Bill Press: A liberal for all ages

Bill Press: A liberal for all ages
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In a world of political midgets, Mario Cuomo was a giant: a man of convictions, incredible drive and an abiding belief in the power of government to make life better for average working-class Americans.

We not only lost an effective political leader on New Year’s Day, we lost the greatest liberal since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Unlike most Democrats today, Cuomo didn’t run away from the term. He was proud to call himself a liberal, and he never veered from his liberal principles.

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Take the issue of abortion: A devout Catholic, he stood up to the bishops who would deny him and other pro-choice Democrats communion. He even flew to the campus of Notre Dame to proclaim that Roman Catholic politicians like him who personally opposed abortion could still defend the right of a woman to make that decision.

As to his opposition to the death penalty, his advisers told him it was political suicide. But, again, Cuomo refused to back down. Time and time again, he vetoed legislation to reinstate the death penalty in New York. “The death penalty legitimizes the ultimate act of vengeance in the name of the state, violates fundamental human rights, fuels a mistaken belief by some that justice is being served and demeans those who strive to preserve human life and dignity,” he said in 1991. His opposition cost him a fourth term as governor — but he wouldn’t have it any other way. 

On the role of government, he rejected the simplistic view of Ronald Reagan that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” In Cuomo’s vision, government had unlimited potential, depending on what priorities were adopted at the time. “We believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need,” he said. The key question, then and now, is who is government serving? Those who are already doing very well, thank you, and don’t really need another tax break? Or those who need help the most?

Cuomo delivered that message in the highlight of his career, an electrifying keynote speech to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen an entire convention floor totally silent, captivated by the speaker. He directly challenged the cheery message of Reagan about our “shining city on a hill,” where everybody in America was doing just fine. It’s more like A Tale of Two Cities, Cuomo countered. “A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another part to the shining city. In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it.”

They called him a liberal beacon, which he was. His passion for public service and belief in the potential of government to help people improve their lives is more relevant than ever.

Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.