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: