I well remember where I was on the evening of July 16, 1984. I had settled into our modest living room in Massachusetts to watch the Democratic National Convention with my Dad. He wasn’t a Democrat, but he had nurtured a lifelong interest in politics, one he bequeathed to his fourth son. By 1984, at the age of 12, I was following the comings and goings of the U.S. Senate the way my brothers followed the box scores for the Red Sox.
That summer night, which became an early morning on the East Coast, Governor Mario M. Cuomo of New York delivered the convention’s keynote address to a packed hall and a watching world. This was the sort of event everybody watched back then, mainly because there was nothing else to watch: every network—all three of them—was broadcasting the speech.
Mr. Cuomo’s speech was a rhetorical tour de force, a blistering indictment of the Reagan presidency, which had transformed the country, Mr. Cuomo argued, not into the shining city on a hill of which Mr. Reagan so often spoke, but into “a tale of two cities,” where “there is despair, Mr. President, in the faces you don’t see, in the places you don’t visit in your shining city.” It was the moral duty of government, Mr. Cuomo argued, to protect and empower those who were living in the shadows of life. The longtime ABC News commentator David Brinkley said it was one of the greatest convention speeches he had ever heard. It sure felt that way to me. It still does.
When I learned on New Year’s Day that Governor Cuomo had died at the age of 82, my mind flashed back at once to that night. I also thought, however, of another of Mr. Cuomo’s speeches, the one delivered at Notre Dame a mere two months after his triumph in San Francisco. There Mr. Cuomo made the case for the “I’m personally opposed to it but don’t wish to impose my morality on another” argument concerning abortion. “The Catholic public official,” he said, “lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful.”
That is an inarguably true statement. The history of Catholic political action, as well as our current prudential choices, attests to it. Yet no one was arguing then that every sinful act should be proscribed by law. The argument was and remains that there are some acts that are held by Catholics to be sinful that should be proscribed by law, not simply because the church views them as sinful but because they involve grave matters of life and death. Homicide, assisted suicide and rape are good examples—as is abortion, in the judgment of many people.
The argument Mr. Cuomo needed to make at Notre Dame was why abortion was different from those other morally grave issues. Why should we exempt abortion from the list? Why is it an imposition on another’s freedom to codify a moral judgment with regard to abortion but not with regard to economic policy? To put it another way: Why is government action morally required in his convention speech but not in his Notre Dame speech? What is the decisive difference?
I wish Mario Cuomo had answered those questions. His answers may not have proved satisfactory, but they would have added a lot to the conversation. If any public figure of the last five decades could have done that, it would have been he. He had the smarts and he had the conviction. “We believe in a government strong enough to use words like ‘love’ and ‘compassion’ and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities,” he once said. Amen, Mr. Cuomo. R.I.P.