Mario Cuomo … Governing Principles, Part I

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Governor Mario Cuomo
Title: “Mario Cuomo … Governing Principles”, Part I
VTR: 3/7/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When The New York Times asked me the other Sunday to put on my historian’s hat and review Linda Caetura’s affectionate new book on Growing Up Italian in our country, I wasn’t surprised how importantly Mario Cuomo figured in it. After all, New York’s Governor has already borne the political brunt of his ethnicity; and even his delightful ability to turn ethnic slurs to his own advantage will not save him from more of the same as I, at least, believe his potential grows ultimately, still, to become the Democrats’ 1988 Presidential standard-bearer … even though he’s now withdrawn from the still year-and-a-half tribal dance his party must yet engage in before it literally settles down to choosing “The Man Who”. Through it all, though, the Governor always, uniquely, has his enormous sense of self to rely upon, his loyalty to family and roots, to traditional values, to all that came before his generation and nourished it so generously. As journalist Ken Auletta notes, one of the Governor’s most attractive qualities that in this “transactional world, is where loyalties are less important than the transaction … he really knows who he is. He’s in a business where people tend not to know who they are, because they are defined by the last election or the current quotas or by the mail they get”.

But not Mario Cuomo. He seems not to be defined by polls and votes. Nor, interestingly, just by his Italian background … the Governor said it best: “I don’t think you can compare childhoods by ethnic background,” he said. “The Italians usually were family-oriented, but so were most of the other ethnic groups … We have to compare them in terms of economic problems. There have always been,” said the Governor, “the poor, the rich and the people in-between. I think that people in each of these classes, regardless of background, have more in common than the different ethnicities do”.

In other words, there isn’t all that much difference between growing up Italian in America and growing up Greek or Polish or Jewish. It all has to do with being family- oriented, immigrant and poor. What it means to be a human being, then — one’s values — largely has to do with being rich or poor, an economic interpretation of what makes the world go round that should prove quite serviceable, politically speaking. And it has to do with identifying our larger, seminal values … as Governor Cuomo suggested in a wonderfully provocative recent speech … and with pushing those values hard, even in our pluralistic society. So I welcome you again, Governor Cuomo. And congratulate you on this most perceptive speech. Interesting because you’re daring again and you say, talking about a direction we should follow, “It’s a direction into territory that’s already been explored and charted, but is, nevertheless, somewhat perilous”, and you do go into things that are perilous, “with few sure footholds or reliable signposts and much disputed land. It’s the whole question of teaching values in public schools”. Why did you bring this up at this point?

Cuomo: Well, for a lot of reasons. I think probably the principle one is that, if you look around yourself in this society, one of the things that becomes apparent is that we appear to be having difficulty describing our values. At least that’s the way it seems to me. What do you believe in, in a world where teenage suicide is so important a problem that you have to put together a task force headed by your Lieutenant Governor to look at it? What do you believe in, when you have Ivan Boesky and a whole lot of people to whom God could not have been better, who were rich early, had everything that life could afford you, had limousines beyond limousines, had strength and power at an early age and decided that they had to cheat and steal and risk it all, when they were already up into the hundreds of millions of dollars. What do you believe in, when you’re piling up missiles upon missiles in a world where you can’t afford to feed everybody and you know you can’t use the missiles, but you’re spending your wealth on them anyway. At one point you have to sit back and say, “Now wait a minute, where are we going? Why are we doing it? Why are children destroying themselves with drugs? Why are middle class people and rich people destroying themselves with drugs? Why are we, in this country, listening to Bishops tell us we have thirty-three million more people, scoffing at them, saying ‘So what?”, so I think you arrive at a point where you say, “No wait a ‘minute, let’s just slow down. What is it that we believe in? Where are we going? We’re still the mightiest nation in the world. Do we believe in anything? Do we have a rule? Do we have a morality? Should we have?”. I just think what happened to me, and it’s happened to a lot of people, is, I see the disproportion everywhere. I see the disparity. I see the incongruity. I see the stupidity. I see the absurdity of it. From Manhattan you can see the towering buildings of the affluent and blocks away, people sleeping on grates, looking for a little heat from the vent outside of Madison Square Garden. Why? What is it that we believe in? So, the question of values and it’s a fascinating question. You know a lot of us grew up taking a lot of things for granted. Momma and Papa taught us values; it was great; it was simple. You got your instruction from the hard end of the broom. You knew what was wrong because when you did it, you got hit with a broom. That’s an easy way to be instructed. You don’t have that as much now. You don’t have that clear a message being delivered either at home or in the schools. Should you have? Can you? Can you teach people without indoctrinating them? Can you teach them about good and evil without teaching them about sin and God? Because we wouldn’t want to teach them about God; that has to be done at home, certainly not in the public school. So I came to the speech out of confusion. That’s how I got there. Confusion about where we’re going as a people. Where we ought to be going. And I regard it as the first question, before you talk about arms limitations with Gorbachev, before you talk about the deficit in the trade and the debt, you ought to know why you’re considering these subjects, where you want to be, what the value of things is.

