I am one of those who mourn the passing of Mario Cuomo, and celebrate his life. Among the more enjoyable experiences of my time as a younger reporter were various conversations I was privileged to have with him during the quiet that would precede the storm of news. He could argue without offending, unless he wanted to, be provocative without provoking. He was an unabashed progressive and will be remembered as one of his generation’s most exciting speakers, inspiring with his rhetorical style as well as his ideas.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the causes he championed, he leaves behind a society that is still struggling. After all, this is the man who thrilled the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco by deriding President Ronald Reagan’s repeated references to the United States as “a shining city on the hill.” He brought the house down with his description of an out-of-touch president who had a limited view from “the portico of the White House or the veranda of his ranch,” continuing, “There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places that you don’t visit in your shining city.” Instead, he roared, America is a “tale of two cities,” of rich and poor, the haves and have-nots.
Here we are, slightly more than 30 years later, where the same “two cities” description is used to paint a picture of a worsening divide. The nation’s wealth inequality is far greater than it was then, fewer and fewer hold more and more while the bulk of our society struggles to get by on scraps.
As we’ve seen, the lives of whites and people of color still are separated, both culturally and physically. Even though Barack Obama will go down in history as America’s first black president, his contention during a recent NPR interview that we are “less racially divided” than when he took office in 2008 must be juxtaposed with the bitter feelings between blacks and police about law-enforcement tactics involving minorities.
New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who is assuming a role as bridge builder, argues that the problem is “just the tip of the iceberg.” “This is about the continuing poverty rates, the continuing growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor,” he said. “It’s about unemployment issues. There are so many national issues that have to be addressed that it isn’t just policing, as I think we all well know.”
It is also about a society so divided that our various communities have become isolated enclaves where no one is even willing to consider the experience of “them,” meaning anyone else. It’s hard to think about bridging cultural gaps when no one understands why that’s a good thing.
The significance of Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in Congress, appearing in 2002 (while a Louisiana state legislator) before a group led by Klansman David Duke is not that he just didn’t know of his audience’s point of view back then (as he now claims), it’s that his best explanation is that he was that ignorant. In Louisiana, such extremist views are considered the norm in conservative politics.
It would be an overstatement that such unbridled hatred exists everywhere in the U.S., but it is not an exaggeration that we seem to have hit a wall when it comes to embracing our differences. We are obviously failing when it comes to sharing our wealth. Along the way we have lost much our luster, falling behind in health care, education and, as the polls show, hope for a better life.
Mario Cuomo said one time that he would like his epitaph to read “He tried.” As much as we note his remarkable life and aspirations, when it comes to his vision, we are failing.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.