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Mario Cuomo: Hero or ‘Hamlet on the Hudson,’ depending on who you ask

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Jason Fields

Mario Cuomo, who died yesterday, was a liberal lion or a dithering do-gooder, depending on which New York publication you ask.

One of the city’s last great columnists standing, Mike Lupica, writing in the New York Daily News, talks about his admiration and reverence for the former governor, who led the state from 1982 to 1994.

“It was, and is, the country’s loss. Everyone who ever knew Mario Cuomo, dead now because his great heart has given out at the age of 82, knew about the beauty in the man’s soul, all the good in him. But that does not tell the whole story. This was a great man, as great as his city has ever produced …

“We need him today, of course, as much as we ever did, need his mind and his decency and his fairness. We need his voice, to be talking about cops and race in America, about Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, about Michael Brown and Eric Garner.”

The headline on the front page of the tabloid, as it has read before, was “Super Mario,” referring to the hero of the long-running Nintendo video game franchise.

The

New York Post

, which never made a secret of it’s opposition to Cuomo, and the liberal agenda he stood for, went with the much more subdued, “Mario Cuomo, 1932-2015.” Inside the paper, a

column

by Frederic U. Dicker, who covered the former governor for decades, had a far less-than-favorable view.

“To nearly all who knew Mario Cuomo well, he was an underachieving enigma — brilliant yet indecisive, accomplished as a lawyer yet riddled with self-doubt as a politician, an initially popular governor who was eventually booted from office for failing to use that popularity to lead New York in a direction that would have made this a better state.

“Mario Cuomo was one of the nation’s greatest orators, but his sometimes-dazzling speeches — like his keynote to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984 — almost always lacked answers to the problems they addressed.”

And Dicker’s final verdict? “But his legacy as governor was anything but positive.”

Stephen Schlesinger, who served as one of Cuomo’s speech writers and as his foreign policy adviser during his time in office, saw things differently, as one might expect. He offered a very personal view in the New York Observer.

“He had a genuine presence and a warm, bantering personality, a sense of camaraderie and fun. I remember he also had a lawyer’s way of arguing fine points with visitors.”

Schlesinger also offered a view into one of the great mysteries of Cuomo’s public life: why he never ran for president.

In 1984, Cuomo made a speech to the Democratic Convention that immediately made him a hero of the party. President Ronald Reagan spoke of America as “a shining city on a hill.” Cuomo had a different metaphor. He spoke of a “tale of two cities,” one rich and filled with opportunity, one poor and in need of help and hope.

By 1988, the media was rife with speculation over whether the governor would run. He didn’t. It was the same in 1992. That seeming indecision earned him the moniker “Hamlet on the Hudson.”

Here is Schlesinger’s view of what happened.

“In my view, though, he never really felt he could be president. I believe he felt a genuine irresolution about it, questioning whether it was truly for him—but not because of possible skeletons in his closet or because of his Italian first and last name, but for the very reasons that he was not at ease talking about American foreign policy. It was just not a place he was comfortable going to—it was beyond his aspirations.”

PHOTO: Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo embraces his father Mario after being re-election at the U.S. midterm race in New York, Nov. 4, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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