Cuomo and Clinton: A complicated, but mutually beneficial, relationship

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo is far left, followed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former President Bill Clinton in 2013.

Story highlights

  • The two governors sparred early in the careers and came from different sides of the party
  • Cuomo and Clinton mended fences, and Clinton considered Cuomo for a Supreme Court spot
  • Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo are both considered possible presidential candidates

Washington (CNN)Even when then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo wasn't running for president in 1992, his presence loomed large over every Democrat in the race.

Just ask Bill Clinton.
"For more than two months after I announced, the campaign was shadowed by the specter that there might be yet another candidate," Clinton wrote about Cuomo possibly entering the 1992 race in his 2004 memoir. "Many people thought the nomination was his for the asking, and for a good while I thought he would ask."
    Cuomo, who died Thursday at the age of 82, shared a complicated, yet mutually beneficial, relationship with Bill Clinton for much of his life. Though the two sparred early in their careers, they developed a professional relationship that benefited both political families, two of the largest names in both New York state politics and the modern day Democratic party.
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    Bill and Hillary Clinton, in a statement early Friday morning, remembered their "friend" Cuomo as "a sterling orator and a passionate public servant" whose life "was the very embodiment of the American dream."
    Back in the early 90s, Cuomo was widely seen as Democrats' best chance to unseat incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Clinton, obviously, saw things differently, leading to a very clear rift between the two leaders.
    Both served as governors in the 80s (Cuomo in New York and Clinton in Arkansas), but that is where most political similarities ended. Cuomo was far more liberal and publicly took shots at Clinton's welfare reform proposals and his connection with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.
    The curtness was not one sided, though. When Gennifer Flowers, on a private call with Clinton, said she would not be surprised if Cuomo "didn't have some Mafioso major connections," Clinton simply responded, "Well, he acts like one."
    The Arkansas governor would go on to apologize for the remark.
    "I fumed in private and said some things about Mario I regret," Clinton wrote in his memoir. "I think I was so stung by his criticism because I had always admired him."
    But Clinton also owed Cuomo. When the New York governor opted not to run for president in 1992, Clinton's pathway opened up.
    "On the day Mario Cuomo decided not to run for President, the sigh of relief we Clintonites let out was audible from Little Rock all the way to Albany," said Paul Begala after Cuomo's death. At the time he dropped out, polls showed Cuomo up more than 20 points on other Democrats, including Clinton.
    According to Sandy Berger, a longtime Clinton confidant, Clinton wasn't daunted, though.
    "Clinton was disappointed because he was absolutely convinced that he would have beaten Cuomo in the primaries," Berger said in an oral history interview for the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. "He wasn't afraid of Cuomo coming in. He wanted Cuomo to come in. He thought he could beat Cuomo."
    The Clinton-Cuomo relationship never grew into personal closeness, but it did heal from its early 90s low point.
    Before the New York primary in 1992, Cuomo said Clinton would make a "superb president." And during the Democratic National Convention in New York that year, Cuomo heralded Clinton, telling the adoring audience that "It's time for someone smart enough to know; strong enough to do; sure enough to lead." Cuomo even served as a surrogate for Clinton during debates against Bush.
    Cuomo was a semi-regular presence in the White House, too. After Bill Clinton asked Hillary Clinton to lead his White House's controversial healthcare push, Cuomo jokingly asked, "What did you do to make your husband so mad at you," according to the first lady's memoir.
    The relationship improved so much that Clinton, according to his aides at the time, came within minutes of nominating Cuomo to the Supreme Court in 1993.
    "We tried to get Cuomo to accept the Supreme Court," Bernard Nussbaum, the then-White House counsel, told the Miller Center. "He wouldn't return calls for two or three days. Finally, he did call and told the President he was too busy in Albany. He had some budget — it was crazy, but he turned it down."
    Clinton, during a speech in 2012, said Cuomo was "the first man in the history of this country to turn down a position on the Supreme Court, and it's because he was dedicated to New York."
    The complicated nature of the Clinton-Cuomo relationship has not been restricted to the patriarchs of both families, either.
    Hillary Clinton is widely seen as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2016, but Mario Cuomo's son Andrew, who won a second term as New York's governor in 2014, is considered one Democrat that could challenge the former first lady.
    Bill Clinton arguably gave Andrew Cuomo his biggest political break when the president appointed him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1997.
    Hillary Clinton endorsed Cuomo's 2014 campaign, calling the governor "the right leader at the right time with the right plan" who "has worked tirelessly, he has given it his all to make a difference in Albany — no small feat."
    And though Cuomo didn't endorse Clinton's possible run -- because she is not yet a candidate -- the governor was effusive in his praise of the former secretary of state.
    "Whatever she does, she's gonna be an overwhelming success," he told the audience in New York. "I hope she does something really, really, really big."