Mario Cuomo … On Values and Politics

GUEST: Mario Cuomo
VTR: 01/12/05

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And when he was New York State’s three term Governor – and seemed to so many thoughtful and hopeful Americans to be the Democratic Party’s most obvious choice for President of the United States – today’s guest spoke several times here with me on The Open Mind about teaching values – moral values – to our school children.

Well, today, I would like to talk with Mario Cuomo about the possibility – and the wisdom – of once again teaching values, this time civic values (civic virtues, if you will) in our schools.

It was called civics in my day, of course … possibly even when the Governor went to school much later. And I suspect that our generations were the gainers. But let me ask Mario Cuomo what he thinks on that score now.

CUOMO: First of all I think you weren’t paying attention in arithmetic class because there isn’t that large a gap between the number which describes your age and the number which describes mine. (Laughter) So, we went to school at about the same time.

You know, I think now, what I have always felt and that is public schools, particularly, but schools in general, have the obvious task of teaching, whether they like it or not because if you lock a child into a classroom for several hours a day for five days a week for much of his early … or her early … years, you’re going to be teaching no matter what you say … silence will teach.

If you don’t talk about God, they will assume there is no God. And so you’ll be teaching that there’s no God. If you never mention civics, they’ll think there is no obligation to patriotism of any kind. That is not a significant subject.

And so whether the school system likes it or not, it winds up teaching, either by silence or by speaking. And so I think the prudent and intelligent course would be, well, let’s fill that space with something useful. Then the question is: what values do you teach and how do you avoid one of the larger traps that’s so obvious today, and that is not getting in trouble with respect to religion.

How do you teach without teaching a specific religion thereby insulting people who don’t share that religion. Or offending people who have no religion. And … so that’s where we are today.

Yes, of course, they should be teaching patriotism. Of course they should be teaching civics. Although it’s not anywhere expressed as an obligation in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, it’s everywhere implicit in our governance that, in order for this government to work you have to hang together.

You have to pay your taxes. You have to try to live by the law. You have to cooperate with the other people in the society. So, yeah, I think … I think, Dick the real question is what do you teach? What specific values? How do you teach them without colliding with the First Amendment?

HEFFNER: Well, of course, when you were here last time and I’m always grateful when you do come, we were talking about a little book you had just done, a book by … it could have been “by” Abraham Lincoln. Certainly it was about him, and at the very end you wrote a speech “by” Abraham Lincoln, what you believed he would have said in a State of the Union Address, perhaps. Things have happened, as Don Rumsfeld would say … since before the election of 2004. Would you revise what you had Mr. Lincoln saying, given the fact that we know now how the election came out?

CUOMO: No, I … if anything, Dick, I regret more than I ever imagined I could that we didn’t give the speech then that Lincoln would have given. And we never did. Although we touched on parts of it … for example, what President Lincoln said to the Congress in 2004, as I imagined it, was … on the question of terrorism there are some things that are obvious. You need military force to apprehend, deter, punish the terrorists. You know who they are. They’ve identified themselves … Al Qaeda … you know where they are, they’re in Afghanistan, and so, of course, you need military force and you are absolutely correct to go there to Afghanistan and go after them.

On the other hand, since the terrorists are ideologists, since there is a religious issue here and a very strong political issue, since there are many of these terrorists who believe you have hurt them politically, or not assisted them as you should have, politically, and who think that your religion is dangerous, you need to do more than force. And I … what he was warning them of in the speech is doing nothing but force.

Which is exactly what we did in Iraq. With the terrorist question. We never talked about how to stop the Saudi Arabians from financing madrases that are teaching jihadists today to hate the people of the West, especially the Jews and the Christians. We haven’t done it still.

We didn’t move our troops out of Saudi Arabia … we’ve started to do that now very quietly. Which we knew was offending many of the Muslim people. We did not aggressively assist Israel in finding peace with the Palestinians, although we knew that was a provocation that was being used to excuse acts of terrorism.

We didn’t call upon the other nations as Lincoln would have done to, to assure assistance in Iraq, etc., etc. And then on the subject of Iraq … Lincoln made very clear that you have to be sure that it is imminent, that it is a serious threat, that you know what you’re talking about before you start a war.

