The Democrats who gathered in San Francisco for the 1984 convention had little inkling that they were headed for a 49-state loss in the November election. But it was clearly a tired, dispiriting moment for American liberalism. Their coming shellacking — when paired with George McGovern’s equally large defeat only 12 years earlier — represented a popular rejection of Democrats at a scale that dwarfed even what the Republicans experienced when facing off against Franklin Roosevelt. For more than a decade, the party’s leaders had been decent but uninspiring men: Jimmy Carter came from a place called Plains; their current nominee, Walter Mondale, had earned the campaign trail nickname of “Norwegian Wood.”
Then the relatively little-known new governor of New York stepped to the podium. Mario Cuomo had the shoulders of the center fielder he once had been and a face like a catcher’s mitt. There was his voice, inflections, no-nonsense swagger: For blue-collar ethnic whites — the very Reagan Democrats who had felt abandoned by their party in the '70s and then returned the favor in 1980 — here was one of their own. While the press and politicos would thrill to the speech’s metaphors around the “Tale of Two Cities” and wagon trains heading west, Cuomo himself would note years later that the part of the speech that ordinary people mentioned to him more than any other by far was the moving description of his family’s immigrant experience: the “small man with thick calluses on both hands” from working 16 hours a day, who watched his son go from “their little grocery store on the other side of the tracks in South Jamaica where he was born, to occupy the highest seat in the greatest state of the greatest nation” in the world.
A hundred years from now, if there is one speech that people will study and remember from a Democratic politician in the last quarter of the 20th century, it will rightly be Cuomo’s 1984 address. It is hard to overstate the impact it had on a generation of the party’s speechwriters, strategists and policy thinkers. You can see it clearly in New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign against the “two New Yorks” and John Edwards’ description of the “two Americas.” After learning of Cuomo’s passing, Jon Favreau — President Obama’s chief speechwriter for most of his presidency — commented on Twitter that the “1984 Convention speech is in my top five of all time.” The same, it is safe to say, goes for almost every Democratic politician and speechwriter. And, aside from its rhetoric, the formative power of Cuomo’s call silently shapes debates over the party’s strategy and future to this day.
Personally, I recall sitting in a cinderblock speechwriters’ boiler room under the convention stage on the night of another legendary convention keynote, 20 years after Cuomo’s speech. There is probably no group more inured to the charms of, and less likely moved by, politicians’ hoary oratory than the handful of speechwriters who write and edit the seemingly endless of stream of remarks that make up the many hours of political conventions that even C-SPAN is tempted to ignore.
On the Tuesday night of the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, the networks were not bothering to carry any of the proceedings. Our tired group could not be troubled to join in the convention revelry and even mostly ignored the live feed of the speeches on our television. But a few minutes into Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama’s address, we perked up, looked at one another and, as one, got up and raced through the backstage tunnels of the FleetCenter to make our way to the jammed convention floor. And, as he spoke, all I remember thinking was, “I wasn’t around for Cuomo in 1984, but I am here for this.”
Given that, it pains me to say, especially now with his passing, that Cuomo’s address and its enlarged memory have contributed to the troubles of today’s Democratic party. Rather than a clarion call, it should be seen as a siren’s song — luring progressives into a course which crashes them against the rocks.
If there is a central problem for today’s Democrats it is the idea that the right “messaging,” a collection of poll-tested ideas with a mostly symbolic impact, and passionately inveighing against political foes and economic conditions can substitute for a real agenda of action that has any chance of meaningfully reversing decades of a diminishing opportunities for Americans.
So consider this: in Cuomo’s 4,308-word speech there are long passages denouncing the Reagan record and recitations of the achievements of every Democratic presidency since FDR, but there is not a single, solitary statement about what Democrats would do if elected. Don’t believe me? Look it up yourself.
Indeed, the central idea of the speech was that Democrats would succeed only if they reminded themselves and the rest of America of what the party had done before. “We can do it again if we do not forget,” he said. “Please, make this nation remember how futures are built,” were the address’s closing words.
It was not the first time that a convention speaker had captured the party’s soul with a vision of an America split between the ascendant and the left behind. Eighty-eight years before Cuomo, William Jennings Bryan swept to the leadership of the Democratic party with his “Cross of Gold” speech. Instead of a “Tale of Two Cities,” he divided America into “our farms” and “your cities.” And, like Cuomo, his approach was ultimately backward-looking, a call to restore what once had been with no sense of what might yet be.
The day after Bryan’s 1896 speech, Illinois’ reform governor John Peter Altgeld happened to meet famed lawyer Clarence Darrow. Darrow had been deeply moved by Bryan’s speech. Altgeld had as well, at first. Now he was not so sure. “What did he say, anyhow?” he asked Darrow.
After Cuomo’s triumph at the 1984 convention, Arkansas’ young governor Bill Clinton ran into his counterpart from Colorado, Dick Lamm. “What did you think of Cuomo’s speech?” Clinton asked.
“Terrific,” Lamm replied. “It galvanized the crowd.”
“C’mon,” Clinton said. “What did it really say about the issues we’re trying to raise?”
“Nothing,” admitted Lamm. “Cuomo. Jesse Jackson. Teddy Kennedy. Same speech,” Lamm would say later. “Passionate statements of what used to be. We weren’t ready to face the issues of the future … so we celebrated the past.”
Speaking at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, Cuomo had addressed himself to the “200,000 farmers and ranchers forced off the land” and the “thousands of unemployed steel workers” in Lackawanna. But there was no hint of awareness that, just a few miles from where he stood, Apple was churning out its new Macintosh — the first modern personal computer — and a new economy was beginning to be born.
By no means should Cuomo have ignored the farmers and steelworkers and their plight. However, the path to addressing their challenges lay in looking forward — not back. Bryan’s populism was a political and policy dead end, and it fell to progressives like Woodrow Wilson to update government for an industrial age and its rising corporate power. So too will today’s Democrats find success only if they can honestly and convincingly stand as future-oriented, problem-solving progressives with ideas that match the scale of America's challenges.
“You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose,” Cuomo famously said. But the latter follows the former, and Democrats need a new, more modern verse. The lengthened shadow of Cuomo’s address has contributed to inhibiting the growth of a new, unifying, positive appeal that puts progress back at the heart of progressivism. With the passing of its inspiring and brilliant author, perhaps it is also finally time to let go of the hold Cuomo's “Tale of Two Cities” speech has had on the Democratic imagination.
Andrei Cherny, a former speechwriter for Al Gore and John Kerry, is the co-founder of Democracy Journal and CEO of Aspiration.com.