Two powerful strands of life came together this week, in memory, and acknowledgement, once again, that all the wrong people are dying.
This week marks what would have been the 90th birthday of former NYS Governor Mario M. Cuomo, a personal inspiration, and a paragon of public service and personal integrity. Cuomo died seven years ago, just a few months after my oldest brother passed away from Pancreatic cancer. I loved both men, even though they lived diametrically different lives. I wrote an entire book (Tightrope: Balancing A Life Between Mario Cuomo & My Brother, 2017, Heliotrope Books, NY, NY) about the anguish both caused me, especially since my brother Michael worked with John Gotti and the Gambino Crime Family, while I worked with Mario Cuomo — who smashed every negative stereotype about Italian-Americans, and was the anti-thesis of criminality, the mob, John Gotti, lawlessness, and Donald Trump.
Last week, Cuomo’s Press Secretary, Marty Steadman — and one of the kindest bosses I’ve ever known — died at 91 years old. Steadman, a former print journalist, hired me (I’m convinced), because of our mutual love of sports and newspapers. In my first and only interview with him in the Governor’s Office at Two World Trade Center on my 36th birthday, Steadman noticed that I worked for the Suffolk Sun Newspaper — a short-lived competitor to Newsday — as a Sports Correspondent. Steadman was a reporter for a few of New York City’s newspapers which were no longer in business.
“I think we’ll get along just fine, “ Marty said to me, smiling gently. “Between the two of us, we’ve closed more newspapers in this town than are still in existence.”
Marty Steadman was also a Kennedy Democrat, and his one and only run for public office came in 1966 when he ran for Congress and lost, in a heavily Republican district in Nassau County. The man who persuaded Steadman to run — two years after RFK was elected US Senator from NY State — was, Jack English, the local & national Democratic leader who helped JFK get elected President in 1960.
Twenty years later, when Mario Cuomo was up for re-election as Governor of New York, and Jack English was one year away of dying from cancer, Steadman arranged for English to meet with Cuomo in the Governor’s Two World Trade Center Office, on the 57th Floor. Marty asked me to sit in on the meeting, tape record and take notes of their conversation.
Cuomo and English had previously worked together on Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign for President in 1980, with English serving as the National Director of the Carter Campaign, and Cuomo heading the effort in NY State. Mario Cuomo and Jack English were friends and former colleagues, both having practiced as lawyers and clerked for judges in New York. They were “progressive pragmatists,” sharing beliefs in many of the same causes, and a similar approach to politics.
Cuomo graciously welcomed Jack English into his World Trade Center office, sharing with him the commanding view of New York Harbor, with the deference a student has for a mentor, although English was only six years his senior. The Governor motioned for English to sit in the armchair with a view of the Statue of Liberty, while Cuomo sat down behind his desk. I sat on a leather couch, close enough to both, to record their conversation.
English minced no words, perhaps an indicator that he had little time left for Mario Cuomo to make up his mind.
“Governor, I think you ought to consider running for president,” he said. “ I think you are exactly what the Democratic Party needs at the head of the ticket in 1988, to take back the White House.”
Cuomo scrunched up his large, chiseled face and shook his head, “No.”
“I’m very grateful for your confidence, Jack,” Cuomo said, and then proceeded to tell his politically astute guest how busy he was running the State of NY against a national administration hostile to the needs of the Northeast, and intent on pitting region against region, race against race, and rich against poor.
“You need someone like a Bobby Kennedy,” Cuomo said, artfully steering the conversation to a discussion of how well English knew the Kennedys, how hard he worked for what they believed in, and what Robert F. Kennedy and the Kennedy family meant for the country.
“It’s why no one could second guess Teddy’s decision not to run,” Cuomo said. “The Kennedy family has given far beyond what could be expected of any family to give to serve their country.” Several months earlier, in December 1985, Teddy Kennedy had taken himself out of consideration for the 1988 Democratic Nomination, catapulting Cuomo into a top contender.
Jack English nodded his head in agreement, looking off in the distance at New York Harbor glistening in the afternoon sun. He let Mario Cuomo continue.
“We need someone like Bobby today,” Cuomo said. “Someone who can unite black and white, rich and poor, who can speak to the needs of working people, and get people in the suburbs and the cities to see we are all part of the same family.”
I held my pen perfectly still and looked carefully at English, waiting for him to speak. Jack English’s Irish eyes twinkled and he leaned forward in his chair.
“Well, I think you’re that person, Governor,” he said.
Cuomo wrinkled up his big nose and shook his head, “No.” He would not allow himself to be held to a standard that he could not control — not even from as towering a Democratic Party legend as Jack English.
The meeting ended on a cordial note, with Cuomo asking English to stay in touch. A little over a year later, Jack English died at age 61, from liver cancer.
Mario Cuomo never took Jack’s advice, but, by his own life, instructed us how to repair the world.