And then on the question of taxes, we now have the largest deficit and debt in world history. Larger even than the Reagan deficit and debt. We did exactly what President Reagan did, we cut the taxes, especially on the wealthiest people by a huge amount. One trillion dollars, Dick, is going to go, over the next decade to the top 2% of the taxpayers … one trillion dollars.

At the same time that we’re going to have the biggest debt, can’t pay for Social Security, can’t pay for Medicare, can’t pay for the health care we need, can’t pay for the schooling we need, can’t pay for the environmental clean-ups we need, and are also paying for the war, and what Lincoln said in the speeches … “I invented the income tax” … the progressive income tax, happened to be unconstitutional when he did it. But I believe in the progressive income tax and so what you should have done is not given these people one trillion dollars, these richest people in America who don’t need it, and will only invest it, they won’t spend it in your economy.

If you’re going to give tax cuts to anybody, give it to people who will spend it right away. That’s good for the economy. Don’t give it to Mario and his clients, they’re just going to invest it. They might invest it in Europe, for gosh sakes. And, so he was right about everything … Lincoln. He was right about every point, and still is.

HEFFNER: Having been right in the words you put in his mouth, what happened?

CUOMO: We never gave the speech.

HEFFNER: Oh, come on.

CUOMO: Lincoln gave it, but only … only you and I read the book. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: No, you gave the speech and the book was read. And what you wrote was said … why didn’t it go that way, if it made that much sense?

CUOMO: Because John Kerry chose not to go that far. Now … only, only John Kerry can tell you why … and look … here, you and I, Dick, are doing it as well as we can do it, with the scant information we had and our own, you know, withering intellects. But, but these guys study all this stuff. They, they take polls, they must have had some reason why they didn’t fight harder on Iraq.

He must have had some reason for voting the authorization and then conditioning it with three or four conditions so, so complicated that, you know, when it came time for him to explain that he wasn’t really telling Bush to go to war in Iraq … people found it incredible, because it was too complicated.

There must have been some reason he did that. Maybe it was the primary where he had to deal with Howard Dean. I’m not sure. But the truth is he never made the speech and they made the speech on taxes, as clearly as Lincoln made it in, in the presentation in the book. Why?

Because the response to it was, by Bush, “see, they want to raise taxes.” And, and they didn’t want to hear that response. They, they thought that that simplistic, and it was simplistic, because we’re not raising the taxes, except on the richest people in America which is exactly what Reagan did. Which is exactly what Bush did … the first Bush. Exactly what Clinton did.

They all raised … I said raised taxes … after Reagan’s tax cut. He raised taxes on the richest people 90 billion dollars. After those tax cuts, George Bush, who followed him, raised taxes on the richest people … 100 billion dollars. After that, Clinton raised taxes on the richest people, a 100 billion dollars. And what did you get as a result? More millionaires and billionaires than ever in our history.

HEFFNER: Okay. You’ve said what I thought you were going to say …

CUOMO: Lincoln said it first …

HEFFNER: You and Lincoln have said it. I’m very serious about repeating the question of what happened. If you want to say the Democrats did not have, for whatever reason, a good enough candidate or a good enough campaign strategy. That’s one thing. But what about the people …

CUOMO: Okay.

HEFFNER: … who had been informed about many of the things you are saying and voted contrary-wise.

CUOMO: Yeah. Let’s, let’s do it simply. How well informed are the people? Nearly 300 million people … or a 170, 180 million potential voters … 100 million to 150 million are going to vote. Okay.

What is their level of understanding of the issues? If … I, I talked to a reporter I know … a, a “higher up” in the New York Times yesterday at lunch. And I said, “Listen, if you went out on the street, for New York Times readers, and you said to them, “Does the Federal government have to balance its budget? Does the State have to balance its budget? Is there a difference?,” which there is. “And why is there a difference? And what is the difference between a deficit and a debt? And who does get the one trillion dollars in tax cuts over … when you say top 2 ½% … how much money are those people making?” You’d get no answers. If you say to them, “Well, now … President Reagan …do you remember President Reagan? Yes. Do you remember he gave you a big tax cut? Well, yeah, he was a tax-cutter. Do you remember that he also raised taxes, including … Oh, no, he never raised taxes … No, no, not President Reagan, he was a tax-cutter.”