Heffner: But you know when you talk about what has happened to this country, you lead me to ask, whose values then are you going to teach? What values? Yours… Governor Cuomo’s? Fine. What about former Governor Reagan. His values? Which ones?

Cuomo: Yeah, well that’s, of course, the dilemma. And I think you can respond to that one way, you can say, “Hey look, I took a quick look and it’s going to be so difficult to identify these values that I’m not even going to try”. And so I’m going to instruct the people in the public pulpit, wherever it is, it can be the Governor’s office, it can be the public school, it can be any public voice. And I’m going to instruct them, “Stay away from values”. Don’t talk about anything that’s sounds like values. Have indifference when it comes to moral judgments. Don’t say it’s right or wrong.

Cuomo: Don’t instruct the kids that having children recklessly is wrong. Don’t tell them that having sex too early is wrong. Just stay away from all, let them decide. Otherwise, God forbid, you’ll be indoctrinating them. You can do that. I believe when you do that, you teach them. What you teach them is there is no right and wrong. Do whatever to do. You want to pass the exam? You have to steal to pass the exam, by looking over her shoulder, to write her answer, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it”. Unless you struck by lightning, you can do it. Well, I think that’s not satisfactory. And I think we went through that stage where we stepped away; we rescinded from the question, thinking we, at worst, would leave a vacuum. You didn’t leave a vacuum, you left an instruction. And the instruction is, “There are no rules”. That’s chaos. So we have to find another alternative. I think there is one. I think there is at the base of every society, every well-formed society, and we’ve had two hundred years to form one now. We’re still adolescents compared to the East and other parts of the world, but still formed enough to have an identity. And in every well-formed society, there’s a credo, there’s a rule, there’s a consensus of values. We have some help. We, unlike most societies, started with our own civic Ten Commandments, called the Constitution. A lot of societies don’t have that. They can’t look back to a single instrument that designed them. A set of plans and specifications that was used before they were constructed. Most societies don’t have a clear route like that. We can look at the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and we can find certain values. Equality, despite the amazing, stunning contradiction of the people who wrote this instrument about equality having slaves, the truth was that eventually … and we eventually came to understand it. But one of the central truths is you and I are equal. And all of us are equal. The men are equal to the women, we understand that now. The Blacks to the Whites; the poor to the rich. That’s an important principle. Dignity is another one. That personhood is important. There is no such thing as an individual being less important than the totality. It took generations to come to that truth. We started with it two hundred years ago. Commonality … community is a value here. If you look at our instruments, the one thing they knew for sure is, “We’re better off when we hang together”. That Bruce Springsteen is right, nobody makes it, unless you all make it. Now that’s another value. Accountability, responsibility, you do something wrong, you should pay. The rule of law, that it applies to everybody, Ivan Boesky and some kid who steals a pair of sneakers. The rule applies to all of them. A President who lies and breaks the law, whether it’s Nixon or anyone else. The law applies to them just as it applies to you, if you evade your taxes. Or to me, if I commit some civic sin. All of these are values. Why not teach them in the public school? And I think you can teach them without getting into trouble. You don’t have to be a Jew, you don’t have to be a Christian, you don’t even have to be a theist, you never have to mention God. And still it would be a body of principles, rules that this country would agree on. I think we should recognize that and try teaching them.

