Mario Cuomo looks at Mario Cuomo

THE intensive press and public scrutiny of Mario Cuomo is beginning, now that he is widely perceived as a likely presidential candidate. The picture that is emerging has its contradictions. According to some accounts, the New York governor is the good guy, consistently fighting for principles. But others who watch him closely say he is basically a ``pol,'' taking whatever course is necessary to achieve his political ambitions.

Just who is Mario Cuomo? The question is not incidental. A Gallup poll now has him placed second to Gary Hart for the '88 nomination. The other day, in a get-together with reporters, Mr. Cuomo addressed this question. Here is what he said:

Cuomo: ``I was kidding [Illinois Democratic Sen.] Paul Simon the other day about some of the adjectives that have been used to describe me. Before I won a race, I was academic, professorial, Hamlet-like, too philosophical, intellectual, and not political enough for this business.

``Now I'm super-passionate, volcanic, thin-skinned, too quick on the trigger. That happened when I won a race in 1982. Before that when I was comfortably losing, I was just the opposite. So you have to wonder when you developed this new personality.''

Press: ``A Jekyll and Hyde?''

``If you assume that you who write the stories are right, I have to be Jekyll and Hyde. Either that, or you people are.''

``But who are you? What makes you tick?''

``[Laughing.] I'm an ontologist.''

``Oh, boy, what is that?''

``[Laughing again.] That's a kind of thin-skinned philosopher who is always relating to the things around him and the world around him. No, I'm a believer in existence -- and making the most of it.''

``Would the description that you applied to [former Gov.] Hugh Carey, that he was riding the waves of his own turbulence, be something you would apply to yourself?''

``No, no, no. Nor would I apply to myself the kinds of things that columnists apply to me. Someone wrote that Cuomo was a Machiavelli. Which is just the opposite [of what I said of Carey]. You don't ride the waves created by your own turbulence if you are a Machiavelli. Instead, you carefully calculate every step.

``This, I think, is a flattering description of my political acumen -- also totally inaccurate. No, I don't sit around and plot. But I wouldn't describe myself as being interested in creating any turbulence. I don't like turbulence. I don't like controversy. I don't like argument. I don't even like heavy advocacy. But I do it all -- if necessary.''

As you can see from the above, Cuomo enjoys sparring with reporters. Indeed, it was in this combative mode that the governor expressed disbelief that reporters could be so blind as to think even for a moment that he had presidential aspirations.

But then when asked why he didn't, like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, take himself completely out of the 1988 presidential race, the governor began to josh: ``Why should I?'' he asked. ``Why should I accommodate your instinct for neatness and then you don't have to think about this anymore? How does this hurt my state to have you guys write continually that this guy could be a candidate for president? And who am I to say that `no matter what happens, no matter what the country says, I am not available to serve as president?' Who would understand that?''

Well, as you well know, governor, most people would understand that. They understood Sherman when he took himself out of the presidential race. Thus, we have to conclude from your answer that you are leaving the door wide open for a run in 1988.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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