THE BLOG
01/08/2015 07:06 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

What Hillary Needs to Learn From Mario

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The history of the Clinton/Cuomo relationship is well known, but worth considering. The "what-ifs" are legion and fascinating. What If Mario had run in '84, '88 or '92? What If Mario had accepted the Clinton offer to serve on the Supreme Court?

And don't forget the perception that Bill couldn't hold a candle to Mario's bright star, largely resulting from the blockbuster keynote Cuomo gave in 1984 and Clinton's disastrous nomination of Mike Dukakis in 1988.

All that has faded away, and Clinton remains the flawed but successful President while Cuomo is the philosopher king who turned his back on power. Clintonian political triangulation trumped Cuomo's Talmudic (Aquinian?) exploration of the soul and its usages. Or did it?

Comes now Hillary with the opportunity and need to define herself and her vision. She'll have no trouble calculating and triangulating, all part of a successful campaign. But she ought to heed the core lesson that we can learn by contemplating Mario's life and lasting impact. A leader, a President has the duty to talk about, struggle with and choose the moral and ethical vision that informs the exercise of power. We want to know why you do what you do, not just the policies and politics.

In retrospect, the winner of recent presidential elections was able to convey a Cuomoesque concern for value based politics. George Bush was compassionately concerned; Gore and Kerry were more doctrinaire. Obama energized the disenfranchised and spoke for us; McCain and Romney were off balance and uncomfortable with the rightward trend of their party and campaign.

It seems simple. Hillary needs to channel the very themes that Mario spoke for, Americans as a family; government as a protector of families; the real dilemmas of economic survival for average people. And it's not just mouthing the words, or wonking the policies. Hillary needs to find genuine connection with people. There was a tearful moment of that in 2008, after all seemed lost, when she put her vulnerability on display. That won't work again, but there are plenty of other ways to let Americans know that she is as concerned with the human condition as she is tough and smart. She needs to start now.

I was present for the Cuomo speech in 1984 and the Clinton speech in 1988. I worked with Mario in the State Legislature for 12 years. He asked me once about a speech he gave in my home district. I think he expected an analysis of whether people liked the speech. Instead I told him that he had become the custodian of public discourse and language. The words he had used were persuasive, but more importantly they elevated his listeners, made them colleagues and equals, partners in the public debate and politics. That was more lasting and more important than the ideas or politics of the moment. He didn't say anything, just nodded and smiled.

That was his lasting contribution and it truly matters. I suspect, I hope, that the winner in 2016 will do the same thing. And that he, or she, pauses to thank Mario for setting that standard.