An Empire of Missed Opportunities

By Robert SlaytonSeptember 1, 2017

An Empire of Missed Opportunities

American Cicero by Saladin Ambar

SALADIN AMBAR’S STUDY of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo is a slim volume — not just regarding the number of pages, but in more telling ways.

Let’s start with the thin nature of the opening. There are really two ways to begin a biography. One is to start with the subject’s birth, or go back even further with a family history — David McCullough’s classic Truman opens with the president’s genealogy, for example. The other is with the telling anecdote, which, at its best, reveals and encapsulates the grand theme of the book.

Ambar chooses the latter approach, and his choice of story is an odd one: the New York governor’s tortured announcement in 1991 that he was not going to run for the presidency, despite his leadership role within the Democratic Party. This remains a great mystery: the unanswered question about a figure often referred to as a modern Hamlet. Why, despite his eloquence and charisma, did Mario Cuomo never step up as a national candidate?

But this is a wrong step for the author, for several reasons. First, he never answers the question; this book adds nothing to solving the riddle. In fact, his only stab at this is a brief five-page epilogue, based on an interview with a couple of Cuomo’s distant relatives in Italy, who claim they “know” of Mafia threats against the governor should he choose to run. Even Ambar dismisses these conspiracy tales. And then he drops the matter entirely, closing the book with no answer to the question he began with.

It would have been better if he had started with an anecdote capturing the book’s main theme, which centers on the question of why Mario Cuomo’s legacy matters today. And why is he relevant to today’s politics? And should he still be studied? As Ambar himself puts it in the preface, “Why do we need a book on Mario Cuomo?” We get some partial answers in this too-short book, but never a full portrait, vested in detailed research.

It’s not as if there wasn’t a rich mine of information at hand. Cuomo served as the most eloquent and important upholder of traditional liberalism in an era of powerful Republican presidents, and “presented the most serious counter-argument to Reagan’s brand of conservatism.” As the author ably demonstrates, Cuomo was the upholder of New Deal virtues, both within the Democratic Party and to the nation. He did this fearlessly, at a time when it was most difficult to do so, a guardian when it was not easy to stand up.

His greatest speech and most eloquent articulation of his values was at the 1984 Democratic convention. As the author points out, it was not so much an attack on Reagan, but “an assault on a certain approach to government.” He rejected Republican Social Darwinism, saying that evolution might work in the field of biology “but a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order.” Instead, he told his audience in the hall and beyond, we must look to our better angels, taking care of the multitudes left behind. “We must be the family […] feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings, reasonably, equitably, honestly, fairly, without respect to geography or race or political affiliation.” In the course of the speech he employed “family” or “families” five times.

This is a strong and worthwhile proposition, worthy of a good opening anecdote and much more, but Ambar takes it too far, with the book winding up as an exercise in hagiography. Yes, Cuomo was an articulate counterpoint to the prevailing ethos of the ’80s. That is a telling accomplishment for any figure, and makes them worthy of extended study.

But the author, instead, puts up Cuomo as a kind of deity, claiming that “from a progressive point of view” (underling in the original), Cuomo was “the most important Democratic national figure in the last 30 years. He was no mere flash in the pan (Howard Dean) or end-of-career phenomenon (Bernie Sanders).” This is a heavy mantle to wear, perhaps too heavy.

He goes so far as to compare Cuomo to FDR, and claims that the governor surpassed Hillary Clinton and even Barack Obama in standing up for the New Deal tradition. Cuomo thereby rises to undeserved mythical status in this book, and Ambar sinks too readily into the biographer’s cardinal fallacy, which is to invest the subject with more historical weight than is deserved.

Ambar claims that if we “are interested in how Democrats took back the White House” they can read about Bill Clinton, or in mastery of legislation, about Daniel Moynihan. On the other hand,

if readers are interested in learning about the best template for progressive governance […] one that best married New Deal liberalism with civic republicanism and an emphasis on the working class — and an open appreciation and connection with black and white ethnic voters — they should read what I have to say about Mario Cuomo.

Cuomo becomes, without adequate evidence, the greatest politician of the modern era, “the best lodestar for considering a more resolute and progressive politics of the future.”

Ambar constantly stretches an otherwise good argument to the point of breaking. He asks the rhetorical question, “Who other than Mario Cuomo offered the most effective and potentially devastating critique of conservative politics as articulated by Ronald Reagan?” Fair enough. But in the same paragraph he trumpets, “Mario Cuomo was, and remains, the best alternative progressive voice to the politics of Sunbelt conservatism on the past thirty years,” notwithstanding Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House.

Once he gets past such excesses, the tone moderates and becomes reasonable, providing useful arguments. Accepting that Cuomo was a lone voice in a national tide running against him, the author calmly and accurately states, “This book is about Mario Cuomo’s defense of liberalism in America — not necessarily its successes or its victories.” This is a much more measured description. Although he takes it too far, Ambar makes valid points about the value of Cuomo’s message, how “liberalism was about what government can do, but also what communities could do, what religious faith could do, and what a world of diverse voices could do.”

