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I see his face. He looks right at me with piercing eyes staring directly into mine.

Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic Convention Speech: Still Relevant, Inspirational — Frank Fear

I hear his voice. It's melodic. lyrical. Word are selected meticulously. Spoken carefully. The enunciation … well … it's “just right.”

Mario Cuomo was more than an orator. Cuomo was cerebral. Cuomo was thoughtful. Cuomo was expressive. And, most importantly, Cuomo was principled. Cuomo was a primary Progressive force of the late 20th Century.

What amazes me today—saddens is a much better word—is that I took Cuomo and other philosopher-politicians for granted. They’d always be around, I thought, and in great numbers, too. When Mario was done on the state and national stage, lots of others would follow. That’s the way it would be.

I was wrong. Really wrong. And what I also missed--even though I lived through it—is just how important it was for Cuomo to say what he said back then. He was a political “canary in the mine shaft.”

Cuomo could see what Ronald Reagan was doing and, perhaps more importantly, what Reagan was all about. He saw Reagan choreographing a sea change in political, social, and economic life—a shift away from Progressivism, which had prevailed for about 50 years, and a shift to a new era—Neoliberalism—which continues to this day.

“Look, people,” is the way Cuomo could have phrased it. “The President is hell-bent on changing E-V-E-R-Y-thing. We can’t let him do it.”

But do it Reagan did. He did it partly by making massive changes in U.S. tax laws and systems. The rich would keep much more of their money. Plutocrats would take charge. The role of government would change. The public sector would struggle. The non-profit sector would survive by soliciting big money from big donors. And the private sector would operate less encumbered. Self-interest would prevail over welfare of the collective.

The country was migrating to a different socio-politics. Trickle down and supply-side became words of choice. The Commonwealth was at risk.

Cuomo sensed it. Cuomo saw it. Cuomo spoke out about it.

What’s amazing about Mario Cuomo (and “amazing” is precisely the right word) is just how right he was--then--and (sadly) how well his words apply today. For confirmation, consider the text of his 1984 address at the Democratic National Convention. The speech is reprinted here, in abbreviated form, at about 1050 words.
Read it as though Cuomo is delivering it today, not 31 years ago. Ask yourself these questions: Is it relevant? Does it inspire you?

My answers are “Yes” and “Yes.”

Why?

It's today's reality, three decades after San Francisco. We have Trump. We have the Koch Brothers. We have a trillion dollars in student debt. We have buildings named after millionaires and sewer systems in need of repair. I could go on, but there's really no need: it's addressed in Cuomo's speech. More importantly, he offers a solution: embrace, and then nurture, the Commonwealth.

At the core the Commonwealth is the centrality of "We” -- the social responsibility that we have to each other expressed through the public sector. It's for the public good.

"We." Not the royal we, for God's sake! The Progressive We.

Mario Cuomo’s Convention Speech
Democratic National Convention
Moscone Center, San Franciso, CA
July 24, 1984

The President (Regan) said this country is “a shining city on a hill," but the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in the city's splendor and glory.

There's another city; the part where some people can't pay their mortgages, and most young people can't afford one; where students can't afford an education and middle-class parents watch their dreams evaporate.

In this part of the city there are more poor people than ever, more families in trouble, and more people who need help but can't find it. There are people who sleep in the city streets where the glitter doesn't show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people—without job or education—give their lives away to drug dealers.

This nation is more a Tale of Two Cities than it is a Shining City on a Hill.

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If you go to Appalachia, some people still live in sheds. If you go to Lackawanna, unemployed steel workers wonder why we subsidize foreign steel. If you stop at a shelter in Chicago you’ll find a woman who was denied that help she needs to feed her children.

The truth? This is how we were warned it would be. President Reagan told us that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism, “Survival of the Fittest.” "Government can't do everything," we were told. It should settle for taking care of the strong and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest.

Make the rich richer. What falls from the table will be enough for the middle class. It will be enough for those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class.

Franklin Roosevelt lifted this nation to new frontiers of education, housing, and peace. He did it with the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family—blacks, Hispanics, people of every ethnic group, and native Americans — all those struggling to build their families and claim a share of America.

For nearly 50 years we carried them to new levels of comfort, security, and dignity, even affluence. And remember this: some of us in this room today are here only because this nation had that kind of confidence.

We must make the American people hear our Tale of Two Cities. We must convince them that we can have city—indivisible, shining for all of its people.

Policies shouldn’t divide this nation into The Lucky and the Left-Out, into Royalty and Rabble. That cuts this nation in half—into those better off and those worse off than before.

Now it's up to us. We have a dream. We still believe in this nation's future.

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.

Our government should be able to rise to the level where it can fill the gaps left by chance or by a wisdom we don't fully understand. We would rather have laws written by the patron of this great city, the man called St. Francis of Assisi, than laws written by Darwin.

We believe 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; ought to be able to find work for all who can do it; and ought to find room at the table, shelter for the homeless, take care of the elderly and infirm, and foster 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.

We believe

  • In firm but fair law and order
  • In the union movement
  • In privacy for people, openness by government
  • In civil rights and human rights, and
  • In the idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another's pain, sharing one another's blessings — reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race, or sex, or geography, or political affiliation.

We believe we must be the family of America recognizing that, at the heart of the matter, we are bound one to another. We believe

  • The problems of a retired school teacher in Duluth are our problems;
  • The future of the child in Buffalo is our future;
  • The struggle of a disabled man in Boston to live decently is our struggle;
  • The hunger of a woman in Little Rock is our hunger; and
  • The failure anywhere to provide what reasonably we might, to avoid pain, is our failure.
  • For years we’ve created a better future for our children—giving us direction and purpose, constantly innovating, adapting to new realities:
  • Roosevelt's alphabet programs; Truman's NATO and the GI Bill of Rights; Kennedy's intelligent tax incentives and the Alliance for Progress; Johnson's civil rights; and Carter's human rights.
  • We know we can because, before 1980, we did it for nearly 50 years. And we can do it again—if we don’t forget that this entire nation has profited by these progressive principles.

They helped lift up generations to the middle class and higher; they gave us a chance to work, to go to college, to raise a family, to own a house, and to be secure in our old age.

It will happen if we make it happen; if you and I make it happen. And I ask you now—for the good of all of us, for the love of this great nation, for the family of America, and for the love of God—to please make this nation remember how futures are built.

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Frank Fear