Mario Cuomo’s life story–the proud son of immigrants who raised him to believe in faith, family and work and to use his own gifts to enter public service and reach the pinnacle of New York politics–will always be inspiring.
But it is especially important to us today because he believed that every American, native-born or immigrant, should have the same chance he’d had, and that that could only happen in a strong community with a compassionate, effective government.
He deplored winner-take-all economics and winner-take-all politics. He believed to the end that our country could give anyone the chance to rise without pushing others out or down, and that at its best, the essential role of government is to give everyone a fair chance to rise.
He never believed government could replace strong families and individual initiative. The beautiful family he and Matilda created and the lives their children have lived are more than enough proof of that.
He simply believed that without a “hand up” government, too many people would be left behind and our country would be diminished. Once an avid and able baseball player, Mario said in an interview for Ken Burns’ Baseball series, “You find your own good in the good of the whole. You find your own individual fulfillment in the success of the community.”
Everything Mario Cuomo did was part of his passionate determination to strengthen the bonds of community, from his early efforts to address AIDS, to his support for mentoring and health care programs for children who needed them, to his initiatives to create more economic opportunities in upstate New York. For him the struggle to solve particular problems was not interest-group politics but community building, making the weak links stronger.
He believed that he could do his part to build the “more perfect union” of our founders’ dreams. He did it with a politics like Lincoln’s–whom he so admired and wrote about–based on the better angels of our nature. He had a fine mind, competitive drive and unsurpassed eloquence. While he loved to debate, often fiercely, with reporters and opponents, he wanted his adversaries to have a fair chance to make their case.
That was never more clear than in 1993, when his thorny critic, the New York Post, hit hard times. As the Post graciously said on Jan. 1, “Mario Cuomo stepped in and heroically performed a one-man rescue mission … because he was convinced it was in New York’s best interests, not necessarily his own.”
As all the political world knows, I owe a great debt to Mario Cuomo–for declining to run for President in 1992, then electrifying our convention with his nomination speech for me. I later wanted to nominate him for the Supreme Court, but he declined. I think he loved his life in New York and was content to be our foremost citizen advocate for government’s essential role in building a strong American community, living and growing together.
In all the years since, Mario Cuomo never stopped believing that, in our hearts, Americans don’t want to be divided, driven by resentment and insecurity. He saw problems and setbacks as a part of the human condition, mountains to be climbed and opportunities to be seized–together.
Mario Cuomo’s America of community, compassion and responsibility will live as long as there are people who believe in it as strongly as he did, who define our success by the chances we give to others who have dreams and the determination to chase them.
In his keynote address to the 1984 Democratic Convention, Mario said, “We still believe in this nation’s future … It’s a story … I didn’t read in a book, or learn in a classroom. I saw it and lived it … Please, make this nation remember how futures are built.”
That memory is Mario Cuomo’s lasting gift to us.
Clinton is the 42nd President of the United States
This appears in the January 19, 2015 issue of TIME.