Building Bridges — or Burning Them?

Were he alive, Mario Cuomo might be wincing.


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Illustration by Brian Taylor; Photograph by Stefan Radtke

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s relationship with his formidable father seemed painful, apropos of the scene in The Great Santini when Bull Meechum relentlessly bounces a basketball off his teenaged son’s head.

In other words, it was complicated.

If he just had been hugged more as a child, would Andrew have been motivated to take on the nasty, pugilistic blood sport of politics, to become, like his father, Mario, a powerful governor of arguably the greatest state in the union? Or, would he have been content to live out his life quietly, as, say, a high-school guidance counselor from Queens? We will never know the answer.

For his part, Andrew has always dismissed this as “dime-store psychoanalysis.”

But then the governor did something brazen, something that lent credence to all the Daddy Dearest “hooey.” In the days leading up to the Fourth of July weekend, he called the New York State legislature back for a special session to tie up some unfinished business, which, as it turned out, included a measure to name the $3.9 billion replacement bridge over the Hudson River The Mario Cuomo Bridge, thereby consigning the familiar title Tappan Zee to the proverbial dustbin of history. Like so many decisions in Albany, this one happened in the dead hours, between midnight and dawn.

Now, ordinarily, a son who loves his father might choose to show his appreciation by simply giving the old man a box of cigars or naming his own firstborn after him. But this was no Father’s Day token. This was a bridge! And not just any bridge, but a colossal piece of public utility, a four-mile-long engineering marvel of concrete, cable, and steel built to withstand the pounding of 138,000 cars and trucks per day.

The reaction was predictably harsh. Cuomo’s critics saw the commemoration as an act of hubris. It’s not his bridge to name, people raged. No, they said, it belonged to the taxpayers, who still haven’t been told how the new bridge will be financed or how much the public will be asked to pony up in higher tolls. (Suggestions have been made, often half in jest, that the bridge should be funded under corporate sponsorship, like sports stadiums, in exchange for naming rights, e.g. The Guaranteed Rate Bridge or The AT&T Span, presented by Yum Brands.)

Political objections were raised on the grounds that the naming of the new bridge was less a filial homage than it was a thinly veiled burnishing of the Cuomo brand. The Democratic governor is widely believed to be jockeying for a presidential bid — a step his popular father declined to take after a prolonged bout of soul-searching that earned him the sobriquet Hamlet-on-the-Hudson. Getting the bridge built is a remarkable achievement all by itself — a fact that Andrew stresses at length over the space of five pages in his autobiography, All Things Possible.  (In contrast, the index devotes only one page to his father’s legacy.) By seizing ownership of the bridge, Andrew, in effect, called attention both to himself as a putative White House contender and to his father, who, with one stroke of a pen, was raised in status from a Shakespearean figure to a triumphant Cuomo-on-the-Hudson in big letters on official road signs up and down the state Thruway system. Was he seeking posthumous approval from a competitive, taskmaster dad?

Perhaps, he was.

But then, this is just dime-store psychoanalysis, right?

At the very least, it’s fraught with irony. Were he alive, Mario Cuomo might be wincing. William O’Shaughnessy, the president and editorial director of Whitney Media in New Rochelle, who was a close friend of Mario, once asked him outright what he’d like named for him.

The three-term governor modestly replied: “Just put my name on a stickball field in Queens….That’ll be fitting enough. In fact, it’s more than I deserve.”

It also has not gone unnoticed that when he was still in office in 1994, Cuomo endorsed a proposal to rename the old Tappan Zee Bridge The Governor Malcolm Wilson-Tappan Zee Bridge, after the widely respected Republican from Yonkers who was briefly governor after serving many years as lieutenant governor under Nelson Rockefeller.

Katharine Wilson Conroy told me that the elimination of her beloved father’s name from the bridge made her sad, and she said as much in a handwritten letter of protest to Andrew Cuomo. Still, Conroy admitted that to this day, she frequently calls the bridge “the Tappan Zee,” which combines an Indian tribal name with the Dutch word for “sea.”

It could just as easily mean: “Old habits die hard.”


The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email edit@westchestermagazine.com

 

 

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