Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo on the Death Penalty… and More

VTR Date: November 26, 2011

Richard Heffner speaks with three-time Governor Mario Cuomo about capital punishment.


GUEST: Mario Cuomo
AIR DATE: 11/26/2011
VTR: 10/12/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I speak the truth — the whole truth and nothing but the truth –when I note that it is always today’s guest whose name comes to mind – and tongue – when asked, as I so frequently am, just who, over this past half century and more, has been my favorite Open Mind fellow conversationalist.

The three-time Governor of New York, of course, Mario Cuomo … also identified these days as father of the present Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.

And I’m quite fascinated – as I look over transcripts of the 14 other times we’ve talked together at this table – just how often our conversations have focused on moral issues, on the values that have guided what we’ve several times called my guest’s “governing principles”…or, perhaps more generically, the “proper principles of governance”.

What brings Governor Cuomo back here today, of course, is the urgency of his recent New York Daily News column insisting that the “Death penalty is dead wrong: it’s time to outlaw capital punishment in America – completely!”

But I would ask my guest just why now … is our national blood lust any less now than before? Why now, Governor?

CUOMO: Well, you, you asked a really charged question with how you finished that sentence. And you said, “blood lust”. Now, the truth is that one of the things that troubles me about this greatest of nations, and it is that, and I know it as well as anybody because I was … I have been one of the lucky sons of immigrants, etc., etc. And it is a marvelous place and there’s never been anything this good.

On the other hand, we’ve had a couple of very strong weaknesses, I think. One of them is a passion for violence. We were born in violence. The first people who came before there was a United States of America took the place with violence, using weapons against the people who lived here. We took the land away from the Indians with violence.

We, we’ve cherished the gun for all these years … the Wild West … we love to read books about it, we love to watch movies about it. The Wild West. And, and where the gun was the rule.

Violence in all sorts of forms appeal to us. We have always liked the boxing matches, but most people did. But the part of the boxing match that you loved the most if you’re an American is when the other guy gets knocked out. Some of them die. Some of them get hit and are just unconscious for a few minutes, with people cheering the winner.

And now the State of New York and other places have advanced the level of ugliness and violence by saying, “No, we’ve got tougher than that, smaller gloves, ones that don’t give as much protection when you hit somebody square on the chin”. And, and that general thesis … the … you know one of the most troublesome issues I’ve had to live with and all Americans have had to live with and still something you dare not argue is the invention of the atom bomb.

It wasn’t the Germans that invented it. It wasn’t the Japanese that invented it. We invented it and used it on over 200,000 innocent people, deliberately … innocent people and not military. Because we were trying to make a point. That you should end this war with us before we have to invade you, we don’t want to pay the price of that invasion and so please go tell you Emperor that you should end this war. And to make sure of that, we’re going to do this again tomorrow”. And then we did it a second time.

Now, has there ever been anything like that in world history? 200,000 or more people in a day, all of them innocent, none of them military.

Can you make the case for it? Well, yes, we saved … it’s conjectured, 55 million or 55 thousand military jobs … people. So, that’s a basic problem. Is our, our compatibility with the world of violence and even our enjoying parts of it.

The death penalty … the death penalty is something that, that encourages that kind of feeling.

There is no, no intelligent reason for the death penalty. It does not deter crimes. That’s been proven over and over.

It is not even a good vengeance producer because the only, the only reason you can ascribe once you concede that it doesn’t deter criminals and it doesn’t deter them … some psychiatrists say it provokes some of them into creating murders … and so, so what then … why do you do it?

Well, it’s the Bible … an eye for an eye … a tooth for a tooth. It’s, it’s the old idea of getting even … it’s vengeance, it’s revenge … it’s all of those things. But it’s not intelligence and it doesn’t deter and it doesn’t help and it’s never saved a life, but it has taken innocent lives over and over.

And so, you put that all together, all of my feeling about violence and the abiding violence in this country and the realities of the death penalty. Does nothing good.

That’s why all of Europe has, has done without it. That’s why most of the world … though there are places in the East do without it … and indeed, if you travel in Europe … more than once I’ve been asked “Why is it that your country insists on the death penalty?”

