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Dan Collins

Dan Collins

Posted: January 13, 2011 01:08 PM

Mario Cuomo has given the matter serious consideration and reached a conclusion about the man best suited to lead New York State out of its fiscal and ethical crisis.

"He's my son, but I don't have to strain to be objective with him and about him," Cuomo told HuffPost. "There is nobody, nobody I can think of who can match him in abilities and experience for the task that he's facing... He is the right guy at the right moment."

As Andrew Cuomo takes over the reins of New York, he's being watched by one proud papa.

But don't let Mario Cuomo hear you use that word.

"Everybody says the same thing - you must be very proud, you and Matilda," the former governor said in an interview this week. "But if you look up proud in the dictionary..."

Here we go, vintage Mario. Or Cuomo I, now that we have to distinguish between the two governors Cuomo. (His children, Mario said, amused themselves during the campaign by proposing new official titles for him. Their favorite - possibly because it was definitely not his - was "Old Governor Cuomo.")

At 78, Mario is at least a lion in winter. And his post-politics years as a lawyer pop into the conversation inadvertently - he absentmindedly refers to critics or opponents as "plaintiffs." But conversationally, he's unchanged, with the same tendency to follow a thought like a hound after a badger, chasing it through highway and byway until he finally, triumphantly, grabs it by the throat and drags it home.

"If you look up proud in the dictionary," he says, "it's a feeling that suggests you are entitled to credit for something. I had trouble with the word proud.

"I think the following..."

And then he is off on the story of his parents, and his wife Matilda's parents, four uneducated Italian immigrants, friendless, penniless, who produced within two following generations two governors of the state of New York. ("This could have happened nowhere else in the world the way it happened here.")

History is on Mario Cuomo's mind these days. And, of course, politics. "There has never been an array of problems as great as the ones that face Andrew," he decrees. A $10 billion budget gap and the infamous state legislature which is, as Mario delicately put it, "not as supple as some other legislatures were."

Like his 53-year-old son, Mario governed with a legislature that was divided between the Democratic-dominated Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate. But although he won't say it directly, he makes it pretty clear that in his day Republicans were easier to deal with.

"Not to say we were always sending one another valentines, but there was a sense of working together. Which does not seem to be the case now."

For years after leaving Albany, Mario Cuomo championed the idea of calling a state constitutional convention to tackle all the problems the legislature seemed incapable of dealing with. Now, he's at least temporarily retired from his role as state gadfly.

"Andrew had it on his list," Mario said of the constitutional convention idea. "But the obvious need now is to address the budget. That's going to occupy everyone for a long time."

Although Cuomo I insists that Cuomo II has a much, much harder row to hoe than he did between 1983 and 1994, he's actually not willing to concede all that much when it comes to the challenges of his own era, in which New York discovered the horrors of AIDS, of crack, and of widespread homelessness. "We did have a deficit of a billion or so at the time and people did say 'Oh my goodness, this is very hard,'" he adds, rounding the conversational bend and turning back in the direction of Andrew. "But nothing like now."

Before his son was sworn in, Mario Cuomo the world-famous speech-maker, says his best advice on an inaugural speech was "be sure to say nice things about your father and mother."

After that, he joked, Andrew might want to consider announcing that he was resigning and dumping the whole mess on the new lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy. Failing that, he says, he advised the new governor to "forget about everything except getting this job done. Take all that brilliance that God has gifted you with. Make sure you stay in good shape physically - work out. Because you have to be at the very top of your game to handle this thing.

"Then go surround yourself with the very best people there are. And then go at it."

Mario Cuomo has strong opinions about what Barack Obama should be doing (get out of Afghanistan) and about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. ("I think women are more practical than men to begin with, and I'm glad she's there.")

But his thoughts about what his son should do as governor are more general, focused mainly on the quality of Andrew's character. "He's strong as a bull in a lot of different ways. He could have gone out and made himself a lot of money, which he could do in a flash, this guy. I couldn't, I'm not a money maker. This guy could be if he wanted to be. But he's chosen this very, very hard task instead."

So if not proud, how does he feel? Mario lands first on "gratitude," then continues, on his intellectual trail.

"So how do we feel? Lucky. He's your son. How do you think you feel about your son. And will we be proud of him when he's finished this job? Absolutely certain of that."