by Steve Adubato, PhD

Mario Cuomo was a giant in American politics. He was an extraordinary public orator who moved millions to tears with his words, passion and iron-willed convictions. Those communication skills also made him a leader in the eyes of many. I was honored to have the opportunity to interview him in 2002 for public broadcasting. I sat with Governor Cuomo at the New Jersey Performing Arts a Center in Newark where he had come to deliver a speech.

I was especially excited to interview Mario Cuomo because, as a very young NJ state legislator, I was an elected Delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. On the night of his speech, I had left the New Jersey delegation to get closer to the podium and was in one if the first few rows in the hall for what has become known as the “Tale of Two Cities” speech.

I told him in our 2002 NJPAC interview how much his 1984 speech meant to me and so many others, as if he hadn't heard that a million times already. I wanted to know how he prepared for the speech and if he knew he was making history as he was speaking. I must have sounded more like a star-struck fan than a professional broadcaster. But Cuomo was so forthcoming in our interview. He talked in detail about the Democratic National Convention speech, its aftermath and why, with so much support in the Democratic Party, he would twice reject a run for the presidency.

He talked about not really having the burning desire to do what was needed to run for President, which is particularly ironic given where Governor Chris Christie finds himself today. Cuomo also talked candidly about his battles with some in the Catholic Church over his pro choice stand, as well as his opposition to the death penalty and the price he paid for it in a heated campaign for mayor in 1977 against Ed Koch, in which Cuomo lost. Sometimes, an important lesson in leadership we learn is that it is essential to take a stand that you deeply believe in, even if you lose, rather than compromising your core beliefs to achieve a short-term victory.

To this end, Cuomo told me a great story about his Italian mother who spoke to him at the time in “broken English”, advising him to simply tell voters he supported the death penalty in 1977, but then if he did win the election for mayor, just say he changed his mind. In the interview, Cuomo explained that he rejected his mother’s advice and criticized politicians who cynically say what they need to in order to get elected, even if it isn't what they believe. How rare a leadership trait—actually saying what you believe in, no matter what the consequences.

In this 2002 interview, which I have always counted as one of my favorites, Cuomo also discussed his son Andrew, now Governor of New York. He talked about his parents and his Italian roots and the traditions of hard work and loyalty that would mark his public and private life. Finally, Mario Cuomo talked to me about the state of American politics and the role of the media as well as citizens in having a strong Democracy.

The Cuomo interview was nearly 13 years ago, but it sticks in my mind like no other I've ever done. He was candid, genuine and articulate in a way that is hard to describe. Ironic, I know. I understood why he said he couldn't run for president, but I found myself then, and even more since his recent death, wishing he had come to a different conclusion. I'm not saying he was a perfect leader, governor or that he would have been the perfect president. Too liberal for the country? Maybe. But there has always been a part of me, probably since I heard Mario Cuomo in San Francisco in 1984, that felt with his extraordinary skills of persuasion he would have been a special and unique president. He was the kind of leader that would inspire and challenge us to seek not just what was good for ourselves, but for those who are struggling around us. Also, maybe some of that was because he was an Italian American—one of our own we could be proud of.

But it was so much more than that. Cuomo was more than that. He was a passionate and compassionate politician and leader. He was a once in a lifetime public figure. Rest in peace, Governor Cuomo. Our prayers are with your family. We are so much better for your having lived the public life you led.

To have the latest Lessons in Leadership tips, tools and advice sent directly to your inbox, click here to sign up.

Governor Mario Cuomo 2002:
A Look Back (Parts 1 & 2)