Heffner: You know, you remain, for me, the most eloquent person in public life. And what you say rings so many bells. Sounds so true to me. But you still somewhat avoid the basic question that I would put to you, which has to do with the kinds of values that you have attacked in the past. We’ve done programs here and I was so pleased after your Inauguration, the First Inauguration, to read from your Inaugural Address. And you wrote then, and this is some years back, “It has become popular in some quarters to argue that the principal function of government is to make instruments of war and to clear obstacles from the way of the strong. The rest, it is said, will happen automatically. The cream will rise to the top, whether the cream be well-endowed individuals or fortunate regions of the nation”.

Heffner: Now that’s a reflection of values and not your values, but the values that are held certainly by a great many people in this country. What will we teach about that question in the public schools?

Cuomo: Well now we have two categories. At least we can, being lawyers, those of us who are lawyers, we can proliferate categories forever. And we can draw lines where there were no lines. But we have two categories, at least. We have what I would say are non-controversial values. No one’s really going to argue with you if you say that implicit in the documents that formed us, explicit in our conduct for two hundred years, there’s been a general understanding that people have responsibility for their actions. That it doesn’t all come free in this society. That you have to live within an ordered society or pay the price. That the rule of law is important. That’s not controversial.

Heffner: May I interrupt a moment?

Cuomo: Sure.

Heffner: You say it’s not controversial.

Cuomo: Yeah.

Heffner: Yet we live at a time when in the highest regions of government there have been those who have said, “Look, for the sake of national security, in order to survive, we must do these things that shave a little in the area of the law”.

Cuomo: Yeah.

Heffner: Difference. Not totally accepted.

Cuomo: Well, I think it is a non-controversial value. I think the people of this country would say that if President Reagan were clearly guilty of violating a statute, a law of this country, he should be made to pay just the way Nixon was. There is no question about that, in my opinion. They might love him for it; they might forgive him in their hearts, but I do not believe the American people are prepared to say, “If a President violates the law, we’ll let him get away with it, because his intention was good”. Why not then a senator or a group of senators. A judge or a group of judges. A wise man or a wise woman. No. The people of this country said it in Watergate. “If you violate the law, you must pay.” Look, if you’re Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi and you’re a man or person of peace and you choose to violate the law to make a point, still the society will insist you pay the price for the violation. You do your time in prison. You make the point that while we’re free to violate the law, we insist that the rule of law be perfected by punishing you for it. Now I think that’s non-controversial. But let me get to a controversial value, the one you mentioned. I say this society, I believe this society we call the State of New York, the society we call the United States of America should posit as a value its obligation, corporately, its obligation as a people to take care of those who are not able to take of themselves. When I say government should be “family”, that’s what I mean. That we have an obligation to assist those who can’t help themselves. I’m not talking about people who could help themselves, but choose not to out of laziness, out of whatever sin. No. They’re on their own. But the child born to a wheelchair, the person grown too old to care for herself, with no relatives, no friends. We have a positive obligation in government to care for that person.

