Opinion writer June 27, 2011

Years ago, I played some pool with Andrew Cuomo. As we circled the table, Cuomo, who was then Bill Clinton’s housing secretary, told me how he was going to become the next governor of New York. He would challenge Carl McCall, who might have become the state’s first black governor. This was going to be easy, Cuomo said, emitting political pheromones that New York was his for the taking. Now, a humiliating defeat and much personal pain later, it finally is.

Rarely has a politician come off the canvas to triumph in such a cinematic fashion. Not only did Cuomo become governor, but since doing so, he’s dominated the cantankerous Legislature, brought in a budget on time and — history take note — passed a law to legalize same-sex marriage. He did this with the state Senate controlled by Republicans, the bill having been defeated just two years before, and the Roman Catholic Church strongly opposed. Baseball analogies are in order. This was a triple play, a no-hitter and a grand slam. Andrew Mark Cuomo has become a masterful politician.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

Cuomo was born a prince of the Democratic Party. He is the son of Mario Cuomo, a three-term governor of New York and the personification of old-style liberalism. He married Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and an indefatigable human rights advocate. He spent a lifetime on the political launching pad, fueled by lineage and connections to go clear to the White House. Then fate, goaded by arrogance, intervened.

The challenge to McCall, in 2002, was ineptly mounted. Cuomo didn’t just lose, he got crushed. And the Republican, George Pataki, took the statehouse. The tumble was hard and seemingly unending. Cuomo’s beautiful marriage went tabloid ugly. The liberalism that the name Cuomo represented turned stale, on the shelf way past its pull date. Cuomo was a lesson right out of the Bible: “Pride goeth before destruction.”

Oddly, that Cuomo seems to have vanished. The new one is no showboat, and if he thinks more of himself than he does of others, he does not show it. To review how Cuomo got the Legislature to approve same-sex marriage — it was, really, his bill — is to see a shrewd politician apply his craft. He went across the aisle, not just to Republicans in the Legislature, but to Republican fundraisers across the state. He got some of these people to assure wavering legislators that if they voted for the bill, they would have the campaign funds to protect themselves. In some cases, it worked.

Cuomo got the fractious gay-lesbian-bisexual-transsexual community to unite. He got them to curtail some counterproductive lobbying efforts. The negotiations on this bill went down to the last minute. Cuomo never blinked. This was his bill, a campaign promise fulfilled just because he thought it was right.

I am the brother of a woman in a longtime same-sex relationship. I am the friend of gays and lesbians, some of whom I have known since they were infants. This is a cause whose justness has long been apparent to me. The opponents have no case other than ignorance and misconception and prejudice. Every time I hear the phrase “the sanctity of marriage,” I think of Elizabeth Taylor or Larry King. If they could marry for the umpteenth time, couldn’t a same-sex couple marry once? “The Normal Heart,” the title of Larry Kramer’s play, beats in us all.

It has been forever since a single politician did so much to advance what is, after all, a civil rights cause. Certainly, Barack Obama has never done so. Aside from his own presidency — no small matter, I grant you — he has been Mr. On-The-Other-Hand, a man so contained he is his own political sump hole, into which hot issues just disappear. On same-sex marriage, he is nowhere — for civil unions, he says. He will not commit. In Obama, the fires of social justice throw no heat.

Obama occupies the White House and will almost certainly do so for another term. So it is far too early to talk about Cuomo running for president — although, as you might have noticed, I just did. Still, the mention is deserved. Cuomo handled the Legislature, corralled the unions and brought in a same-sex marriage bill that always seemed on the verge of failing. He refutes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line about how there are no second acts in American lives. He may never be president, but he’ll be best man at plenty of same-sex weddings.

cohenr@washpost.com