Now there’s a whole other case to be argued about military death penalties and what you do with people who, who violate the first principle of being good to your nation and who are trying to hurt the nation … but that’s, that’s it.

Basically, my feeling on the death penalty is there’s no good reason for it and there’s a good reason to get rid of it. If you wanted really to punish murderers and to deter them … tell them they’re going to be locked up for life with no chance for parole under any circumstances … for life … and live for as long as they can behind bars. And what that would mean in a state like this one is … you’d be allowed in the outdoors … in a kind of cage … but it’s outdoors … with maybe a basketball stanchion to play with. No friends, no conversations with the guards, no conversations with other prisoners … you try that for a lifetime.

You know, let, let me, let me finish with this … I lost in 1994 … in part because of the death penalty. And it … near the very end of the campaign it developed that there was a person in prison here for a murder in Staten Island. And we had him in prison for life. But he had also committed a crime in Oklahoma … murder.

The Republican candidate who ran against me was smart enough to call the Republican governor of Oklahoma and say “You know, Cuomo’s got a guy in his prison who committed a murder here … why don’t you tell him to send the guy to you … so you can execute him and that would save the people of New York a lot of money.” Very smart move.

HEFFNER: Politically.

CUOMO: Yes, politically. And a popular move. And so I was besieged with people who said, “Great idea”. And what I said instead was to call the Oklahoma governor and say, “I will send him back to you when he finishes serving his time here.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

CUOMO: He didn’t laugh. You know, he said, “Well, that’s a cheap evasion, etc., etc.” I said, “Well, that’s … but that’s my position”.

Now here’s what happened. I did not send him back. He was in prison on the say I lost the election. And the new fellow took over … George Pataki … a good man, a good friend, incidentally, and took over and instantly said that the death penalty was back, as far as he was concerned and he was sending this man to Oklahoma to be disposed of.

And he did. But before the guy was executed in Oklahoma, he wrote a little note that was published in The New York Post … and it said, “Tell Cuomo I’d rather be killed in, in Oklahoma than have to live a life behind bars”. And he was only doing 35 years.

And that’s the general feeling. They don’t want to … I did three murder cases as a young lawyer and in all three cases I, I had commutations away from the death penalty. That was my first involvement with the death penalty all those years ago.

But, the … it doesn’t deter. It does no good. It kills innocent people … 23 … we were said to have lead the nation in killing innocent people.

And now with the DNA, it gets revealed almost every day somewhere that if only you had had DNA … that person would not have been found guilty.

HEFFNER: Governor, I have a question, though, that I have to put to you. In terms of the current political climate, situation, do you think there’s a chance in the hell that is capital punishment that it will be abolished?

CUOMO: I think … I think … what you’re, you’re doing is, is saying in, in … in another way “We love the death penalty”. And I think you’re right and I think that’s part of why I’m so strongly against it. I don’t think that’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s a good quality to have. And what else do you feel as an American … “oh, I think the people who commit murder should be, should be killed. Well, don’t they make mistakes once in a while? Well, yeah, but very few.”

So, no I don’t think there’s much of a chance and, and New York went back to it. Now, New York is not having any of it practically because the courts of New York have figured out clever ways (laugh) to avoid it, frankly. But it’s still on the books in New York.

HEFFNER: Do you think, as I mentioned the present political climate … do you think there are any indications at all that we are becoming a kinder, gentler people?

You’ve always at this table talked about governing principles, you’ve talked about moral principles. Do you see anything in the present political scene … forget capital punishment for a moment if we must … anything at all that would indicate that the better angels are prevailing?

CUOMO: Certainly not at the moment. I think at the moment, you know, without getting into the really deep and complicated, nearly theological arguments … but just basically, we now have more poor people than we had 15, 20 years ago.

We now have a middle class that’s weak and falling backwards. We now have more rich people, by far, than we ever had before … millionaires, billionaires … that’s good, that’s wonderful … I hope New York State can get more billionaires and millionaires.

Because if they’re making that much money that means somebody’s working somewhere to earn it, so that they can have it. But, as a fairness, as a question of fairness we are not … and I don’t think in the minds of most Americans … fairer to people than we were.

You notice that nobody’s even mentioned the poor people on the Republican side or the Democratic side in any significant way … already we’re, we’re deeply into the race … the Republicans are arguing, the Democrats are beginning to argue with themselves a little bit, too.

But you’re not going to hear anybody say, “Let’s take care of those poor people.” They should be the first thing we take care of … is the people who can’t take care of themselves. And then the next thing should be the middle class … the people who … what’s my definition of middle class?

Well, it’s not so much a matter of numbers … because $250,000 … if you live in Manhattan and have three kids … forget about it (laugh) you, you, you can’t be rich with $250,000.

But if you lived in some other states, maybe down South or somewhere in the middle of the country, it could mean a lot, a lot of difference.

But you know, we, we are not doing well. We have people out of work who desperately need work. So, no, we’re not being fair to the underclass at all. And we should be. They’re the ones that need us most.

Lincoln … well, how, how do you get there? Well, we’ve contrived so many excuses for why we can’t be there, why it has to be the way it is. The notion that if you ask the super rich people to give more money, it’s class warfare.

The best answer to that is by the richest people I know, who exist in this country … Gates … people like John Whitehead who ran Goldman Sachs, who was Deputy Secretary of the State in the years of Bush’s Presidency … the first Bush … and, and what, what do they say on the issue?

Whitehead sent his Social Security check back and said, “Why are you sending me a Social Security check? And they said, Well, you earned it through the process. He says, but I don’t need it, so keep it and give it to somebody that needs it.”

Gates did something even more significant. Buffet recently has done something. But Gates did it on a bigger scale. Mr. Gates, not the son, but Mr. Gates himself went before the Senate Committee on the question of taxes at death … the so-called death tax … and the argument from Republicans and, and others was that “Well you shouldn’t have to pay any tax on the wealth you leave behind, the $50 million or the $100 million dollars you leave behind for your family … you shouldn’t have to pay because you paid for that already.”

And he said it’s an outrage to say that we shouldn’t pay that tax on our death. We wouldn’t be rich if it weren’t for the United States of America, for the military that keeps us safe, for the, for the government that keeps us in business as an economy. Only, only because we’re here in America can we be as rich as we are. And get there the way we have by, you know, not having special friends, or special insights, but by working hard and being smart and being lucky.

And so, no, I don’t think at this point we can stand up and shout out to the rest of the world “Come here, we’re the best place for you.” Well, maybe we’re, we’re better than most of the rest of the world …

HEFFNER: You say, “shout out” …

CUOMO: Well, we’re not … we’re not nearly as good as we could be and that should be the test.

HEFFNER: You say, “shout out” … and I’ve been wondering and wanted to ask you … why don’t we hear more poor people shouting out? Why is it that at this time when you say neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to be talking about poor people, they seem to be talking much more about balanced budgets and our deficit … why haven’t we heard more from those who have been deprived or those who are deprived? Is the social security, the social net … is our … are our protection so well in place that they don’t feel what’s going on?

CUOMO: No, they … I, I think the truth is for the millions of people, the many millions of people who are really poor … for even most of the millions of people in the middle class who are scared to death …


CUOMO: … they don’t see any point in it. Whom are they going to shout out to? Whom are they going to speak to? Hmm, who is it that will save them? The Democratic Party has been weakened a bit … we don’t make that case because politically, that’s not the best argument to make … the best argument to make is, is middle class, not, not poor people.

So, the, the reason they don’t do it is, is largely political. See, politics is another problem we have. A really bad problem and one that’s going to be difficult to solve if, if ever we can solve it.

Why? Because it depends on money. You know, our desire for money and our use of money and our, our feeling about the death penalty are two of my favorite (laugh) subjects because they’re two of the things that trouble me the most.

People buy influence by giving a lot of money to candidates. Now sometimes the candidates they give the money to are very good people and it’s a good, it’s a good (laugh) deal, you buy yourself a really good person.

But a lot of times you buy yourself a person who is pretty good, but also has a prior commitment to you and your group, whatever it is … and if it happens to be part of a group that is very wealthy and fights against taxing their wealth, and they win … and usually if they get enough money they will win … if it’s, if it’s a group like that, you’re going to make sure that you never disappoint them by starting to tax them.

