If the presidency of Barack Obama has taught us anything, it is not to judge politicians by their convention speeches. Obama’s 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention, which called for national unity, stands as a rebuke to the divisive way in which he has governed from the start. So it is regrettable that liberals and the mainstream media are remembering the late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who died Jan. 1, for his keynote address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
Cuomo’s speech was a liberal crie de coeur against the march of conservative ideas and the crumbling of the big government consensus that built the welfare state. “We believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need,” Cuomo said.
It was an approach that would fail at the ballot box in 1984 and again in 1988, and would be cast aside by Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. It is an approach the American people have rejected again, despite Obama’s attempt to revive it.
Liberals want to remember the Cuomo speech as if it represents the enduring power of those ideals. Some appear to want to turn Cuomo’s passing into a political rally, which is what the tragic death of liberal Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone became in 2002. They want to believe that despite huge defeats in two successive midterm elections, and despite public rejection of Obamacare–the most significant liberal policy in decades–that welfare-state left-liberalism will survive the failures of the Obama presidency.
Cuomo might not have disagreed with that kind of revisionism as a matter of political strategy. But it is unfair to the man, and to the things he achieved, to make him the icon of a defeated campaign and a deflated ideology.
In looking back at his own career, Cuomo actually chose a different speech as his favorite. Writing to the late William Safire, who was compiling a collection of history’s great speeches, Cuomo recommended the inclusion of his commencement address at Iona College in June 1984.
While the convention speech is notable for its focus on the division between rich and poor, the Iona College is remarkable for its emphasis on a common question facing members of a prosperous society: What is the purpose of wealth, Cuomo asked, if it does not provide happiness?
“Most of us have achieved levels of affluence and comfort unthought of two generations ago. We’ve never had it so good, most of us. Nor have we ever complained so bitterly about our problems,” he told graduates and their parents.
Cuomo appealed to faith–not to the welfare state–for answers:
…[D]o we have the right to tell these graduates that the most important thing in their lives will be their ability to believe in believing? And that without that ability, sooner or later they will be doomed to despair…that after earning their first big title, their first shiny new car and traveling around the world for the first time and having had it all–they will discover that none of it counts unless they have something real and permanent to believe in?
He may not have realized it, but Cuomo was echoing Barry Goldwater–another leader whose stirring convention address presaged defeat. In his 1960 manifesto, Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater defined the difference between conservatism and its rivals: “…it is Socialism that subordinates all other concerns to a man’s material well-being. It is Conservatism that puts material things in their proper place…”. Both Cuomo and Goldwater located the purpose of life in something higher.
For Cuomo, the answer of the great religions and philosophers was to give to others: “Aristotle was right…when he said the only way to assure yourself happiness is to learn to give happiness.” Notably, he did not exhort his audience to give more to the U.S. government, but to give more, on their own.
That speech, Cuomo told Safire, was his favorite: “Others have received more attention; this one says best what is most important to me.”
As we remember Cuomo, we should remember that: giving, over government.
Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the new ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak