At the recent unveiling of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo's portrait in the Governors Hall at the State Capitol, I recalled the first time I heard him speak. The elder Cuomo, after two decades of resisting, finally gave into his family's urging to follow tradition and allow the hanging of his portrait, painted last year from a photo of a younger Mario Cuomo circa mid-1980s.
It was that rendering of him that took me back to a time and place very different from the summer of 2013, Albany, New York.
Almost 30 years ago, on a 30-inch Zenith TV with rabbit ear antenna situated close to the screen front door of Lusco's Restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi, was the face of Mario Cuomo, speaking to the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco.
The owners of the restaurant, Charlie and Marie Lusco, had immigrated to the Mississippi Delta from Cefalu in Sicily. Unlike Cuomo's parents, the Luscos entered the country through New Orleans not Ellis Island. After living in Louisiana, they moved to the Mississippi Delta, opening a grocery store in 1921, where local cotton farmers played cards in the back and ate Marie Lusco's cooking, a fusion of Italian, Creole and Southern foodways.
By July 16, 1984, the evening when Cuomo spoke, Lusco's was a popular restaurant known for its steaks, its white curtain entryways into private dining cubicles, a black waiter who sang the menu and its bring-your-own-booze brown bag policy. It was a place where mostly white people went for supper and black people worked.
I was there with a date, dining with a group of people around my age, 26, and older whose parents had been Democrats but their offsprings were part of a first wave of young, white Southern Republicans who had already begun to dominate Mississippi politics, under the tutelage of steadfast Republicans Haley Barbour and Clark Reed, both Mississippi Delta boys.
My supper companions would not be voting for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. Nor would they later vote for Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen and follow Southerners Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Barack Obama? I can't imagine they did. And, had Mario Cuomo ever ran for President, they surely would not have voted for him, either.
But, that night, we were in Lusco's. And the Lusco family had the TV on, as loud as possible, in the front section of the restaurant, where if memory serves me correctly, the grocery store remained. An elderly woman was sitting in a rocking chair, watching, as other family members gathered in anticipation of hearing a famous Italian American speak on national television.
I was in one of the back cubicles with my friends, the lone Democrat, notorious for my liberal politics, when I heard his voice. I announced I would be watching out front if anyone wanted to come.
No one did. Not even my date. They shooed me away. I joined the Luscos about the time when Cuomo directly confronted President Ronald Reagan and his 1984 convention speech, extolling the wonders of trickle-down economics and comparing the United States to a "Shining City on a Hill." With language characteristically Cuomo, he said:
"Please allow me to skip the stories and the poetry and the temptation to deal in nice but vague rhetoric... Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a 'Tale of Two Cities' than it is just a 'Shining City on a Hill.'
As Cuomo's voice moved through the restaurant, a few other patrons joined us. Pretty soon, a crowd gathered, including my date and friends. Eventually, most everybody in the place was listening when Cuomo painted his own, earlier portrait of promise for America.
"We can have a future that provides for all... by marrying common sense and compassion.
"We know we can, because we did it for nearly 50 years before 1980. And we can do it again, if we do not forget -- if we do not forget that this entire nation has profited by these progressive principles; that they helped lift up generations to the middle class and higher; that they gave us a chance to work, to go to college, to raise a family, to own a house, to be secure in our old age and, before that, to reach heights that our own parents would not have dared dream of...
"That struggle to live with dignity is the real story of the shining city. And it's a story, ladies and gentlemen, that I didn't read in a book, or learn in a classroom. I saw it and lived it, like many of you.
"I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example. I learned about our kind of democracy from my father."
When I told a good friend about the unveiling of Cuomo's portrait and my story about Lusco's, he asked me, "Do you remember what he said or do you remember how you felt?" "Mostly, how I felt," I said.
But as I read his speech again later that day, I realized how his words had stood the test of time. While I may have forgotten most of them, it was the words that informed the feelings, as much as the time and place in which they were delivered. I also realized how relevant they are.
Even as I write this, five of our Supreme Court justices have delivered rulings that exhibit both the promise and peril of leadership in the context of today's politics of disappointment. One empowered a group of people whose rights, including the one to marry, have been ignored and denigrated for far too long, while the other turned its back on people of color, throwing out a provision in the 1964 Voting Rights Act that protected minorities from voting irregularities. The law so changed my home state of Mississippi, for the good, that it is impossible to describe. And while it is true that race relations have improved across the country, the influx of Latinos into the South has resulted in a new wave of voters that will, in time, challenge the Republicans' hold on Southern states, necessitating the need for continued federal oversight.
But for the Voting Rights Act, I would not have been in Lusco's Restaurant that night, 30 years ago. Working in the Mississippi Delta for the first black man to run for Congress since Reconstruction, I witnessed the import of the Voting Rights Act. When he lost by less than two percent of the vote, it was the legal hammer that righted the wrong of the racist gerrymandering of Mississippi's congressional districts that split the black vote five ways. Corrected through a court-ordered mandate, Mike Espy became the first black Congressman two years later, followed by Bennie Thompson, who serves both white and black people in the Mississippi Delta today, including the patrons of Lusco's Restaurant, which also serves both whites and blacks today.
If I had had the opportunity to tell my Lusco's story to Mario Cuomo when I saw him a few weekends ago, I am certain the philosopher and academic in him would have said: "Nice story, but what does it mean?"
For me, it means that speeches -- like the one he delivered -- matter because the people who hear them often go and do things that matter. I like to think that I did. That speeches that speak "common sense" and "compassion" lead to legislation that matters. That speeches should not just "bring people to their feet" but also "bring people to their senses," as Cuomo said.
We don't hear enough of these speeches anymore. Our nation's leaders are much too timid these days to tell the "Tale of Two Cities" and it's too easy to pretend the rhetorical "Shining City on the Hill" actually exists for all Americans.
The result is fewer people caring about the rights of the "rabble" and more people obsessing about the rights of "royalty." As we celebrate one court ruling and mourn for another, I would encourage you to consider his words.
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