We have now a situation in this country where, as you know, there was a promise made by a lot of the people who were elected that says, “We will never tax you”. What? Yeah, we won’t tax you … we won’t raise your taxes … Ever … we’ll never do it.

But … how can you honorably make that pledge. What if the country really needs it? What if the country, God forbid, has another war? What if the country has a disaster economically and gets wiped out. What if it has another Depression.

I did four hours of … on the History show on the Depression … some years ago … maybe 1999, 2000 and somebody sent me a copy of it. And I played the four nights and on the last night (laugh) I said you know, it was horrible and it really was horrible in a lot of ways.

I said, “But it could happen again”. And what if that happened? What would you do with your promise. Would you say, “Oh, gee, sorry … I, I know it would be good if we could get some money from you, but I made a promise that we’re not going to be able to tax …

HEFFNER: But, Governor, I’m still puzzled as to why … you talk about the deep recession, you barely remember it, you were a kid … I wasn’t. I lived through that, I saw my father out of work for six years. I know what happened to our family. Why aren’t people at the barricades now? How do we explain that? Is one explanation it’s not as bad as we, weepy Liberals say?

CUOMO: No, I think maybe, maybe … just maybe the … part of the explanation is they are at the barricades, or at least they have been there recently and they came from no where … no organization … it wasn’t …

HEFFNER: You’re talking about the young people down on Wall Street?

CUOMO: Yes … oh, it wasn’t just young people … a handful of young people having a happy time doing it. It wasn’t that at all. And it lasted for some time and it lasted without the support of the parties. I mean a lot of Democrats started going when they saw it was being effective perhaps, they would show up. But it wasn’t done with the major impetus coming from the … it was these people who didn’t have a job, who couldn’t … who were fired from work … it’s these students who work very, very hard … and some of them graduating with honors, only to discover that they couldn’t get into law school … and if they got into law school and got out … they couldn’t get a job. They thought it was going to be easy. Now some people are thinking of suing the law schools because it’s not so easy to get a job. Those who are the people who are complaining … they are … the middle class is complaining … you’ll see it in the votes. The votes that took away the Democratic majority in the House. They were the votes of people who were frightened at what was happening and they changed their votes from the Democrats to the Republicans because they wanted something different, because they thought it was going to be better.

HEFFNER: Is this political prophesy? We’re sitting here in mid-October, 2011 … we’ve got a way to go before we vote again. Is it a prophesy that they’ll vote their sense of, of being in a double dip recession/depression?

CUOMO: Yes, of course … I think … I really think that almost every voter … almost every voter does exactly that? What does this vote mean to me and my family? If I’m alone, what does it mean to me? If I have a family, then what does it mean to us? Will this vote help me keep my job? Get a job? Be fairly paid? Be taken care of when I’m sick? Yes. I think that’s the way you vote. At the top … is this a vote that will preserve my wealth and my, my chance to keep going the way I’m going now … making millions and millions of dollars a year? Or is this vote going to go to somebody who thinks I don’t have the right to be wealthy?

Yeah, all that thought, it seems to me, is part of the motivation for voting.

HEFFNER: Then in the two minutes we have left, tell me how you think … now in October ’11 … how you think those people are going to vote next November?

CUOMO: It’s, it’s too, too hard to make an intelligent vote … so, instead of a vote, if you don’t mind, I’ll give you an aspiration.

HEFFNER: Please.

CUOMO: That, that Obama will at some point break through and make it clear to the United States of America that what the Republicans are doing is trying to win the Presidency by seeing to it that he fails in his plans to strengthen the nation.

And in the end they are hurting the people of this country in order to be able to say, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you, when we are elected in 2012.

And that, that’s … once the American people conclude that, “Hey, wait a minute, what I want you to do is start helping me right now, not then” … so I think, I think Obama will win by a hair.

HEFFNER: That’s your prediction.

CUOMO: That’s my prediction.

HEFFNER: We end the program with it, Governor, so you’ve got to remember those words.

CUOMO: Okay.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.

CUOMO: Okay.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.

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

And do visit the Open Mind Website at to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s