Passion and Reason

Published: January 5, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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Mario Cuomo 1.jpg

In his 1995 book, Reason to Believe, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo writes, “Outrage is easy, cheap and oversold. The nation needs less anger and more thoughtful reflection, less shouting and more listening, less dissembling and more honesty.

“In analyzing the issues, we need to remember there is a place for ideology, but it is not first place. First place goes to good sense, no matter what political badge it happens to be wearing at the moment.”

That advice could easily apply to today’s political and social climate. Cuomo, who died last Thursday at 82, was indeed, a leader who could inspire.

The first time I spoke with Mario Cuomo was in March, 1998, when he called in response to a questionnaire I sent to more than 2,000 individuals around the country: “What do you stand for; what principles do you believe in? Describe a moment of principle in which your convictions were tested or in which you were inspired by another.”

His response speaks to his responsibility as a leader, not a politician.

“Like most people, I have struggled with the process of trying to understand exactly who I am, what I want to be, and how I should behave, for most of my life.

“At this point I’ve concluded the answers come in two major categories: my obligations and my options. My principal obligations are to help my large family every way I can, to live by the law, fulfill my civic duties and avoid hurting other human beings. Among the options available to me are participation in public service and political activity and generally seeking to follow the prescription of the ancient Hebrews, tikkun olam, which is to help repair the universe. There’s not a lot an ordinary individual can do that will make a significant difference, but just trying seems to me virtuous.

“Taking a position on the death penalty as Governor was both a matter of obligation and an option. I have chosen to oppose capital punishment because I believe the death penalty is inconsistent with the idea of tikkun olam, as I interpret it.

“It’s clear the position on the death penalty hurt me politically. Exit polls showed it might have cost me as much as five percent in 1994, when I lost by four percent. But I won three times before that, despite it.

“In the long run, I’d rather have lost the election than to bring death back to New York as an official New York State policy.”

Several months later, I found myself speaking at the same conference as Cuomo in San Francisco. (Cuomo and Bill Bennett spoke to a crowd of about 4,000 attendees. Me, I spoke to a much smaller section lunch.) Nevertheless, at a reception held for speakers and clients, I got to personally meet him and found him to be just as he appeared: genuine, respectful, and always with an eye on the much bigger picture for the country, and the responsibility we all have to each other.

“We need to look outside ourselves and to reestablish a sense of community, both in our daily lives and in the way we view our government. We need to understand and fulfill our civic responsibilities at the same time that we seek to gratify our personal needs and desires. We need to appreciate and respect the rights of others at the same time that we insist on exercising our own rights and freedoms.

“Without community, without a sense of our common interest, we will cede to those infinitely organized and articulate voices called the special interests the strength and wealth of this nation.

“The truth is that we need a strong set of shared personal and public values especially because our society is so diverse and free, precisely because we have put our fate in the hands of the free market. We need it to hold us together when competing interests and traditions threaten to pull us apart, and we need it to help us understand who we are as Americans.

“It is still the biggest and most useful truth – for us to succeed as a society, we must come together, recognizing that we must be the family of America; that in the end, we are bound to one another – because it is right and because it is necessary.”

In both words and actions, Mario Cuomo gave us a sense of who we are, and where we are headed, and always gave us a reason to believe we can be better.


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