Mario Cuomo: Don’t Ask What Might Have Been

tags: Clinton, Mario Cuomo, U.S. Supreme Court

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale, teaches seminars there on “Global Journalism, National Identities” and “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy.”

A particular memory has kept me from sharing the anguish of the “What might have been” essays written this week about liberals’ four-time loss of Mario Cuomo as their tribune: the most recent loss, of course, having been in his passing, at 82; and, before that, his 1994 loss of a fourth term as governor to the little-known (and still little-known) Republican George Pataki; and, before that - and most fatefully, I think — his declining President Bill Clinton’s 1993 offer of a nomination to the Supreme Court; and, before that, his declining to run for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination against Clinton himself.

I can’t let my own memories of the “Hamlet on the Hudson” rest in peace without telling about a particular twist in the saga of these serial disappointments. It turns on something that Cuomo told me in the spring of 1982, when he was lieutenant governor and I was following his first Democratic primary campaign for governor. What he said lay buried for 32 years in the long Village Voice story I wrote that June: 

“If somebody could convince me I’d make a greater contribution to mankind as a judge in the [New York State] Court of Appeals, boy, I’d be happy as a clam,” Cuomo said as we rode the Taconic State Parkway from Albany to Westchester in his state-trooper-chauffered car on a brilliantly sunny day. “I’d love to be on the Court of Appeals personally, to be able never to have to go to a cocktail party, never to have to do anything you don’t want to do, just show up, listen to arguments, study, read, tell the truth. Can you imagine that? Never really have to compromise. You listen, you write your review, you can be Oliver Wendell Holmes, always in dissent.”

Yet, in 1993, Cuomo famously declined President Clinton’s offer of nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving me to wonder angrily in a Daily News column why this St. Johns University-trained legal mind would pass up a lifetime opportunity to out-argue his rival high-Catholic intellectual Antonin Scalia to stay in Albany sparring with Alan Chartock, president of the local NPR station, on his weekly “Me and Mario” show. A Justice Cuomo might have fended off, or at least discredited, in forceful, eloquent dissents, the Court’s handing of the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush and its disastrous 2009 Citizens United ruling.

The bitterest irony is that, if his comment to me meant anything, it was that he sometimes dreamed of doing almost precisely that. So what had changed? ...

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