He was once a professional baseball player. He keeps a diary. He quotes Aristotle, Dante, and Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin. He is unabashedly proud of his Italian roots. And he insists he has no ambition beyond being a good governor of the Empire State.
As Mario Matthew Cuomo prepares to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic Party convention tonight, national attention focuses on a relatively new name in presidential politics. One prominent New York Republican suggests Governor Cuomo might make a better priest or law professor than political leader. But many Democrats see in him the potential makings of a president in 1988.
Who is Mario Cuomo?
A man of eloquence and passionate convictions whose life has been indelibly shaped by his strong family ties and Roman Catholic faith. His parents were immigrants from one of the most depressed regions of Italy. In America his ''Poppa'' was at first a sewer digger and later opened a grocery store in the South Jamaica section of New York City's borough of Queens.
''Oh, the Genoa salami and the prosciutto and the bread, hot from the ovens of Lanzone, the baker down the block!'' writes Cuomo in his recently published ''Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo: The Campaign for Governor.'' ''I tell you, nothing Omar Khayyam ever wrote taught me more about the delights of the food God lets us eat than did my father's store.''
Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo's simple dignity and values in the midst of an austere life impressed son Mario with bedrock principles he has invoked ever since. What his parents gave him and society, he says, was more permanent and valuable than an appreciation for the contribution of Roman art and sculpture: ''For what indeed does our society need more now than respect for family; the sense of obligation to senior citizens; a shameless, bold patriotism; a respect for work; a sense of law and order; a recognition of the overriding importance of education; a gratitude for God's nature and a feeling of responsibility for it? And most of all, simple love.''
Mario attended St. John's Prep and then went on to St. John's College in Brooklyn, where his talent for baseball caught the eye of a professional scout and led to a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Playing some 80 games with the Brunswick Pirates in 1952, he batted .244, according to a recent profile in The New Yorker by political writer Ken Auletta.
Cuomo graduated summa cum laude from St. John's College in 1953 and received his law degree from St. John's University in 1956. While still in school, he married law graduate Matilda Raffa, began raising a family, and worked nights to support them.
After clerking for two years, Cuomo joined the law firm of Corner, Weisbrod, Froeb & Charles, and five years later became a partner. His work included being pro bono counsel to poor defendants. Twice he handled appeals for men sentenced to the electric chair, experiences that reinforced his opposition to the death penalty.
From his law experience, says Cuomo, he drew his fundamental political philosophy: ''reasonableness.'' It is ''not an addiction to ideology or pat phrases or canned solutions,'' he writes, ''but an intelligent application of general principles to specific situations. So viewed, the truth is often found at neither Scylla nor Charybdis but somewere near the middle of the straits, and effective government - despite the competitive frenzies of campaigns - must be more a matter of compromise and mediation than confrontation.''
Public service seemed to come naturally. Impressed by his skills as a lawyer and mediator, Gov. Hugh Carey in 1974 appointed Cuomo his secretary of state. Several years later he ran for mayor of New York, losing to the irrepressible Edward Koch. But in 1978 he was elected lieutenant governor, and in 1982, after besting Koch in the Democratic primary, he won the governorship.
Cuomo's diaries about that race reveal a man devoted to his wife and five children, deeply religious, keenly conscious of opportunities given an immigrant's son, and infused with a desire to do good. ''I've always had the feeling that I've been given much more than I deserve and much more than most others, and that most of my life should be spent trying to give something back, '' he says.
From ''Diaries'' come other insights into Cuomo's attitudes and beliefs.
On religion and politics: ''. . . for people like me, struggling to believe, my Catholic faith and the understanding it gives me of stewardship aren't a part of my politics. Rather, my politics is, as far as I can make it happen, an extension of this faith and the understanding.''
On the poor: ''The key is to keep the alliance between the middle class and the poor together, or the alliance of the middle class and the rich will crush the poor, and that will be bad for society. If there is to be peace and security , there must be justice.''
On ethnic differences: ''Yesterday the Jewish Community, today the Italians, tomorrow the Hispanics. I tell them all the same thing - we were never meant to be a melting pot; we are a mosaic. Our beauty derives from the harmony of our coming together in our differences.''
On campaigns: ''It seems the campaigns never really end. It is necessary in the hurly-burly and excitement of this kind of thinking to remind yourself that the basic objective is not to win an election, or power, or fun, but to help improve the conditions of people's lives.''
On shining shoes: ''I look forward to doing it. Cleaning, arranging, working, catching up, making it neat, putting things in order. Never leave the moments totally empty. If I can, I run. If I can't, I'll work. The one great sin - wasting existence. If you're too tired to read or write or think, do something you're not too tired to do. The refrigerator. The leaves. The shoes.''
Opinions vary on Governor Cuomo's stewardship of New York State in less than two years in office. Warren Anderson, a Republican from Binghamton and Senate majority leader in Albany, gives the governor credit for a willingness to compromise and the resultant success in getting out his first two state budgets on time.
But Senator Anderson says the governor has turned out to be far more political than he anticipated and has not provided as much leadership as he should.
Others fault Cuomo for failure to delegate tasks, making too many decisions himself, immersing himself in detail - charges reminiscent of those made against President Carter. Some see in him a certain self-righteousness. Many point to a quick temper. But Mr. Auletta, listing an array of gubernatorial accomplishments , including skillful handling of the Ossining prison riot, suggests, ''Cuomo has proved the validity of a central tenet of his faith: Government works.''
Whatever the present incomplete assessment, Democrats and Republicans alike anticipate a rousing, inspirational keynote address that embodies Cuomo's political liberalism and social conservatism. The broad theme, judged by Cuomo's gubernatorial inaugural address on Jan. 1, 1983, seems predictable: The purpose of government is to help those who cannot provide for themselves.
''I believe we are wise enough to address our deficits without taxing ourselves into bankruptcy, strong enough to reconcile order with justice, brave enough to bring opportunity and hope to those who have neither,'' Cuomo said on that occasion.
Stressing the motif dearest to his heart - the ''idea of family'' and ''sharing of benefits and burdens'' - his words rang fervently: ''We must be the family of New York - feeling one another's pain; sharing one another's blessings , reasonably, equitably, honestly, fairly - irrespective of geography or race or political affiliation.''
With the change of two words, it could be a message for a national audience in 1984.