Cuomo analysis, Cuomo anecdote

The funeral for Mario Cuomo was held today at New York’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. In addition to inspiring tributes and remembrances, his death has also prompted archive searches for items like this: A 1990 letter in which the governor took up Commonweal’s invitation to join in a reasoned debate on abortion. “Perhaps the best I can do right now,” Cuomo wrote to the editors, “is to reflect on some of Commonweal’s commentary of the past six or seven months,” which he proceeded to do, at length, using bullet points and providing detailed citations [.pdf].

Much of the recent commentary, at Commonweal and elsewhere, has focused on Cuomo’s position on abortion and whether he’d given “intellectual cover” to Catholic politicians personally opposed but not inclined to act politically against it (the editors write about this and other aspects of Cuomo’s legacy in “Mario Cuomo, Politician,” just posted on our homepage). Or, if not that, his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention, which to those then longing for someone to speak truth to the heartless power of Reagan and sense to his legions of heedless followers was (and remains) a galvanizing event.

I still have the copy of that speech that was handed to me some months later, on my first day at my first real job in New York City, as a college intern in the press office of Governor Mario Cuomo. Since I’m now also at the age where I can say things like, “this was before the internet, so getting a printed copy was a big deal,” I will: It was. Few of my friends or classmates seemed to care, most having happily—with their first-ever presidential ballot—participated in the landslide re-election of Reagan, while some of my family members liked to dismiss my new “boss” as “your friend Mario Cuomo,” when they weren’t calling him “the most dangerous man in America.”

I had exactly one personal encounter with Mario Cuomo, when during my internship I was told to write a public service announcement for him to record: Two hundred words or so on the importance of protecting Adirondack rivers and streams. “The waterways of the Adirondacks are among our state’s most precious resources,” it began. No pretentions about it rivaling a stump speech much less a keynote, but then, I had not yet heard it in Cuomo’s voice.

“How did he do it?” James Fallows asks in the Atlantic, about Cuomo’s ability not just to speak but to speak thoughtfully, artfully, articulately, compellingly… at practically any moment on practically any topic. “How does it work, this process of learning to convey thoughts and emotions in words? … And [what about] the odd art of writing words someone else will deliver, via a script or a speech, versus those where writer and speaker are the same?”

Good questions. After my supervisors tweaked and approved the announcement, I was sent into the windowless room where the recording equipment and line to the governor’s Albany office were located. Just call him and read it to him, I was instructed; when he reads it back, record it. That’s it? I asked, the single sheet of written copy, a product of several days’ labor, going damp in my hands. That’s it, I was told. And then they left for the day, obviously knowing something I didn’t.

Alone, I dialed the number I was given, hung up as the operator requested, then picked up a moment later when the phone buzzed.

“This is the governor speaking,” came Mario Cuomo’s unmistakable voice. “You have something for me?”

I introduced myself as instructed. I read to him my public service announcement, as instructed. “Ready?” the governor then asked, almost as soon as I’d finished. I attached the phone to the recorder, and then he spoke the words I’d just read him. A flawless single take, imbued with much greater import than I would have thought possible. He’d heard it only once.

“Did you get that?” he said. I assured him I had. “All right, then,” he said. “Have a good night.”

That was the extent of our exchange. There were no witnesses, and I thought it might as well have never happened, except that, a couple of months later, the spot came over the radio while I was in the car with some of those same family members. My “friend” Mario Cuomo, reading my public service announcement, which he’d recorded having heard it only once.

How do you think he did it? people who’ve heard the story ask. “As with any learned-and-practiced craft,” Fallows writes in the same Atlantic piece, “there are no set answers to any of these questions, simply the ongoing practice. I don't know whether anyone ever thought to ask Mario Cuomo a version of [the] question, or whether the process was conscious enough for him that he would have been able to offer an answer beyond: I listen and think and try.” To which I say, going by my single experience of that evening nearly thirty years ago: Sounds good to me.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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