To this day the American people believe that he was a tax cutter. He wasn’t. He raised taxes at least as much as he cut them. So did George Bush, who said that the plan that Reagan used, tax cuts will automatically spin the economy so fast that they’ll pay themselves back and you’ll wind up ahead, even at a lower tax rate. The first George Bush said that that’s economic voodoo. And the first George Bush was right.

But they don’t know this. The public … the people watching this show right now … and they’re all intelligent people, because that’s the people who watch Dick Heffner and listen to him. Bright people. Educated people. I will tell you a large percentage of them will not believe what they hear when I say that three people in a row … Reagan, the first Bush, Clinton … all raised taxes on the wealthiest people and corporations, and it produced the best economy we ever had. They’ll say, “No, that’s not so.”.

HEFFNER: So what are you saying … that H. L. Menken was right in saying, “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people?”

CUOMO: No. I don’t think it’s a matter of intelligence. I, I think it is a matter of attention. I think it’s a matter of information; I think it’s a matter of, you know, working your way through the complexities. I think the American people have the capacity.

I think the American people are like juries … anybody who’s had experience with juries will say to you, “Look, over all, the juries are remarkable in this country, at being able to understand all sorts of complexities. Why?” And they are. You’ve got a former Con Ed employee, you’ve got a retired businessman … you’ve got a housewife, and you’re talking about ballistics and, and this and all sorts of complicated issues. But you’ve got them in a box, you have their total attention, you have a judge making sure that the information they get is relevant. You have two sides banging away to make sure that the other side isn’t lying. And so you have all those assistances in defining the truth. And they are brilliant in arriving at conclusions. Now, every once in a while they make a big mistake there … they’re fooled by Heffner’s handsome face and so they’ll accept stuff he said that wasn’t true. That happens once in a while.

HEFFNER: You’re the lawyer … I’m not.

CUOMO: (Laughter) Yeah, well …

HEFFNER: You talk to juries, I don’t …

CUOMO: The, the … so, so … it is not the intelligence. My mother and father were illiterate, they were ignorant, they couldn’t read Italian and they couldn’t read English. They were the two smartest people I ever met. And I’m not saying that because it was Mama and Poppa … they were smart.

HEFFNER: Then what is it, Mario? What is it?

CUOMO: It’s the … it’s the … the issues are getting more and more complicated. More and more complicated. What is a trade imbalance? What does it mean when the dollar goes down and the Euro goes up? It takes time for you to understand that. And look at all the issues like that that we have now. What is Medicare? What do you get when you’re on Medicare? What do you not get?

Now, the people have all these questions they have to answer for themselves. And they can’t. Why? They don’t have the time.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but …

CUOMO: And, and now … here’s what they do.

HEFFNER: Yeah.

CUOMO: Of course they don’t have the time. They go to the things that are easiest for them to understand. In the last election 2004, the obvious, easy things to understand was those terrorists who killed us … want to kill us … are evil and we have to get them.

And the war in Iraq. The war in Iraq was a little more complicated, because of the confusion as to whether we should have gone in the first place. And, and they thought about it, and they thought about it for a long time, and they came out just about even … 50% said we shouldn’t have gone, 50% said we should. So they figured that one out.

On terrorism … just kill these bums. Stop these bums. Easy to understand. Then they skipped over all the complicated questions about the budget, about the taxes, about environment, about energy and how to get rid of our …

HEFFNER: Then tell me … what hope is there …

CUOMO: … and they went to … what … spiritual values. Same sex marriage … easy to understand. Why. Because for eons people have said “no, no, no shouldn’t be a guy and a guy and a woman and a woman. It should be a woman and a guy.” And that we understand. And so they took that and got furious on that issue. Abortion … everybody now thinks they understand abortion. Stem cells. Now, very complicated, but that has grabbed people because of greed and a lot of situations and President Reagan’s wife. Anyway, these are things you understand.

