From the Archives: An Imagined Conversation Between Mario Cuomo and the Devil About the 1992 Election

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Mario Cuomo attends Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Reception on July 12, 1992 at Gracie Mansion in New York City.
Mario Cuomo attends Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Reception on July 12, 1992 at Gracie Mansion in New York City.Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

This article appeared in the June 25, 1990 issue of New York Magazine.

Monday, June 11, 5:15 a.m.: DAWN AGAIN. But different, somehow — a full and hopeful dawn, brimming with life, not the usual empty, dreadful half-light. Birds sang; a soft breeze fluttered the curtains of Mario Cuomo’s study. His diary was open. He was about to record his impressions of the weekend in Washington: Andrew’s glamorous wedding to Kerry Kennedy, and the tangle of emotions that a visit to the nation’s capital always brought.

There was a knock at the door.

Who is it?” Cuomo asked. “Matilda?”

“Not Matilda,” said the intruder.

Cuomo turned abruptly and faced an occasional visitor — a sixtyish, goateed man with pointy ears and eyebrows who appeared to be of a psychoanalytical bent, dressed in tweeds, a turtleneck, and Hush Puppies. “Ahhh,” the governor said. “Satan. You again.”

I bring news,” the Devil said. “Tomorrow, Mary McGrory will write a column in the Washington Post about the wedding. She will say that at the reception, ‘the talk was of politics, and all reached consensus: Mario Cuomo’s time has come.’”

Outrageous!” the governor replied. “Does she imply that I arranged this for selfish political purposes? Does she refer to 16th-century Rome — the Borgias, perhaps?”

The Devil chuckled heartily. “Same old Mario. No, nothing to worry about. Very favorable, in fact. The poor woman is just another frustrated Democrat, looking for a glimmer of hope.”

Hope?” the governor replied, easing a bit. “I should have known: You’re selling temptation, as always … McGrory doesn’t mention the bond ratings?”

No, no,” Satan replied, with another mocking laugh. “The news of your fiscal debacle hasn’t had much impact in Washington. Times are tough all over — and you’re a piker compared to Dukakis. I love hubris: It’s so simple, so satisfying. Duke thought he was actually managing the economy. You’re smart not to concern yourself with that sort of thing. Anyway, your problems will always be more complicated, Mario — although I’m sure Roger Ailes will do his best to simplify them for the American people. I can see his first ad now: ‘And Mario Cuomo, who presided over the worst bond ratings in the history of New York State, now wants to take his brand of economics to Washington!’”

My brand of economics!” the governor fumed. “What about Bush’s? If Standard & Poor’s rated federal bonds, what would they get after a decade of Republican deficits — an F-minus? And what about the S & L disaster? I know, I know: Our people had as much to do with it as their people did — but the public won’t see it that way. The little guy knows he’s taking the hit for a bunch of greedy, crooked bankers. Greedy, crooked bankers tend to be Republicans. Let Ailes run the ad! Does he really think bond ratings will be as good as Boston Harbor, or Willie Horton? Bond ratings? Who cares? I’m ready for bond ratings.”

You say you’re ready?” Old Nick arched an eyebrow.

You don’t know?” Cuomo flashed back, feeling his oats.

I can only see two or three turns of the wheel ahead,” the Devil replied. “If lives were roads, yours would the Pacific Coast Highway … although things have been pretty straight and smooth for you lately, haven’t they?”

Cuomo shrugged. The Devil continued. “First, the Republicans can’t find anyone to run against you. Poor Roy Goodman’s sitting there in the State Senate, literally going through his address book, gets all the way to the R’s before he finds a victim: Pierre Rinfret. Smart guy — you’d like him, Mario — but  not a pol … and pro-choice. This does not go over well with the Conservative Party, who — as you know — own the real GOP diehards. They pick Herb London, from NYU, one of Ambition’s less likely suitors. And then, to top it off, Jack Kemp does a kneecap job on Rinfret, slams him for hitting you on the death penalty. This is so perfect that an uninformed observer might think I had something to do with it.”

But you didn’t … did you?” Cuomo leapt from his chair. “I told you that I never, ever want any favors. Never.”

But you do like to schmooze,” the Devil replied. “Anyway, the leaders of your own church say you’re coming my way before too long — so why should I even negotiate?”

Baloney! You’re bluffing!”

Am I?” the Devil continued. “You must wonder about the source of all this good fortune, especially since the budget mess — the low bond ratings and all — was essentially your own fault.”

My fault? What are you talking about?” the governor exploded. “There’s a regional economic crisis. Read my lips: regional. And how am I responsible for Ralph Marino and the Republicans in the State Senate? They were the ones who stalled. On orders from Washington, I’d bet, to hurt me politically.”

If that’s the case,” the Devil replied, “why are you always so nice to Alfonse D’Amato? Marino’s his boy. And why didn’t you work harder to elect a Democratic majority in the State Senate in 1986? Were you afraid that if Democrats ran both the Senate and the Assembly, you’d be out of excuses? Then you’d have to enact all those expensive liberal programs you say favor, and raise taxes through the roof.”

What are you,” the governor replied, “the prince of darkness, or a pundit?”

I dabble,” the Devil said, smiling. “But let’s get down to cases: You’re thinking those thoughts again, aren’t you, Mario?”

I’m not worthy.”

The Devil laughed uproariously. “Hey, Cuomo, this is me. Save the humility for the chairman of the board. C’mon: You know how easy it could be. All you have to do is announce and the nomination is yours. You’re already making moves. I like that full-court pander you’re putting on the Jews tomorrow night, knocking Bush on Israel. Crude, but effective. Even better is the business with the Korean grocers — you go out to Queens and lecture them on the sociological needs of their black customers, even though the shopkeepers are the ones being victimized. Very cute, and very statesmanlike: I’ll bet Jesse thought so, too. The nomination won’t be any problem.”

Right, and then Ailes and Sununu and those guys spend a year dumping garbage on my head,” Cuomo lamented. “What do you think they’ll use?”

Unh-unh-unh,” the Devil clucked. “You want inside dope, you sign on the dotted line. Anyway, your problem isn’t what they can throw at you, but what you think you’ll do to yourself.”

Right. I go to Iowa and mistake a cow for a horse,” Cuomo said. “What then?”

You gracefully admit your error, and add, ‘But I know a pig when I see one — and these bankers who robbed us of $500 billion were pretty piggy.’ Anyway, schmuck: Don’t sweat the small stuff. You have a great mouth, a masculine presence — long time since we had a Democratic nominee who was a stud — and now you’ve got the Kennedys, too. I can see all those toothy kids out there stumping for Cuomo. You have a chance to make politics glamorous for the first time since JFK. You add a few jocks, some talk-show intellectuals, movie stars, like Redford, and some of the Democrats’ greatest hits — guys like Jody Powell — to your entourage just to show you’re not parochial,” the Devil said. “It’s Cuomolot for real.”

You’re setting me up,” Cuomo said. “You work for Bush and those Mayflower boys. They always win.”

Oh, please. I remember the real Mayflower boys,” the Devil said. “Bunch of sexually repressed religious fanatics. I have much better luck with Catholics — at least you acknowledge my temptations. You let me get my foot in the door. Look at the fun I had with Kennedy. I need a man who consciously struggles against the power of evil: I may lose, but at least I’m in the game.”

Games, games — too much is at stake,” Cuomo said. “My reputation, my mortal soul. I don’t like these games. Get lost. You’re wasting your time.”

Perhaps, but I like to schmooze, too,” the Devil concluded, rising to descend. “I’ll see you again, a few turns down the road.”