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BY JERRY TALLMER | A million people, if the count be true, packed the streets and sidewalks of Fifth Avenue and Greenwich Village this recent Sunday, cheering the man at the head of the parade, a latter-day gay-rights hero named Andrew Cuomo, governor of the State of New York.
And surely Andrew Cuomo did a lot, in dozens of ways, large and small, tough and tender, as a fascinating postmortem in The Times spelled out, to jackknife a gay-marriage bill at long last into New York State law.
But watching the hoopla, the laughter and the tears of Sunday’s celebration, I saw another figure, an Invisible Man, an earlier and to my mind even more consequential hero, standing there beside his son.
This was Mario Cuomo, now 79, governor of the State of New York, 1983 to 1994, father of Andrew and four other offspring. Though mentioned backhandedly in the extensive Times piece as a onetime “conscience of the Democratic Party,” to me it is still today Mario Cuomo’s unalterable humaneness, open-mindedness, and sheer common sense that, taken together, set a Whitmanesque, high-mark conscience for all the rest of us, in or out of whatever party.
To Mario Cuomo, what always comes first and foremost is diversity, as he said on the matter of abortion in an immensely daring speech at Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic university, in September of 1984: “Human diversity — the right of everyone to his or her own position.”
“I accept the Church’s teaching on abortion,” he had declared. “Must I insist you do? By law? By denying you Medicaid funding? By a constitutional amendment? If so, which one? Would that be the best way to avoid abortions or to prevent them?…
“I speak here as a politician and also as a Catholic,” he’d said, “a layperson baptized and raised in the pre-Vatican II Church, educated in Catholic schools, attached to the Church first by birth, then by choice, now by love. An old-fashioned Catholic, who sins, regrets, struggles, worries, gets confused, and most of the time feels better after confession… .”
Two issues that are emotionally and ideologically welded together — for observing Catholics not least — are abortion and gay marriage. In 2005, some 20 years after that Notre Dame speech, ex-Governor Mario Cuomo talked with me in his Midtown law office for a couple of hours about his life and times for a profile in a magazine called NYC Plus.
“I’ve been doing some writing of what I call Updates,” he’d declared. “What I say about gay marriage in one of those pieces is that you shouldn’t be making public policy based on religious considerations.”
Standing there behind his desk, hands in pockets, as I later wrote, he rather resembled Clarence Darrow, arguing the case for evolution, enlightenment, an age of reason.
“If you say same-sex marriage is bad,” said lawyer Cuomo, “you have to give me a rationale other than, ‘The Bible says so.’ The only rationale I can think of is that marriage has to be between heterosexuals because that’s how you make babies.
“But if that’s true, why then should a heterosexual couple that chooses not to have children get any benefits? You can say, okay, let’s call it [same-sex marriage] civil union — but the offensive part of that is it gives a certain stigma. Just to not let them use the word ‘marriage’ is mean-spirited.”
When Andrew Cuomo was 19 years old he worked in his father’s campaign against Edward I. Koch for mayor of New York City. One of the fly-specks of that bitter contest was, as The Times took pains to note, a rash of “homophobic” posters — actually “VOTE FOR CUOMO, NOT THE HOMO” — sprouting here and there in the borough of Queens. The confession box must have been humming that month, but who was confessing what?
Throughout Sunday’s Gay Pride fiesta there were many signs urging “CUOMO FOR PRESIDENT.” They meant Andrew, but I was reading “MARIO,” the man who had sired and shaped Andrew Cuomo.