A lot of commentary about former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who died on New Year’s Day, has focused on his electrifying speech to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. As The Times noted in its obituary, Cuomo in that “criticized the record of then-President Reagan, arguing that the more accurate description of America was not Reagan’s ‘shining city on a hill’ but a ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ ”
Some of the eulogies also have compared Cuomo to a current champion of the poor and struggling, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In the National Review, John Fund wrote: “Today, the Left’s standard bearer is Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts who was first elected to office only two years ago. Back in the 1980s, the liberal heartthrob was Mario Cuomo.”
But as I noted in a column in 2012, there were interesting differences between Cuomo’s speech at the 1984 convention and the speech Warren delivered at the 2012 convention that renominated President Obama.
Warren said: “I’m here tonight to talk about hardworking people; people who get up early, stay up late, cook dinner and help out with homework; people who can be counted on to help their kids, their parents, their neighbors, and the lady down the street whose car broke down; people who work their hearts out but are up against a hard truth -- the game is rigged against them.”
The implication was that if you took away the rigging, all of these people would rise to the occasion. Warren continued: "We are tough, resourceful and creative. If we have the chance to fight on a level playing field -- where everyone pays a fair share and everyone has a real shot -- then no one can stop us.”
Contrast that with Cuomo's seemingly similar speech to the 1984 convention in San Francisco, in which he didn't pretend that everyone would thrive if only they were given a fair chance to make it on their own.
"We believe in encouraging the talented," Cuomo said, “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 that are left by chance or by a wisdom we don't fully understand.”
As I wrote at the time, Cuomo's vision was more compassionate than Warren's. It recognized that some beneficiaries of government assistance won't be self-improving strivers. Some will be like the screw-up brother-in-law who is rescued by his family even when he refuses to take advantage of opportunities to better his lot by "playing by the rules."
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3