Mario Cuomo understood gray areas, which made him very Catholic

As praise poured in for the late Mario Cuomo, one observer after another noted that his record of accomplishment as three-term governor of New York did not match his peerless rhetoric in defense of an activist government on the side of working families and the poor.

In the end, Cuomo was probably just too Catholic.

Cuomo meant a lot to me personally, an Italian kid who -- like him -- grew up in New York City's outer boroughs. He struggled to overcome ethnic stereotypes and suspicions to prove himself an honest and honorable man. Cuomo also never shied away from his Catholic heritage, even when it was supremely inconvenient. 

Year after year, as a matter of conscience, he vetoed legislation aimed at restoring the death penalty to New York. Yet he also famously went up against Catholic hierarchy in a speech at the University of Notre Dame, eloquently and intelligently making the case for politicians like him who personally opposed abortion but -- as servants of the broader public -- supported its availability to those who did not share those beliefs. 

To me, his abortion speech showed -- and I know this is odd -- Cuomo's "too Catholic" side: his theologian-like love of gray areas and fine lines. Like the Catholic thinkers he studied, admired and quoted, he found little to love in the black-and-white extremes; his mind seemed to spark in the middle. 

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That was what made him an impressive mediator. Cuomo was thrust into the national spotlight in the conflict-ridden 1970s, when as a private lawyer he mediated two disputes between working-class white families and proposed city projects that would have demolished their homes to make way for public housing. These were disputes that exposed the lesser angels of human nature -- racial fears on one side, arrogant power on the other -- but Cuomo was able to see the value in both viewpoints, building a compromise that made everyone feel listened to and respected. 

He used that same ability in 1983, in one of his first crises as governor, to end an inmate takeover of the notorious Sing Sing prison -- in stark contrast to prison riots in Attica, N.Y., in 1971 that left dozens dead or wounded. 

But that power to see all sides also led him to be dubbed the "Hamlet on the Hudson" -- a man who struggled with and chewed over big decisions: whether to run for president in 1988 and 1992; whether to take a seat on the Supreme Court after reportedly lobbying then-President Bill Clinton to consider him. He eventually did none of those things. 

Cuomo was not driven by blind ambition. He had a "catholic" view (in the original sense of "wide" and "universal") of the real world and the sacrifices ambition demanded. He was, in a very Catholic way, a pragmatist who understood the gap between his soaring rhetoric and life as it is lived every day. His lofty turns of phrase were often matched by, um, saltier barbs directed at reporters he felt were not giving him a fair shake.

He understood the gray. That made him a rare politician, a personal enigma, a confusing character on the national stage. 

But it made him very Catholic. 

This story appeared in the Jan 16-29, 2015 print issue under the headline: Mario Cuomo understood gray areas, which made him very Catholic .

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