Two Paths Diverged in a Wood….

When news outlets reported that former New York Governor Mario Cuomo had died, I couldn’t help thinking of Robert Frost’s famous poem, the one that ends:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It isn’t entirely apt, because Mario Cuomo actually represented the path “less traveled,” but the enduring message of Frost’s poem–at least to me–is that we choose the paths we will travel, and those choices do, indeed, “make all the difference.”

Mario Cuomo is probably best remembered for his speech to the 1984 Democratic convention, in which he criticized Ronald Reagan’s sunny description of America as “a shining city on a hill”–describing it as the worldview of a man unaware of poverty and unconcerned about impoverished Americans. “Mr. President,” he said, “you ought to know that this nation is more a ‘tale of two cities’ than it is just a ‘shining city on a hill.’ ”

Cuomo himself came from a poor, immigrant family, and he never forgot the struggles of his family and the families in the neighborhoods he grew up in.

Cuomo’s antipathy to the death penalty was undoubtedly rooted in his Catholic faith, but it was a position that he defended with secular logic. He was deeply religious, but (unlike so many of today’s ostentatiously pious politicians) he understood the difference between religion and government, and why keeping that bright line between them was necessary both to authentic faith and effective governance. His principled belief in church-state separation led him to defy the Catholic hierarchy and publicly defend elected Catholic officials who opposed both abortion and use of the power of the state to impose that opposition on others.

Brilliant and uncommonly thoughtful, Cuomo was an articulate voice for the “little guy” and a powerful advocate for the importance of government.

In his first inaugural address as governor he called on state government to “be a positive source for good.” But–as the New York Times noted in a column after his death– the speech “also offered a critique of Reagan policies and a liberal vision for the country. Fiscal prudence, Mr. Cuomo asserted, did not prevent government from providing “shelter for the homeless, work for the idle, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute.”

At the time, Americans (including yours truly) rejected both Cuomo’s view of the civic landscape, and his belief in the possibilities of government.

In the 1980s, two political paths diverged in America. We chose the one that was easier, the one that asked less of us–the path that allowed us to believe in our own superiority, blame poor folks for their poverty, and pursue policies that benefited the already comfortable.

And that has made all the difference.


  1. Mario Cuomo is the type of courageous politician that has disappeared from the American landscape. I have remarked frequently that the Reagan presidency was the beginning of the end of the American dream for many poor and middle class Americans. Cuomo’s truth to power would be welcomed today by many of us, but I wonder how it would play to most American voters.

  2. I heard Mario Cuomo speak at the Democratic Convention in 1984. He had us spellbound.
    Later the Governor and I both testified on panels in Congress in favor of the Acid Rain Control Act -now law, a part of the Clean Air Act.
    In 1996, in Indianapolis at the Block Forum at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, I asked him to sign the Congressional Record book of our testimony. He did and wrote” Greg, we were right then and are now. Mario C. 10/96″. I am glad to have been on the right side with Mario Cuomo.Greg

  3. I heard his speech. As a Republican Precinct Committeeman, I also listened to the ad that said “You. alone in the voting booth, with your conscience,” and voted for Mondale (and other Democrats as well.) Mario Cuomo spoke the truth.

  4. The “programming” of America by and for oligarchs is based not on elevating the reputation of wealth but vilifying poverty. That’s the essence of the destruction of our democratic Republic launched by Rush Limbaugh and carried out by politicians like Reagan, the Bush family, and Chaney, through operatives like Norquist and LaPierre and funded by Wall St, the Kochs, Adelson, Murdoch, etc.

    They have created the poor brand. Fertile willing females and shiftless dangerous males, black, ignorant, and destructive, polluting the American scene and living large off of our largesse.

    People like Mario Cuomo knew better first hand. He wasn’t naive about the existence of criminal behavior but he was also familiar with the notion that good people are separated by what they were born with and into, as well as he knew the nobility of honest labor that built and defined America to a much greater degree than our economic aristocracy has.

    He didn’t fall for the poor brand or the whining about false fiscal failure endemic to government but unknown among institutions where the few own the means and the many are at their mercy. Or the malarkey that organized labor was destructive while country club organized wealth was beneficent.

    He also taught his son well to carry on the tradition of their family as the essence of our tradition as a country.

