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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Mario Cuomo: Political quipster with a honed edge

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo during his keynote

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo during his keynote address to the opening session of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco on July 17, 1984. Credit: AP

The wit of Mario M. Cuomo could slice you, or amuse you, or do both at once.

When speaking with reporters early in his governorship, he would occasionally attribute to the fictional A.J. Parkinson such aphorisms as, "Integrity is no substitute for experience."

Just to escalate the fun, Cuomo would even feign outrage if someone in the press pack "misquoted" the mythical Parkinson as part of the banter.

During a public uproar over what turned out to be the Tawana Brawley hoax of the late 1980s, Cuomo met with the Rev. Al Sharpton, then leading demonstrations for the Dutchess County teenager whose rape accusations were determined to be unfounded.

Sharpton said their meeting marked a day of "engage not outrage." Cuomo appreciated the line, playfully suggesting Sharpton could run for office.

Sharpton said: "I might run against you."

Cuomo replied: "I should be so lucky."

A feel for the pointed zinger was evident early on. One of the more memorable moments of his first run for governor in 1982 came during a debate with the superwealthy Republican nominee, Rite-Aid entrepreneur Lew Lehrman.

The candidates stood side by side. Lehrman gestured with his arm near Cuomo's face — prompting Cuomo to marvel out loud at what an expensive watch his opponent was wearing.

It would be remembered for years as a populistic gut-punch.

After the Legislative Correspondents Association annual Albany send-up, Cuomo deadpanned that, so many years after the 1925 Scopes trial, the reporters' stage performance had proved after all that humanity really was descended from apes.

His day-to-day style was surely different from the upbeat, grinning game-show-host persona of so many of his political contemporaries.

Someone asked him in 1991 if he'd had cosmetic surgery. His reply: "If there's a plastic surgeon who claims to be responsible for this face, then New York State will decertify him immediately."

Although lionized for his speaking style, Cuomo is also credited with a self-deprecating quote referring to his wife: "I am a trial lawyer. Matilda says that at dinner on a good day I sound like an affidavit."

And in December 1994, as Cuomo ended his final term — defeated at the polls by Republican George Pataki — he quipped: "Ever since the Republican landslide on Nov. 8, it's been getting dark outside a little earlier every day. You notice that?"

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