Besides a tempering of his adulatory depiction of Cuomo, Ambar should have gone farther in explaining the limits of this kind of liberalism. Cuomo’s noble speech spoke to the dispossessed, but did not address the struggling middle class. There is no discussion of how this impacted liberals’ fortunes at the polls (and opened the door to a Trump presidency). In their failed 1984 challenge to Reagan with Walter Mondale, the only economic group the Democrats outright won were the very poor.

The most surprising absence from this book is actually one of Cuomo’s virtues. Not once does Ambar use the word “courage,” yet he gives multiple examples of how Cuomo displayed this quality. Even as a young politician in the State Legislature, he introduced a bill curbing gifts to his colleagues, a favorite perquisite. It failed, but how much inner strength did it take for a beginner to champion something like that? At his other historic speech, at Notre Dame, on abortion and on the responsibilities of a Catholic, while Cuomo’s speech was wildly received by the audience at the end, at times “others just stared, mouthing something, unsure, it seemed, of quite what to do.”

A significant aspect of Cuomo’s success as a politician is left to the side. Ambar notes how, “Cuomo as an Italian, served an almost medieval function in the city’s politics. He was neither black, nor a Jew, and could therefore serve as an intermediary between these communities.” To use an anthropological term, Cuomo was a broker between communities, and a particularly adept one. The author provides several examples, but never gives a full analysis of this critical attribute — why and how it contributed to Cuomo’s success.

A curious bête noire haunts this book. If Reagan is the source of all evil, the great betrayer of liberal Democracy is Bill Clinton. Over and over the Arkansas governor is presented as a shallow DINO (Democrat In Name Only). As early as the prologue, Clinton appears as the harbinger of a momentous, and terrible, shift within the party — from the ethnics and minorities of the Northeast to the white Protestants of the Sunbelt who would limit the impact of the federal government “in the affairs of ordinary people.” Thus, “one of the great reasons” to explore Mario Cuomo’s life was not the challenge he posed to Reaganism; rather, “the first consideration of Mario Cuomo’s legacy must be the fall-out for his party and the nation in his inability to confront Clintonism.” Later on, he brands Clinton as one “who would ultimately question the relevance of New Deal politics for the last decades of the twentieth century,” the greatest indictment possible for this author.

This is a political and not a traditional biography and thus raises questions as to what standard we should use to assess these merits. Yet Ambar compares himself several times to historians and biographers, thus setting the context for what kind of work we should expect. And in this respect he comes up quite short.

Departing from standard biography, the reader is served little exploration of the subject’s formative years (only one paragraph on the high school and college years), and none on the community he was so deeply a part of and that deeply shaped his outlook on life and on politics. In the few pages that Ambar recognizes the unique political crucible of New York City, it is an overview of statistics, rather than providing any sense of the flavor or the culture of a place that so influenced Cuomo — especially that outerborough Queens that also deeply affected the outlook of Donald Trump. How did it impact the governor? We never find out.

Limited research went into this volume. In the list of the archives and libraries, there is no breakout of specific collections he consulted and few references to documents. Despite the abundance of people with knowledge of Cuomo — including gubernatorial and campaign staffers, journalists, and acquaintances — Ambar conducted only 12 interviews, and most of the citations come from only one of these. The great bulk of the manuscript is drawn from newspaper accounts, the only primary source used in abundance.

At Mario’s funeral, his son (and New York governor) Andrew explained how his father “wasn’t really a politician at all […] he was a philosopher and he was a poet. And he was an advocate and a crusader.” High words — and largely accurate. Such an individual deserves a better study.


Robert A. Slayton is the Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions at Chapman University and the author of Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.

LARB Contributor

Robert Slayton is professor emeritus in history at Chapman University. Slayton is the author of eight books. His book Beauty in the City: The Ashcan School (SUNY Press, 2017) won the Gold Medal for US Northeast–Best Regional Non-Fiction in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) and Silver for Nonfiction History in the 2017 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. Empire Statesman (2001), his biography of Alfred E. Smith, 1928 presidential candidate and the first Roman Catholic to run for the nation’s highest office, was endorsed by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro, who called it “vivid and insightful,” while Hasia Diner, holder of the Steinberg Chair at New York University, referred to it as an “exemplary biographical narrative.” It has been reviewed in The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker; Wikipedia cites Empire Statesman as the standard biographical work on Smith. His book Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 1986) was chosen by Choice, the library journal, as one of its “Outstanding Books,” while New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel (Temple University Press, 1990) was awarded Honorable Mention for the Paul Davidoff Award by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. His articles have appeared in Commentary, New Mobility, and Salon, and in newspapers including The New York TimesThe Washington PostChicago TribuneChicago Sun-TimesLos Angeles Times, and The Orange County Register.


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