The cultural issues you understand. You’re a Liberal. I’m a Conservative. I like the way Bush talks, I’m a Nascar guy … I like his shoes, I like that plain manner, I like him, man, he’s my kind of guy. But, see … it’s emotional. It’s intuitive, it’s cultural. It’s easy.

HEFFNER: Should I close the books then, and say, “I’m going home” because there’s no hope, things will not …

CUOMO: No.

HEFFNER: … become less complicated.

CUOMO: No, no. You take all those complicated issues and you work on talking about them more simply the way a lawyer does in a courtroom. He takes very … a lot of complicated stuff and when he delivers that speech, he doesn’t … he knows he’s not talking to Oxford, he’s talking to this group of Americans who are bright and willing to do their civic duty …

HEFFNER: But, Mario, you said …

CUOMO: … and he makes his language …

HEFFNER: … you said he talks within the context of a courtroom …

CUOMO: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: … with a judge keeping out …

CUOMO: That’s right.

HEFFNER: … irrelevancies …

CUOMO: That’s right.

HEFFNER: … and keeping us on track.

CUOMO: It’s harder. It’s harder.

HEFFNER: How do we do it?

CUOMO: It’s harder, politically. You have shows like this and you try to explain it they way I’m trying to explain it the way I’m trying to explain it. You write that speech for Lincoln which was in very easy to understand language; it was only 2,600 words. And it covered all those issues. You find easier ways to say it. You don’t use sentences with four commas in them. You use, you know, six word sentences. And you take those cultural values and you talk about them in plain English.

You say, “Look, you want to talk about God. Okay, what is God?” Nobody really can define God. We all believe in God. 91% of us will say we believe in God. What we’re really saying is we believe in some force up there that’s more intelligent than we are, that’s responsible for us in a way that we don’t fully understand, and what it says to us is “be good and don’t do evil things.” We understand that. And we feel guilt because we’re offending that when we do a lot of bad things, like stealing, and this and that. Okay. That’s understandable.

Well, what should the government be saying about God? The government should be saying, “I’m going to let you think about God anyway you want to. I’m not going to tell you how to do it. I’m going to protect the way you do it as long as you don’t hurt somebody else with it.” That’s great.

But I will say this … the government should be saying this … “I will say this about all you people who believe in God. There are two rules … whatever your religion is, and even if you don’t have a religion and call yourself an atheist, there are two rules that we find in every religion. And we’re trying to do it as a government. Number one, you’re supposed to love one another. Which means don’t hurt one another unless you’re defending your life. You’re supposed to love one another. And I’m not talking about romantic love. I’m talking about being good, being kind, being helpful. That’s it. That’s a rule and I don’t want to hear about a God that says, ‘No, hurt one another.’
And after that what you’re supposed to do is come together and make the whole joint better. Make the whole community better. Your village, your town, your city. Do everything you can to take care of the people who are sick. Take care of those poor people who are desperate to work, but don’t have the education, don’t have the opportunity. Just help one another.” We all know that. You don’t need a rabbi, you don’t need an imam, you don’t need a priest. You know, just look into your heart. That … God is talking in your heart, even if you never read a book.

And talk about … yes, we are religious. Bing. Now what? Same sex marriage. Look, why did we say in the beginning it had to be a man and a woman? Why? What, what … well, because they had to make babies. Okay.

They have to make babies. So we honor that union. And we should, it’s very important to us, it makes babies, takes care of the babies, they grow up … wonderful.

Gays can’t do that. So far with the science as we now know it. Okay. But if that’s the only reason for giving civil benefits … we’re talking about civil benefits, that’s what it’s about … not condemning “the thing” … you know, by law you can’t do this … we’re saying we’re not going to give you benefits.

If you give benefits to heterosexuals, who choose not to have children, then what’s your rationale for giving them the benefits? And what’s the difference between them and a same sex marriage. Well, hey, I never thought of it that way. Or what if they can’t have children? You mean they don’t get the benefits? Mmmm, that’s a good question. Yeah. Well, then the civil union thing makes sense. Yeah, that’s what Bush said and that’s what Kerry said.

Now, the people who happen to be gay don’t particularly like civil unions because you use a different word other than marriage, which implies that it’s not as good as marriage, but at least you’re going to say, in the end, we’re going to give you the same benefits we give them, because we can’t think of a good reason not to. Unless we’re going to make a new rule that says, “only heterosexuals, who have children …”; then the question would be “how many?” You know. So, so there are ways to get at this.

Stem cells. Abortion. A principle of abortion is life begins at conception. Great. What’s conception? Well, you know … with the egg and the thing, they come together … bing. Oh, and that’s human life right away? Yeah. That … who says so?

HEFFNER: Your co-religionists say so.

CUOMO: Oh, really?

HEFFNER: Don’t they?

CUOMO: Well, the Catholic Church says so. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Okay.

CUOMO: But the Catholic Church says a lot of things. They say there’s a heaven, they say there’s a hell. There’s a lot of things I believe because I choose to be a Roman Catholic and I accept it on faith. What is faith? Faith implies the lack of knowledge. If you could do it intellectually, on knowledge, you wouldn’t need faith. Faith is the willing suspension of your insistence on an intellectual proof. I can’t prove the existence of God. Not even the old Aristotelian ways … you know, seven tests of God. In the end you take a leap of faith because it comports with the intellect without being compelled by the intellect. So that’s called faith. You want to be a Jew. Great. Not a Jew, a Hebrew. Then you’re a Hebrew. You want to be an Islamic believer … Muslim. Great. You want to be Roman Catholic? Great.

I’m a Roman Catholic. And they give me rules and I have to life by them to stay in the club. But that’s different than saying to people who don’t have a religion … you should believe it because the priest told me to believe it and I chose to believe it. What they have a right to is proof. Give me a biologist. Give me a scientist who tells me human life is there in conception. As distinguished from life. Because there’s life in every cell.

Give me some evidence, Mr. President. You say life begins at conception. That means no woman could ever have an abortion under any circumstances; under any circumstances, because that’s a human life … under any circumstances … she was raped, it was incest. Her life is at stake. There would be no rationale for her to kill a separate human being.

Now, nobody accepts that in our society. And if they did you’d be asking for a Constitutional amendment making that the law, the way you asked for a Constitutional amendment on gay marriage. And you never dared do that. So, Mr. President, there’s something wrong here. On gay marriage, you told us, “This is so bad morally we should have a Constitutional amendment”. On abortion, why don’t you have a Constitutional amendment? Because they wouldn’t dare say, in a Constitutional amendment, what they’d have to say.

HEFFNER: Which is …

CUOMO: Which is anybody that has an abortion is a murderer. Any woman that does it, any doctor that does it.

HEFFNER: There’s no Constitutional amendment that I know of that’s going to give the 40 or 50 seconds that we have left to this program …turn it into more time. Do you think this kind of argumentation, this kind of explanation is going to work for the Democrats in the next election?

CUOMO: Well, I think there’s a lot of other things you can do, too, on abortion. Whatever else you say about abortion … I think it’s fair to say … everybody agrees we should reduce the number of times that a woman has to make that tough judgment; as to whether or not to have an abortion. So you should concentrate on avoiding unintended pregnancies.

And there are, of course, many ways to do that. And you should do more adoptions; make it easier for a woman who finds herself pregnant … didn’t want to be pregnant, thinks she can’t handle the child …for whatever reason, to go to term, have the child, and then have it adopted by a really good set of parents and assure her that.

So if she chooses to go to term because she doesn’t want to have an abortion, for whatever reason, she can wind up not having the baby … taking care of the baby herself, but being sure that it is taken care of. So there are a lot of other ways we can get at the subject to reduce the number of times that this difficult question has to be dealt with by a woman.

HEFFNER: Mario Cuomo, I have a suggestion at the end of our time …

CUOMO: Right.

HEFFNER: … and that is a suggestion I’ve made before … why don’t you run for President of the United States and make these points?

CUOMO: Why didn’t you run for President, Heffner?

HEFFNER: Okay. Okay.

CUOMO: One of these days I want a chance to interview you.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Mario Cuomo, thanks so much for joining me again on The Open Mind. I knew you’d do something like that.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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