Days after Mario Cuomo’s death at age 82 on Jan. 1, the former three-term governor of New York is remembered for his public career, his stirring oratory, and also for what he didn’t do. In two election cycles that the Democratic nomination for president appeared his for the asking, 1988 and ’92, Cuomo pondered, explored, and finally decided at the last minute not to become a candidate.
In so doing, the Empire State governor was dubbed by political reporters, "Hamlet on the Hudson."
Seldom recalled is how Cuomo, his presidential hopes behind him, became one of the few Americans to be offered and to decline appointment to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.
As a candidate for presidential nomination and later election in 1992, then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas owed Cuomo. Tapes released to the press by alleged Clinton lover Gennifer Flowers had her saying that Cuomo seems "like he could get real mean" and a voice that sounded like Clinton’s muttering: "a mean son-of-a-bitch."
Flowers then went on to suggest Cuomo may have "Mafioso connections," to which the Clinton-like voice replies: "Well, he acts like one."
Following release of the tape, Clinton apologized to Cuomo — whose temper was privately well-known among staffers and which had earned the New Yorker another nickname "Captain Queeg" (after the manic Navy captain portrayed on screen by Humphrey Bogart in "The Caine Mutiny").
Cuomo was known to grow especially irate at what he believed were demeaning stereotypes of Italian Americans. Asked about the tapes by interviewer Larry King, Cuomo linked Clinton’s alleged adultery with bigotry: "[T]he idea of loving someone imprudently or unwisely — I'm not sure that that's as bad as encouraging people to hate one another."
By 1992 at the Democratic National Convention in New York, however, the two governors had apparently made up. Cuomo placed Clinton in nomination for president with a spell-binding oration. He later campaigned hard for the man from Arkansas who called himself "a different kind of Democrat." Clinton, always suspect among his party’s left for his centrist image, won cheers from liberal Democrats by vowing to name to the Supreme Court justices in the "mold of Mario Cuomo."
In March 1993, President Clinton was given just that opportunity when Justice Byron White announced he would step down from the Supreme Court. Clinton, who also wanted to name a politician to the court as Franklin Roosevelt did on several occasions, immediately reached out to Cuomo, then completing his third term in Albany.
"Clinton was ready to appoint Cuomo, assuming (as we did) that the background check didn't reveal anything disqualifying," former White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos confirmed in his memoir "All Too Human."
All signs pointed to Cuomo following in the path of Charles Evans Hughes, who relinquished the governorship of New York in 1910 to accept President William Howard Taft’s offer of a position on the Supreme Court. Political reporters were anxious for Senate confirmation hearings featuring Cuomo, known for invoking St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic philosopher Teilhard De Chardin, and the Second Vatican Council in speeches on zoning and other state issues.
Privately, many Roman Catholic leaders knew they faced a dilemma in dealing with the nomination of Cuomo, a practicing Catholic who had challenged his church’s opposition on abortion and defended the Supreme Court ruling "Roe v. Wade" that struck down state laws banning abortion.
But Cuomo, wrote William H. Chafe in "Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal," "refused to return Clinton’s phone calls. Then he said he probably would be interested in being chosen, only to change his mind a few days later."
Clinton began to consider other possibilities, one reportedly being then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).
Weeks later, Andrew Cuomo, Cuomo’s son and Clinton’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told the president his father was ready to reconsider. However, "an hour before the phone call in which he was to accept Clinton’s invitation … Cuomo, infuriatingly, once more pulled out."
Three months after White announced his retirement, Clinton turned to U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who accepted the appointment.
Two days after Cuomo’s death, "The Atlantic" ran an "alternate history" featuring "Justice Cuomo" serving on the high court until his heath began to fail last year and retiring to give President Obama the choice of his successor. Although he most likely would have voted as Ginsburg did in favor of abortion and against the death penalty, it’s impossible to say how "Cuomo would have voted on countless other issues that have come before the Supreme Court in the last two decades, including terrorism, the limits of executive power, and federalism," concluded "The Atlantic’s" Russell Berman.
No one can say what a "Justice Cuomo" would have been like any more than what a "President Cuomo" would have been like. All that can be said is a most intriguing politician turned down opportunities to be both.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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