The Capitol Connection w/o 010515
ALBANY, NY (01/05/2015)(readMedia)-- Mario Cuomo has passed. We all knew it was coming, but no matter how prepared we think we are, it still comes as a shock. He was a huge part of my life. It started after I wrote a column headlined, "Meet Governor Koch" during their gubernatorial primary. For years, Cuomo told me that he kept that column in his top drawer just to torture me. It seemed impossible that this obscure Queens lawyer could beat the ballistic, bombastic Koch who was Mr. New York and had won a previous primary for the New York mayoralty.
There I was, a youngish professor running a series of public radio stations and feeling sorry for myself. Cuomo would never talk to me because I had picked the wrong horse. Then one day I got a call from a Cuomo press secretary, Steve Morello, who wanted to talk to me. I went down to the Capitol, hat in hand, to meet Morello and as we were talking, the phone rang.
"Guess who's here with me? Alan Chartock," he said and then told me that it was the governor on the phone and he wanted to see me. Within moments of my arrival, he asked whether he could be on my radio show.
"Anytime," I said.
"No," he said, "I mean every week."
Thus began our twelve year run, a weekly conversation during which we argued, we bantered, we had fun. He was simply the brightest, funniest, cleverest man in the world. Yes, I mean that -- in the world.
I ended up writing a book about that relationship, "Me and Mario: Conversations in Candor" that chronicled our adventures, from his years as governor and beyond. He could do any dialect and there was no better story-teller. There was the one about the giant blue spruce in front of the family's home in Queens. The tree was felled after having been struck by lightning but Cuomo's father exhorted the boys to get shovels and rope, telling them, "Come-onna boys, we're a-gonna push her up." Years later, that spruce was still standing proudly in front of that house. Needless to say, we all cried as the can-do story ended.
Then there was the one about Ginger the dog. "Ginger is dying," he read from his diary on the radio. Could he have treated Ginger better? Every animal owner's heart melted. When had a governor ever shown a heart like that of Mario Cuomo? Simple answer: never. It sure wasn't his predecessor, the dour Hugh Carey or his successor, the plastic George Pataki. Nope, Mario was one of a kind, an unreconstructed Rooseveltian social liberal who believed that everyone had to have a fair shot in life. When it came to things he really believed in, like his refusal to embrace a death penalty or his fight for a woman's control over her own body, he didn't give an inch. He stood up to his own church and to the cleric whose words on the front page of a New York tabloid threatened that he would "Burn in hell."
He once asked me whether I believed in the concept of hell.
"Yes, sir," I responded.
"Where is it?" he asked.
"Right here, Governor," I answered.
He allowed that I might make a good Catholic. One time he called me a "putz" on the radio. I told him that was a dirty word but undeterred, he said it three more times, "Putz, putz, putz." When I told him the word meant penis, he assured me that the correct Yiddish word was "schmuck." I told him that was true but "putz" was worse. Shortly after we recorded the show, he called and said we needed to do it over.
So after all those years on the radio together I mourn for my friend, Mario. He was a huge part of my life. I will be forever grateful.