words from 30 years ago.  Because, with the exception of the part about the union movement, most of what he talks about are goals that just about all politicians profess to support, even if the path to getting there is very different as expressed by the Democrats and Republicans today.

The one piece that missing from today's picture, however, is the shared sacrifice part. If everyone "surrenders some small parts of (our) individual interests" everyone "gets to stand." Wouldn't it be nice if our new Congress in Washington was willing to give a little, on both sides, so that all Americans are able to stand? And if they all could drop the glitter and showmanship and focus on the realities, which is where real Americans live?

That would be an outstanding addition to the legacy of Mario Cuomo.