    He was the white version of Barak Obama. Principled and tough. Visionary. The seemingly impossible combination of statesman, street fighter and Samaritan.

    America as well as New York are better places in his wake. But his work will never be finished even though his labors are ended.

  5. I had a lot of respect for Mario Cuomo who stood up for what he believed in and articulated it better than anyone of his generation.. But my admiration for his being a principled politician doesn’t change the fact he was standing up for liberalism, i.e. a failed political philosophy.

  6. We’re going to miss that guy and the few others like him. For the small number of young people who feel trapped by race, poverty, and circumstances, but who are determined to get out, my hat is off to them. The road less traveled is well worth it, and maybe, just maybe they will be able to survive to their twenty-first birthdays and beyond, if those on the more heavily traveled road (gangs, drugs, violence) don’t get them first.

    You had us in your first sentence there, Paul, but then the bottom fell out the longer you continued to type.

  7. Paul, can you be more specific about the failures of liberalism?

    From a David Keppler obit on Cuomo:

    “Will I be remembered for all of that? I don’t know,” he said at the time. “What I would like them to say, what I would like to have written on my tombstone: ‘He tried.’ That, I think, is the maximum we can do.”

    Good advice. Let’s keep trying.

  8. Paul, it is your belief liberalism is a failed political philosophy. I believe as fervantly conservatism has failed to meet the needs of society, indeed has exacerbated the sufferings of society.

  9. The one thought that strikes me as Mario Cuomo is eulogized, “the more things change, th more they stay the same”. Do we ever learn?

  10. Paul, what is it about liberalism in your mind that has failed: empathy for those not like you? Belief in science? Negotiation before dropping bombs? Education as a value?

  11. Paul, I don’t know why you felt compelled to adds your final comment. Perhaps you are or want to be an oligarch. Most liberals believe in free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion (including freedom to not be religious), respect for all including the homeless and others down on their luck. This country will only prosper when our government respects these ideas, whatever you want to call them.

  12. Paul, is this just another grenade that you like to throw into the mix before you leave the scene? If you can’t be specific about those “failed liberal policies”, I think a number of folks can help out with all those reactionary policies that are ripping apart the foundations of this grand experiment. As was pointed out previously, the right wing policies are “based not on elevating the reputation of wealth but vilifying poverty”, policies that just don’t work, at least for the common good. How about the research that clearly shows that trickle-down trickles down to the the slightly less than rich? How about those drastic tax cuts that Gov. Brownbeck has implemented to drain Kansas of its resources and impoverish the schools and other public services? Or the charter schools (and anti-science voucher schools) that attract corruption and self-aggrandizement while the politicians wash their hands of their responsibility to serve the common good? Consider briefly all of those right wing vaguely theocratic, paranoid and thinly-veiled racist policies that our legislature is about to vomit onto the public. And, by the way, have you bothered to read anything about climate science aside from your favorite ideologue, and the nonsense that scientists are politicizing the issue? (Look up the term “projection”, in case you don’t know that strategy.) Do you know in your heart of hearts (if not your brain) that climate change will, in fact, destroy the civilization? I guess that, in the end, will serve to show the failure of all of us to face oncoming disaster, but maybe we could do something to serve the common good in the meantime and at least not make things worse.

  13. When was Liberalism tried? I’ve been here as along time but I missed it. All I can clearly recall is that, whenever it was tried, the ‘democratic’ Capitalist came down on them hard. Read Cuba, Russia, China any other nation that tried to make things more equal. Why fifty years as the only nation to punish Cuba? Why over 500, make that six hundred proven attempts to kill Castro.Why? To return corruption to Havana and make money and not money for Liberals. Forget about the Cubans. CIA intrusions into every South American nation. Countless millions since the age of discovery. Death is the discovery.

    That is what the GOP stands for and, just as stated, that is what they have done since Bonzo’s co-star was acting president. It’s going to take a long time and a man like FDR or Abe , who accomplished wonders by fiat, returns to the scene.

    Anyone who has studied government at all clearly understands that the ideal form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. I know: that’s scary.

  14. Leave it to Paul to drop a bomb on us LIBERALS and leave the scene without listening to the rebuttals. Nice one Stuart.

    Paul: just like a conservative; won’t listen to anyone but Fox Spews. He just holds his hands over his ears and says blah blah blah while we try to bring you back down to earth. What color is the sky in your world Paul?

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