Mario Cuomo Was So Very Right—Especially on the Death Penalty

Mario Cuomo Was So Very Right—Especially on the Death Penalty

Mario Cuomo Was So Very Right—Especially on the Death Penalty

The late New York governor made it his mission to speak up for a moral politics and governance.


Mario Cuomo was so very right about so many things.

Cuomo was certainly right in the midst of the dismal Reagan era to reject an oblivious president’s “morning in America” sloganeering and “shining city on a hill” fabulism. And Cuomo did so not do this with the empty language of bipartisanship but rather in a gloriously unapologetic appeal to the 1984 Democratic National Convention that heard the newly elected governor of New York declare:

Mr. President you ought to know that this nation is more a “Tale of Two Cities” than it is just a “Shining City on a Hill.”

Maybe, maybe, Mr. President, if you visited some more places; maybe if you went to Appalachia where some people still live in sheds; maybe if you went to Lackawanna where thousands of unemployed steel workers wonder why we subsidized foreign steel. Maybe—Maybe, Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there; maybe, Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn’t afford to use.

Maybe—Maybe, Mr. President. But I’m afraid not. Because the truth is, ladies and gentlemen, that this is how we were warned it would be. President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of social Darwinism. Survival of the fittest. “Government can’t do everything,” we were told, so it should settle for taking care of the strong and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest. Make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class and those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class.

You know, the Republicans called it “trickle-down” when Hoover tried it. Now they call it “supply side.” But it’s the same shining city for those relative few who are lucky enough to live in its good neighborhoods. But for the people who are excluded, for the people who are locked out, all they can do is stare from a distance at that city’s glimmering towers.

Cuomo was right when he rejected the false morality of a rising religious right and said in his 1984 speech to the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology what too many cautious and confused liberals—and too many responsible conservatives—neglected to say:

I think it’s already apparent that a good part of this Nation understands—if only instinctively—that anything which seems to suggest that God favors a political party or the establishment of a state church, is wrong and dangerous.

Way down deep the American people are afraid of an entangling relationship between formal religions—or whole bodies of religious belief—and government. Apart from constitutional law and religious doctrine, there is a sense that tells us it’s wrong to presume to speak for God or to claim God’s sanction of our particular legislation and His rejection of all other positions. Most of us are offended when we see religion being trivialized by its appearance in political throw-away pamphlets.

The American people need no course in philosophy or political science or church history to know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman.

Cuomo was right, at a time when Catholic politicians were being pressured to impose a narrow morality upon public policy, to anticipate the more generous and inclusive vision of Pope Francis. As Cuomo explained:

In addition to all the weaknesses, dilemmas and temptations that impede every pilgrim’s progress, the Catholic who holds political office in a pluralistic democracy—who is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics—bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones—sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people’s right to divorce, to use birth control and even to choose abortion.

In fact, Catholic public officials take an oath to preserve the Constitution that guarantees this freedom. And they do so gladly. Not because they love what others do with their freedom, but because they realize that in guaranteeing freedom for all, they guarantee our right to be Catholics: our right to pray, to use the sacraments, to refuse birth control devices, to reject abortion, not to divorce and remarry if we believe it to be wrong.

The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.

I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or non-believer, or as anything else you choose.

We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.

Cuomo was right when he rejected the madness of an arms race and the expansion of a military-industrial complex when politicians of both parties neglected the human cost of misplaced priorities. He willed his party to be better, arguing:

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. And we proclaim as loudly as we can the utter insanity of nuclear proliferation and the need for a nuclear freeze, if only to affirm the simple truth that peace is better than war because life is better than death.

Cuomo was right to join another liberal lion—the late US Senator Edward Kennedy—in offering a humane and embracing definition of liberalism in the modern era when he announced that:

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 words like “love” and “compassion” and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities.

We believe in encouraging the talented, but we believe that while survival of the fittest may be a good working description of the process of evolution, a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order.

Cuomo, who died on New Year’s Day at age 82, was the first to admit that he was not always right. He faced criticism for mounting crude campaigns in the early stages of a political journey that took from the streets of Queens to the cusp of presidential politics. He was defeated in races for lieutenant governor of New York, for mayor of New York City, for reelection to a fourth term as governor of New York State. He will always be second-guessed for his “Hamlet on the Hudson” indecision about seeking the presidency in 1988 and 1992, and for rejecting the prospect of nomination to serve on the US Supreme Court.

Yet, in three terms as governor of New York, as a champion of liberalism in the face of what conservatives proclaimed to be the “Reagan revolution,” as a keeper of the New Deal and Fair Deal and Great Society faith in a possibility of a more perfect union, as a thoughtful proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment and of reproductive rights, as an early supporter of research and funding of programs to address the HIV/AIDS crisis, as a sometimes lonely defender of social-welfare programs, as an innovative thinker who recognized that economic development did not have to be at odds with environmental sanity, Mario Cuomo was so frequently right that he came to be understood more as a statesman than a politician.

And on one issue, above all others, he was the most rigorously and necessarily right of all the prominent political figures of his time.

That issue was the death penalty.

Cuomo was the steadiest high-profile foe of capital punishment in an era when most Republicans and many leading Democrats—including President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Ed Koch—supported state-sponsored executions.

Again and again as governor, Cuomo vetoed legislation to establish capital punishment in New York State, explaining when he issued one of those vetoes in 1991 that “The death penalty legitimizes the ultimate act of vengeance in the name of the state, violates fundamental human rights, fuels a mistaken belief by some that justice is being served and demeans those who strive to preserve human life and dignity.”

Long after he left office, Cuomo remained consistently outspoken in his opposition to the death penalty, and it can he argued that this consistency played a role in shifting Democrats and the country as a whole toward a more enlightened view. But even if he had been required to stand alone on the issue, Mario Cuomo would have done so. It was his chosen mission in the realm of politics, and in the realm of moral discourse, to argue for outlawing capital punishment.

“Because the death penalty was so popular during the time I served as governor, I was often asked why I spoke out so forcefully against it although the voters very much favored it,” former Governor Cuomo wrote in 2011. “I tried to explain that I pushed this issue into the center of public dialogue because I believed the stakes went far beyond the death penalty itself. Capital punishment raises important questions about how, as a society, we view human beings. I believed as governor, and I still believe, that the practice and support for capital punishment is corrosive; that it is bad for a democratic citizenry and that it had to be objected to and so I did then, and I do now and will continue to for as long as it and I exist, because I believe we should be better than what we are in our weakest moments.”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy