THE OPEN MIND
Guest: Mario Cuomo
Title: “Reason to Believe” Part II
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Mario Cuomo, former three-term governor of New York, and, by way of full disclosure on my part, always my candidate for president of the United States.
Now, last time we began to parse his exhilarating new Simon and Schuster testament, Reason to Believe. And I asked Governor Cuomo what larger social constructs we Americans will likely come to believe if we embrace what his idol, Abraham Lincoln, called the “better angels of our nature.” Let’s continue along the same lines.
And, Governor, if I may, going back to the beginning of your book, you wrote here, “I was hoping that a great chorus of voices would rise up to say what seemed to me so clear. Of course the middle class, and most of America, for that matter, has been unhappy with the direction this country was taking, but the new conservative Republican agenda won’t solve our problems. It is a new harshness” — I like that phrase — “that will make them worse while stirring our meanest instincts and trampling upon our best impulses. It will hurt people, deny us opportunities, and damage America.” And then you go on to write, “The chorus, however, has been slow to assemble.”
I gather you assume it is assembling, however.
CUOMO: At the time I wrote the book, I wasn’t going to write the book because I had lost an election in 1994.
HEFFNER: What does that have to do with it?
CUOMO: Well, I didn’t think that that, you know, necessarily qualified me as an authentic voice. Anyway…
HEFFNER: Excuse me. May I interrupt?
HEFFNER: You’re serious about that? I know your opponents say that.
CUOMO: Well, in the public perception. In the public perception, if you want to talk to America, it’s not advisable to start by losing an election. Now, it would be easier if you won an election. Anyway, I thought, well, we’re going to hear from Ted Kennedy, we’re going to hear from the Republicans, from the Democrats, from Pat Moynihan, from Bill Clinton, you know, the leader. And they were going to immediately say, “Look, let’s get this clear. While we lost elections to the Democrats in 1994, this so-called Contract with America doesn’t deal with our problems. Our problems are an economy that’s very good for owners and investors but not for lower, middle-class workers. They’re going to give you a tax cut. How is that a solution for the lower, middle-class worker? The tax cut is mostly for the investors. Our problem is social catastrophes. Children making children, drugs, violence. What did they propose there? Death penalty, more death penalty, more punishment. Well, punishment has its place, perhaps, but are you telling me that’s the solution? You have a son who is a drug addict, 17 years old. What’s the solution? To shout at him that he’s being irresponsible? You have a child that’s suffering from some other malady. What is your solution? To say you are being irresponsible in your eating habits? You have to do more. You have to encourage them somehow. You have to change conditions for them somehow.”
There’s a third problem. People have nothing to believe in. Nothing really inspiring him. They have had no hero. No hero and no cause. What are you going to give them? Selfishness? So, none of this stuff works. You need to encourage the lower and middle-class workers. If they’re going to be pushed out of the economy down to a lower level, and if that is unavoidable for the near term, then you better make sure you give them health care. You better make sure that the next generation after them doesn’t have the same problem, by increasing their skills level. That means education. That means job training. And as for those who are squeezed out, in addition to health care, you’re closing their national parks. That’s their country club. Bad enough that you have to drop that. You’re making it harder for their kids to go to college.
So there is no, there is no sense in saying that the new Contract with America is going to improve your situation. It’s going to accommodate some of your worst instincts. You middle-class people have been fooled into thinking that your problem is that you’re giving away too much money to the people who are making babies, and that if we could only limit the amount of money for welfare, you middle-class guys and gals will be better off. And if you could do that, the difference to the middle class would be marginal. The problem for the middle class is an economy that’s good for owners and investors but not good for the workers. The wages are not going up. How is it going to help me to beat up on this little kid in the… Look, we should reform welfare. But it’s not going to save me to deny her kid a meal.
That’s what I thought would be said, because it’s so clear and it’s such common sense. And it is coming out now. Nobody said it. And what happened is somebody invited me down to Washington December 16, to the press club. I gave a speech that said all of this, and some publishers called up and said, “You know, maybe you ought to write that.” And I said, “All right.” And we’ve written it. And to the best of my knowledge there aren’t a lot of books, still there aren’t a lot of books out there differing with the contract.
CUOMO: Why? People maybe got chilled, maybe they got intimidated, I don’t know what happened, but the chorus did not assemble. It still hasn’t assembled. Only 12 senators in the United States Senate fought the Republican idea that you should kill entitlements for welfare and Medicaid, which means you should announce to the world that in the United States of America you can be a poor, young woman who gives birth to a child — maybe because you’re imprudent — but gives birth to a child, who is hungry and who has no source of income, although the kid herself is willing to work, but it is possible that in the United States of America she will get nothing, even if she is deserving. That’s what I’m… Only 12 senators voted against that. Only 12. And Pat Moynihan was one of them, fortunately for New York.
HEFFNER: Now, what, in the years ahead, is Mario Cuomo’s relationship to that idea, to the principles that are set forth in Reason to Believe?
CUOMO: I will shout them from the rooftops, as long as two or three people will gather to hear them. I will do everything I can to promote that. And that’s why I’m doing a radio show. That’s why I travel around the United States giving speeches. I mean, I practice law in a great old firm, the Wilke firm, named after Wendell Wilke. Which is interesting. Wilke lost an election to Roosevelt, came to the firm, wrote a book, done by Simon and Schuster, One World, the principle of which was what, interconnectedness and interdependence, that the whole world is interconnected and interdependent. I lose an election, come to Wilke, Farr, and Gallagher, write a book for whom? Simon and Schuster. And what’s the principle? Interconnectedness and interdependence. He a lawyer from the Midwest, a Republican; I a lawyer from Queens, which is not the Midwest, a Democrat. But I’ll write a book, I’ll travel around. If there’s an opportunity for public service I certainly would hold myself open to that possibility, because I think that’s the best thing I’ve done in my life, is public service.
HEFFNER: Wilke talked about the promise of one world. And you’re talking about the promise of American life.
CUOMO: One nation.
HEFFNER: One nation. Wilke ran for president of the United States. Mario Cuomo didn’t, and, you know, we can take you over the coals gladly for that. This concept of one world and one interconnected nation, the interconnection is self-serving in your estimation, and the interconnection was self-serving in Wendell Wilke’s. Do you really think we are going to come to understand that? Wilke wrote a half century ago and more. How do you avoid it?
CUOMO: How can you possibly, with the world shrinking the way it is? How can you continue to fragment yourself and isolate yourself? How are you going to stay away from all those blacks, you’re white? “I don’t want to deal with the blacks.” I hear it on my radio show almost every Saturday.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
CUOMO: Some guy will call up. Usually it’s a man. The women haven’t reached this level of stupidity yet. Last week, “Hey, look, let’s get it straight. They should have their own nation.” “Who’s ‘they,’ pal?” “The blacks.” “Are you serious?” And then they go on. And they don’t appear to be mad, although they seem to be irrational. They’re articulate, they’re cool-headed. And there are people actually saying that. I say, “How would you form a separate nation of black people? How would you do that?” “Well, there’s got to be a way. I don’t want anything to do with them.” And Newt Gingrich, Newt Gingrich comes to New York and just says the most atrocious things about the people of New York. “It’s a sewer.” What is he talking about? He’s talking about the pluralism of the place, he’s talking about ethnics, he’s talking about a lot of immigrants, he’s talking about a lot of poor people. Barry Goldwater: “You should cut it off and let it float out to sea.” You can’t live that way, Charlie. You’re tied together by electronic lines, by roads, by mobility. You’re one world, whether you like it or not. In your house you have five kids. You don’t like your sister. How many brothers like their sisters when they’re six years old? “I don’t want to live with her.” “You have to live with her, you dummy. There’s not enough room for you to live apart from her.” So there is no alternative to this. Of course we must live together. How does the top half of our planet ignore the bottom half?
HEFFNER: It does, though, Governor.
CUOMO: It has for a long time. And the North of Italy ignores the South of Italy, but they pay a terrible price. And sooner or later, as you grow more intelligent, you understand that to achieve your full potential you must incorporate all the parts, and that, one hopes that we go from the slime to the sublime, and that we’re not willing to settle and say, “Hey, look, I’m going to stop right here. We don’t have to get any smarter or better than we are right now.” I don’t believe that. I believe we have to strive constantly to do better. This is the greatest nation in the world. Some people are saying we’ll settle for it exactly the way it is. We know it would be greater still if we didn’t have those ghettos, if we didn’t have one out of four children poor. But we’re not willing to make the effort to reduce the number of poor kids. We’ll live with the number of poor kids. Even let it go up a bit. That’s, a reviewer of my book, one reviewer said that. But the only reason for helping the poor is the moral obligation, not the practical one. That you could do very well just leaving them there or letting them fall through the safety net. Who’s “you?” “You” is the 20 percent, maybe less than that, that are doing so well in this country they feel not intimidated by any of the possible consequences of, you know, the next ten years or so. It just doesn’t make any sense, to me. And it is not civilized. Civilized implies a constant effort to improve the level of civility. It is not civilized to say, “Hey, look, we’re going to rule them out. There’s just no room in the wagon for them. We’re just going to leave them by the side of the road and let them die.” I can’t believe that’s right.
HEFFNER: You can’t believe that’s right?
CUOMO: And I can’t believe it’s smart.
HEFFNER: Okay. You can’t believe it’s right. Don’t we get back eventually to Mario Cuomo making that point, you can’t believe it’s right. You want to say, “I can’t believe I work.”
CUOMO: But, see, except with me, right works. There’s a line in there about my mother, who never went to school. Never went to school, not in Italy or here. Died this year, 93 years of age. And my mother-in-law, incidentally, just weeks later, at 92 years of age. Very much like her. Except she had a little schooling in Italy. And my mother said this in Italian. I didn’t understand this as a kid. But like Mark Twain, I got, you know, she got smarter as I got older. She said, “You find usually that what is right is also what is necessary.” Now, what she was trying to say is that the things that are right make sense in a practical sense too. You shouldn’t hurt one another. You shouldn’t, don’t fight. Don’t hit him. Why? Because if you encourage people hitting one another, the next thing they do is pull triggers, and then they push buttons and blow one another up. It is no way to civilize. The things that are right, you know, your sharing your abundance with others strengthens the whole family. You need the family. Why did you need the family? Why weren’t we all individuals from the beginning? Why didn’t we just go mate when we felt like, you know, meet some female behind the boulder one day when you feel like mating, mate, produce offspring, you go your way, she goes her way, the offspring, when they’re old enough to walk, go their way. Why didn’t you grow up that way? Why did you form a family, and then a tribe, or a clan, and then a community? Because you had to ward off the beast, because you had to warn off the enemy, because you had to have agriculture, because you had to grow things, because you had to fight the storm, because you had to build shelters. And you couldn’t do it alone.
HEFFNER: How do you account for the fact that in our society, in our times, in terms of the new harshness, that we seem to be unlearning those lessons that your mother taught you so well?
CUOMO: Because for 50 years we’ve stopped doing what you and I are doing and allowed people to pump us full of information on television instead. We stopped getting smarter, and we simply became more knowledgeable. I told somebody, if I see one more crocodile give birth to one more crocodilette on The Discovery Channel I’m going to explode.
CUOMO: You know, I’ve seen every bug, every insect, every animal reproduce four times. I know things about reproduction I didn’t learn in 41 years of marriage. But I haven’t learned anything else about those animals. I’ve got plenty of information, but I’m not any more intelligent about what their role in the universe is.
HEFFNER: Governor, I would ask you, are we any closer today, and we’re taping this program at the end of 1995. Are we any closer to finding that exchange of ideas, the exchange of real knowledge?
CUOMO: No. No.
HEFFNER: So what makes you so hopeful?
CUOMO: Well, I’m hopeful that sooner or later we’ll come to our senses and realize what has happened to us over 50 years. I’m hopeful that if, that you and I are not the only, you know, people who feel this way about things. And that maybe if you suggest ideas to them, you know, it’ll catch on after awhile. I’m hopeful that the fatigue factor will take over.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
CUOMO: I’m hopeful that the pendulum, you know, will come swinging back. There is equilibrium in our society. We do have the tendency, you know, when we go too far in one direction to kind of consider, you know, you feel uncomfortable out at the extreme and start moving back to explore the other approach. And I think, you know, I think people, for example, have gotten to the point now where they realize much of the television is disgusting, much of it is debasing, much of it is degenerate. And it’s that way because of their asking for it…
HEFFNER: Yes, but…
CUOMO: …and I think they’re beginning to rethink their own tastes. That’s part of the equilibrium.
HEFFNER: Yes, but when you write about that in Reason to Believe, you immediately, as so many of your lawyer-like friends, say, “But we have a First Amendment.”
CUOMO: That’s right.
HEFFNER: “There’s really nothing we can do about this.”
CUOMO: Well, I don’t say that. Pardon me. What I say is you shouldn’t do anything about it with laws. I say the problem, you have met the enemy and he is us.
CUOMO: I said forget about having the government solve this problem for you. Learn to turn the dial. Learn to keep your child away from it. Understand that the problem is not to be solved by government; it’s to be solved by you. The reason that junk is up there is you want it there. If you didn’t want it there it wouldn’t be there, because they have to sell product.
HEFFNER: Yes, but you’re so practical in so many other areas. You talk about this nincompoopish V-chip, if you’ll forgive me…
HEFFNER: …in which you know any self-respecting six-year-old can undo technically what a parent can do technically. You’re not dealing with real cures. You’re not really dealing with real changes.
CUOMO: Oh, well, no. If what you’re saying is that the only real change would have to come through government, then I am saying it would be better not to have the problem solved by government. No matter what price you pay, because at least you don’t pay the price of a loss of free speech, or a greater loss of free speech. And that, to me, is a greater value.
Now, that’s being practical too. But there is another value in my life, and that is free speech. Incidentally, you could have a police system, monitors, television monitors who drop in on you, you know, assigned. These are all good people. Former nuns and rabbis, you know, who have decided to do something else, but now they’re going to serve as monitors. They could pop in on you unexpectedly. And if they see filth on it they could fine you and confiscate your set. You could do a lot of things. Why won’t we do that? Because there’s another value. It’s called freedom, and it’s called liberty. And you must balance these things.
HEFFNER: Yes, but, Governor, you’re a person who has been appalled at the failure of leadership, the concern about, for deregulation, deregulation, deregulation. Why do you here express such fear?
CUOMO: Because free speech is one of the areas that ought not to be limited, except in the case of children. We all agree that where children are concerned we do allow intrusions on free speech. Of course, they are not equipped to make their own judgments the way adults are.
HEFFNER: But aren’t we talking about children? You talk about the media in…
CUOMO: Well, the V-chip, see, the V-chip is an intrusion on children. And requiring television, as we do at the FCC, to have a certain number of programs for children. We do an awful lot in that area in this society which would not be allowed, because of the free speech requirement, if you were talking about anybody other than children.
HEFFNER: Yes, but my note here, “Free speech absolutism.” You’re not really an absolutist of any kind, are you?
CUOMO: Right. There are very few things you can be absolute about. Shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, etcetera. There are limits to most of these things. But when it comes to free speech, I am much more vigorous about preserving free speech than most Democrats. For example, the fairness doctrine I opposed from the beginning.
CUOMO: Because I felt it was an unnecessary, unfair intrusion on electronic communication, something you wouldn’t even imagine doing for print. Imagine telling The New York Times, “You have to publish both sides of the issue.” Or the Baltimore Sun. And the only rationale for it in the beginning was that there were a limited number of airwaves and they belong to the people. Well, that’s like saying there were a limited number of blocks where you could sell newspapers. But that rationale has been dissipated by the proliferation of channels, etcetera. So I see a great similarity now between electronic communication and print communication, and I say the Founding Fathers, if they had anticipated this, would have said, “Not freedom of speech and freedom of press, but freedom of speech and freedom of media.”
HEFFNER: You know, one of your predecessors, Al Smith, governor of New York, he used to talk about what Thomas Jefferson would say today, the Founders. And I can’t believe that you don’t believe that the sense of social cohesiveness, the concern for our children, the concern for the better angels of our nature, wouldn’t have led Jefferson and others, those who wrote our Constitution, before they could dream of the kind of power the media have, that they would have been as opposed to our fairness doctrine.
CUOMO: Oh, sure they would. Sure. You know what they would have said?
CUOMO: My guess. Jefferson would have said, “This is terrible. And we’ve got to have something. We have to include this because they’re being very unfair on the television. They’re killing those Democrats.” Which Jefferson would have been concerned about. “So we have to cure this.” And somebody would say, “Well, how are we going to cure this?” “Well, we’ve got to have the better angels working on this. You know, we’re going to apply the better angels as monitors.” And somebody would say, “Hey, Tom, we don’t have no angels. All we have are human beings who are frail and corruptible.” “Yeah, that’s a good point. So who do we have to do the monitoring in government?” “As a matter of fact, most of the government people are more corruptible than the people they’re governing.” “Yeah, that’s a really good point. Well, let’s put this off until we find some angels. But as soon as we get angels, we’re going to put them in charge of censoring the television.” I’ll settle for that. If that’s Jefferson’s position, it’s mine too. As soon as you come up with the angels, they can be censors.
HEFFNER: It’s interesting to me, you obviously don’t see any clear and present danger posed by the electronic media. And forget whether they’re fair or unfair to the Democrats. I’m talking about our children.
CUOMO: Well, the danger, yes, I do see danger. And I would allow V-chips, and allow things. I would force people to, you know, to put programming on for children. All of those things that are happening I agree with where children are concerned. Because when it comes to free speech, again, they are not in a position to protect themselves.
HEFFNER: But our children are watching all the time, Governor.
HEFFNER: We don’t have, when you and I were kids, Uncle Don did his program, and then we went to bed.
CUOMO: I understand that. And if you look in Chapter Five, I think it is, of the book, you’ll find that I deal with that in another way. I say what we ought to do for the children is acknowledge that this hideous instrument, often hideous instrument, is the most powerful teaching tool you have in this society. It can teach a disgust for sex, or it can teach a desire for violence. And some psychologists say it does that. But it can also teach beautiful things. Therefore, we ought to raise up a large amount of money, we ought to go to the networks, the president and the Congress, “We’re going to buy time. We’re going to buy time to teach the truth about sex, sexual education for kids, about drugs. And we’re going to ask you to volunteer a lot of time too. We’re going to take the partnership for a drug-free America, and instead of showing an ad once every two weeks, those magnificent pieces they do, thereby taking the chance that kids will think it’s trivial, because if they see everything else all the time but see your ad only once every two weeks, they’ll say, ‘That can’t be terribly important.’ And we’re going to put the stuff up on the television, but we’re going to do it in this free system the way you should.”
CUOMO: Voluntarism. Plus, we’re going to pay with taxpayers’ dollars. I’m going to buy $5 billion worth of time. Five billion, $3 billion. So that every kid who’s watching six or seven hours sees that we, we, the people around him, the adults around him, believe he should get this lesson on sex, get this lesson on violence, get this lesson on drugs. That by itself psychologically would be the beginning of infusing values. Because now you’re saying to the kids, “This is so important to us. We see to it that you see it every single day. Not just once every two weeks.” Look, you’re living in a neighborhood, my own neighborhood, South Jamaica. You know the kid is going to be surrounded by all sorts of seductions, to drugs and everything else. Would you settle for a little Post-It Note on the refrigerator once every two weeks that says, “Sweetheart, if they come at you with something that looks like a pipe, don’t smoke it” once every two weeks? Would you settle for that? No, sir, you’d be following her all the time, talking to her all the time. That’s what we should do with television. That’s the way I deal with it.
HEFFNER: It’s a good thing, out of politeness…
CUOMO: But since we have no angels, no monitors.
HEFFNER: It’s a good thing, out of politeness, I don’t have any time left to argue with you. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me again today, Governor Cuomo.
CUOMO: Thank you, Dick. Thanks.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $4 in check or money order.
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.