Cuomo: Not everybody agrees. Jack Kemp, for example, says that my idea of family is patronizing. That my idea of family belongs at home with “Momma and Papa”, that’s his expression, but not with government. He regards that as too close to socialism. But what he’s suggesting is another value. Which a lot of people liked enough to make the conservative ethic very strong. And the other value is, we tried helping the poor people, it didn’t work. Charlie Murray wrote a book about. We lost ground doing it, so let’s not try anymore. They made the denial of compassion respectable. They said government shouldn’t even try to help all those people. What we should do is make the economy as strong as possible, let the fit get as powerful as possible, and then hope that the church and the synagogue and the private foundation will do the rest. So that is a controversial value. It has been the political issue of the last six or seven years; it may be again in 1988. I believe my value structure there is better for this country; it’s fairer, truer to our instinct as a people. But I would admit to you that it’s controversial. I don’t believe President Reagan believes what I believe. I know Jack Kemp does not believe what I believe about the idea of family. A controversial question. And I’ve lost the last two elections on that proposition. Not in the State of New York where it’s won and won very handily, but at the national level, President Reagan represents a different value entirely. I think he’s confused it. Because being surrounded with religious people, being soft of voice and manner, being apparently congenial and sweet and compassionate, I’m not sure that people understood fully the value he was representing. Which was, “We’ll spend money on missiles, but have more homeless people than at any time since the Depression”. Create more poor people than at any time since the Depression. Create a larger under-class than years, and squeeze the middle class. The middle class is just waking up to that. So that’s controversial, that value structure is definitely controversial.

Heffner: And what would you do with that constellation of ideas? Yours and theirs?

Cuomo: Oh, I would go very … If I were a candidate … it’s easy for me to talk about this. What would I do with theirs?

Heffner: No, I mean in terms of the speech you gave the other day in which you talk about pressing, pushing values in the public schools.

Cuomo: Alright. In the public schools, I would stay away from that question because that is a political value question. It is like the question on arms limitation. How much do you value your defense? And precisely how do you measure that. These are controversial issues that I would not allow our public school to teach. I think you could probably, and even here you could get into trouble, allow your public school to teach “war is better than peace”, because…

Heffner: Better red than dead? Somebody’s going to say…

Cuomo: War is better than peace because life is better than death. Even that becomes controversial.

Heffner: I know.

Cuomo: Because war is not always better than peace, it wasn’t in the Second so you would stay away from that. That is a controversial value and I will grant you that’s a political issue and you ought not to teach that. But that life is sacred, that the life of a Vietnamese child, who was destroyed in a war, that that life was sacred, that it ought not to be taken except where there was no alternative, that’s uncontroversial.

Heffner: But, Governor Cuomo, when you say life is sacred, for me as well as for you that sets up a perfect question. Perfect, not in terms of logic necessarily, but in terms of identification. Then we go to abortion. Then we go to many other issues and the only question I’m really raising is, is it quite, not as easy…

Cuomo: No.

Heffner: … because you don’t tackle easy questions. But is it quite as possible as you say in the speech and I know you want to continue pressing- this point to teach values in the public schools and stay away from these other splits in our society. If there weren’t those splits, you wouldn’t have run for Governor of New York, you wouldn’t have delivered that magnificent Inaugural, you wouldn’t have gone to San Francisco in ‘84 and electrified that Democratic Convention, so we’re talking about very fundamental things.

Cuomo: Well, if the question is, “Will you ever be able to achieve a perfect consensus on values, that’s permanent and non-controversial from beginning to end”, then the answer is “No”.

Heffner: And I’m not so much of a dummy that I would ask that question.

Cuomo: No. Are there answers to all of the questions that I could pose? No. Should we nevertheless insist on producing a set of values that addresses these questions? Yes. Let’s be precise. Let’s take the question of life and death. This is a society where we have decided as a value not to allow the public places and people and instruments to teach any kind of theology. You cannot teach that, there is God. When I went to public school we read from the King James Version of the Bible. I happen to be a Catholic and it was some time before I realized that I was standing on a stage reading the wrong Bible. But from David, the Psalms. We read at the beginning of assembly. You can no longer do that. God is out of the classroom.

Heffner: Do you approve of that, by the way?

Cuomo: It’s academic, but I think probably now, after living half a hundred years, I think we’re better off with public schools staying away from any kind of theology. Because I’m afraid you would -teach my children the wrong theology. I would prefer to deal with that myself.

Heffner: So if I were teaching values, Governor. Might I not teach them the wrong values, values you wouldn’t embrace!

