Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mario Cuomo: A Memory

Photo AP, Words F LoBuono
Mario Cuomo: A Memory

It was my first big assignment. If my memory serves me correctly, it was 1984 or 85. I had recently taken a position with the local cable company, TKR Cable, as a producer/reporter. As a public service, cable television companies, which were in their infancy, were offering exclusive coverage of local events that would then be cablecast on their own channel. In the case of TKR Cable it was Local Channel 30. On that day, New York Governor Mario Cuomo was scheduled to speak at the Holiday Inn in Suffern, NY. He would be addressing the Rockland County Republican Parties’ annual luncheon crowd. My job was to shoot his speech and, if possible, see if I could get the Governor to answer a question or two after he spoke.

I was excited for the assignment from a number of standpoints. First, I wanted to prove myself in my new position. This would provide me with an opportunity to do so. Second, Cuomo, at the time, was at the height of his power. He was a rising star in the Democratic Party and had the reputation as a spell-binding speaker. I also admired him personally. I found quite a bit in his personal narrative to relate to. He was the son of working class Italian immigrants, an athlete, a progressive, and a scholar. I liked what he stood for and how he conducted himself. If I had a role model besides my father, it was Mario Cuomo.

TKR Cable couldn’t have been smaller. The whole production department consisted of three people. So, needless to say, I would be handling this assignment by myself. I grabbed my camera, tripod, and microphone and headed to The Holidome (The Holiday Inn’s banquet hall) in Suffern. I set myself up in the back and waited for the crowd and the Governor to arrive. Eventually, the hall filled with, by my estimates, about 400 people, all eagerly awaiting Cuomo’s arrival. When he did, he bounded up to the podium to thunderous applause. I was immediately struck by his bearing and demeanor. He surveyed the crowd, basking in the adulation as his did. But, I did not sense arrogance in his gaze. It was more like supreme confidence. He knew they were there to see HIM and that he would not disappoint.

Now, remember; this was the Rockland County REPUBLICAN Party luncheon and they were there to listen to the PROGESSIVE, Democratic governor of New York. Oil and water, right? Wrong! Right from the beginning, he won the crowd. That was the immense power of Mario Cuomo. He was direct. He was honest. He was witty. He was charming. He was fearless. He was EVERYTHING you wanted a leader to be - supremely capable and confident. He knew it and he made YOU know it, too! He held the crowd in the palm of his hand. He made them laugh and, most importantly, he made them think. Even though there were hundreds in attendance, it was as if he spoke to each and every one individually. I found it awesome.

After his speech was over, the Governor started to make his way towards the exit. I broke down my camera as quickly as I could so that I could rush over and attempt to get him to answer a question before he left. When I finally caught up with Cuomo he was surrounded by his security detail, entourage, and a slew of reporters. He was striding towards the exit, brushing off all of the questions he was being peppered with.  As a young, unknown reporter I thought that I certainly had no chance of him answering one of mine. But, certainly, it couldn’t hurt to try. I blurted out my question - something concerning his stance on public education (as I recall). Suddenly, he stopped, turned, and walked back in my direction. My heart raced. It was so deliberate. I wasn’t sure if he was pleased by my question or annoyed with it. There I was, camera and mic in hand, alone, when he stepped right in front of me. He answered my question coolly, calmly, and directly, never losing eye contact.  As with his speech, he spoke to me as if there was no one else in the room. I found it extraordinary. After a complete answer, he smiled, turned on his heel, and strode out the door the same way he came in – in complete command. I have not forgotten. And I never will. In the thirty-plus years since that encounter, I have photographed or interviewed many of the most influential people in the world – from Hollywood to D.C. – from Angelina Jolie to Barack Obama and none have been more impressive than Mario Cuomo. None.