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Former Gov. Mario Cuomo remembered as 'philosopher and poet'

Gov. Andrew Cuomo comforts his mother, Matilda, following

Gov. Andrew Cuomo comforts his mother, Matilda, following the funeral mass for former Governor Mario Cuomo at St Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan on Jan. 6, 2015. Credit: John Roca

In a heartfelt eulogy delivered by his son, former Gov. Mario Cuomo was remembered Tuesday as a poet and philosopher who gave no quarter in debates or basketball, a working-class politician who didn't like day-to-day governing and a pragmatic liberal who became the "keynote speaker for our better angels."

Before hundreds gathered at an Upper East Side church -- including former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivered a personal remembrance of his father, who led the state from 1983 to '94.

Over 40 minutes, the son touched on everything from their life at home in Queens to his father's start in politics to his rise as the leading voice of liberals in the 1980s to his decision not to run for president.

Mario Cuomo, his son said, "wasn't really a politician at all."

"At his core, at his best, he was a philosopher and he was a poet. And he was an advocate and he was a crusader," Cuomo said. "Mario Cuomo was the keynote speaker for our better angels."

The service, at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, drew luminaries from the political world and many New Yorkers. Bagpipers played as Mario Cuomo's coffin, draped in the New York State flag, was taken into the church as a light snow swirled and blanketed Park Avenue. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio attended, as did former mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani. The church provided an overflow room in the basement for some taking in the service -- which provided a moment of levity. "Mario himself made it quite clear that he wanted a simple, local funeral," the Rev. George M. Witt, the church's pastor, said before the homily. "This has been hard to pull off."

Mario Cuomo, 82, died Thursday just hours after his son delivered an inaugural address to kick off his second term in office. Throughout the 1980s, he became known as the voice of the liberal Democrats, beginning with an impassioned speech at the party's 1984 national convention. He was later known for considering a run for the presidency in 1988 and 1992, but deciding against it after long deliberation -- earning him the moniker "Hamlet on the Hudson."

In a eulogy that eventually brought the crowd to its feet, Andrew Cuomo said his father was more subtle and complicated than that. Mario Cuomo, the son said, was "a humanist who cared about how people were treated" and yet was "really, really, really tough."

Especially on the basketball court. "Sweetness is not the word that comes to mind," the governor said, recounting epic father-son battles that eventually required a state trooper as referee.

"He would hit you in places the human body did not have anatomical defenses," Cuomo said, drawing widespread laughs. "The basketball court . . . was the one place he would allow himself to be his most aggressive self. It was his liberation."

His father was a guy who would debate "politics or soap commercials, it didn't matter," Cuomo said.

He recalled their close ties: the two rooming together in Albany when Mario Cuomo was lieutenant governor, from 1979 to '82, and Andrew Cuomo working as his father's campaign manager on more than one occasion.

"I was devoted to my father from the time I was 15, joining him in every crusade," the governor said, calling Mario Cuomo "my hero and my best friend."

Andrew Cuomo said he had one regret about their political careers: that he did not leave Washington in 1994 -- while he was serving as Bill Clinton's federal housing secretary -- to help his father's campaign. Mario Cuomo lost to Republican George Pataki.

"Whether or not I could have helped, I should have been there," Cuomo said, "and I wasn't."

He said though his father was known as the "great liberal," he saw himself as a "progressive pragmatist."

Though he spent 12 years in office, "truth is, he didn't love the day-to-day management of governing," the son said, touching on one of the criticisms of his father.

But Mario Cuomo never shied from his beliefs, the son said. About speechmaking, he said his father told him not to worry about the audience: "It's not about what they want to hear. It's about what you need to say."

The writing of his addresses "never began with the words," Andrew Cuomo said. "It began with the principle, the idea, the passion . . . and then came the words."

His voice cracking at times, the governor said his father's spirit lives on in a new American immigrant trying to learn English to a pregnant teenager "alone and afraid," and "in every good deed I do."

"Pop, you taught us well," Andrew Cuomo said, building toward the finish. "You inspired us. We know what we have to do and we will do it. I love you and I always will."

The crowd at the church, which seats 850, gave him a standing ovation.

Afterward, others praised the late governor and his son's eulogy.

"He was a true leader of incredible insight and inspiration . . . He was a role model and his legacy lives on," said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). "The service was beautiful. It was so personal and so intimate."

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan) hailed Andrew Cuomo's promise to his "Pop" in the eulogy to settle current tensions between the mayor and police.

"That's why . . . [Mario Cuomo] came into politics, to bring people together, so it makes perfect sense to me," Rangel said.

Carol Meltzer, 46, an Upper East Side resident, was one of about a dozen onlookers who gathered at East 84th Street and Park Avenue, across from the church, to pay their respects.

"I thought he did a great job as governor," Meltzer said. "New York was great under his leadership. I wanted to be here and pay my respects and say thank you. It's a sad day in New York."

With Laura Figueroa

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