Cuomo: That’s why I want you to stay with non-controversial values. Like the sacredness of life, which I regard as non-controversial. What might be controversial is the definition of what life is. And, well, there’s nothing strange about that. That’s a scientific question.

Cuomo: Even for those who are mightily opposed to abortion, even for those in my own church, the Catholic Church, who argue against abortion. They can point to a time before Augustine where there was a different definition of life than there is today. And that’s true. You see, but I think the point that you might occasionally have some difficulty in applying these rules, that’s not an argument against structuring the value. Otherwise you’re left to the position we started with. Let’s stay away from the whole subject, and teach in effect that there are no values. And that, to me, is moral chaos and much worse. Let’s take another example. That’s going to get more and more real in this society. A Governor in the West raised the question and paid a big price for it. “Should you allow people to live as long as you can keep them alive on machines? Should you? Are we allowing our people to live too long in this society, using machines? Can we afford to do it? Is the quality of their life worth it?” You remember Dick Lamm saying this.

Heffner: Indeed, I do.

Cuomo: Boy, he paid a terrible price for that. I’m afraid, whether you like the implications of it or not, that’s a question we’re going to have to face. That’s a question some of us have faced already. Should you unplug the machine on your parent? Now, how do you deal with that? We have a group in our state called the Life and Law Group. I’ve brought ethicists, religious and non-religious from all over the country under Dr. David Axelrod, our Commissioner of Health, a brilliant, brilliant man, quite apart from his brilliance as a scientist and a doctor. And we try addressing this question. We start with a proposition: “Life is sacred”. Life is the greatest value we have, especially if you can’t posit a God. If you can’t posit that there’s an eternal entity beyond all of us, then what is the greatest value you have to work with? Life. Your life, my life. Life as we understand it, since we can’t deal with eternity.

Heffner: Why can’t I posit that? Because a court tells me that I cannot?

Cuomo: Because there are people who don’t believe it.

Heffner: And a court tells me that I cannot.

Cuomo: Because there is a substantial number of people who don’t believe it. And because when you say God, you’ll have to define God. And your God may be different than ray God. Your God may come in three persons, your God may impose obligations that I don’t recognize from my God. And rather than deal with that, and what it leads to, a state God, a state religion, which eventually then, because it’s the ultimate truth, insists on oppressing all others who don’t believe. That’s where we came from. That’s where the Jews came from, that’s where the Europeans came from. They fled from places like that. And came to this country to have a place that was free of that kind of religious oppression. So, our value judgment, civically, and I think it’s a good one, has been, “Hey, look, we will allow you to believe in God. We will nurture your opportunity to believe in God. But the way we protect your opportunity to believe in God is not to insist on a civic God for everybody”.

Heffner: Governor Cuomo, were we so much worse off in terms of the very values you’re concerned about when we would say, under the mantle of our governmental apparatus, “In God we trust”.

Cuomo: Well, we still say, “In God we trust”.

Heffner: I know. Were we so much better off?

Cuomo: Well, I don’t know that you can say that we are worse off now because of the Supreme Court decisions. I could probably make an argument that says that the challenging of the policy- which allowed them to teach me at Public School 50 in South Jamaica, Queens, about a God, the challenging of it, produced a good thing. It made us think about it. It made people think about school and God and theology and maybe a lot of the people who took it for granted when you’re read from King James, maybe they were caused to think about it, once it was challenged. And I hope I’m not being perverse therefore, when I say, you might even have attracted more attention to God by denying him in the classroom or denying the right to teach him in the classroom, than by letting the status quo exists. There is good in everything.

Heffner: I’m glad that you find that in a wonderful, wonderful way. There is no good in the point that I’ve been getting the signal that we have almost no time left. But I’ll ask you…

Cuomo: Their values are awry.

Heffner: Their values are absolutely wrong. But ours will be good if you will promise to stay at this table and let us continue this discussion about values and a few other things that I want to ask you about, so that we’ll come back to The Open Mind next week with more Mario Cuomo. Okay? Thanks so much for joining me today, Governor Cuomo. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s subject, please write The Open Mind, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation.

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