Mario Cuomo

More on the Principles of Governance

VTR Date: March 12, 2003

Guest: Cuomo, Mario


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Governor Mario Cuomo
Title: More On The Principles of Governance
VTR: 3/12/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host here on The Open Mind. And I’m delighted to note that with some initial foundation support, though needing much more to be sure, and in cooperation with Teachers College at Columbia University, the first few steps have now been taken to develop an Open Mind Historical Archive Website that someday will enable historians, researchers, journalists, students and teachers, as well as other interested citizens to download in video, audio or print formats many of the near 1,500 broadcast discussions I’ve conducted here and elsewhere over the past half century, with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Sydney Hook, Margaret Mead, Father John LaFarge, Malcolm X and many, many others, of course.

Of course, while getting this Open Mind Historical Website launched, I’ve time and again been asked who my favorite guests have been over the years, and which were my favorite programs. And each time, in one way or another I always come back to today’s guest, who has joined me on the air so many times. First, and even he may have forgotten this … when he was one of many would-be Democratic candidates for Mayor of the City of New York back in 1977. And then, when I could so often simply introduce him as “Mario Cuomo, Governor of the State of New York” and when, to be sure, like many others, I hoped out loud that he would run for President of the United States.

Well, now, the other day, looking to choose the best of the best for my website as well as for Conversations About America: As They Saw It, a book derived from these broadcasts over many years, I came upon Governor Cuomo’s insistence in his very first Inaugural Address that “survival of the fittest may be a good working description of the process of evolution. But a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order, one which tries to fill the cruel gaps left by chance or by a wisdom we don’t understand.”

And I wondered just how far removed my guest believes that faith is from the ideals expressed and practiced by America’s contemporary political leadership. That’s not an unfair question, is it, Governor?

Cuomo: It’s a, it’s an interesting question. And an intriguing question. I think it’s a perfectly valid question. But that doesn’t make it any easier to answer. [Laughter]

Heffner: Well, what is your answer?

Cuomo: The … I think probably you; you couldn’t get away with that language as easily today as I did when I gave it. Nobody thought that that was an astonishing thing to say politically in 1983, my Inaugural, my First Inaugural as Governor. I think they’d be surprised by it now. It would be considered too liberal, too pretentiously lofty. Not practical enough. We have to remember this is an era when the great President Clinton, great in that he was only the second in fifty years to be able to win, as a Democrat, a second term. And left us with the biggest surplus and the most fantastic economic growth in our history, and therefore should be a great Democrat. He said, in the midst of his eight years, “the era of big government is over”.

Which, if you think about it, the government in this country is Medicaid, Medicare, public education, a highway program, space program, Social Security. And to say the era of big government is over is, is really to say we oughtn’t to aspire too much to a government that will do big things for people.

Now, he had a great Presidency and I nominated him and supported him the second time and I think of him as being a friend. My son worked for him. And so, I think he is praiseworthy. But in answer to the question, “how does governance feel” in terms of the degree of ambition it brings to its mission as governance. What’s become popular over the last twenty or thirty years is the less government, the better.

In Reagan’s years government is evil. Goldwater said it, and it was incredible. Reagan made it credible. And it’s still persists as a very strong characteristic of our politics.

Heffner: Your dominant?

Cuomo: Even today.

Heffner: The dominant note?

Cuomo: It is probably rhetorically very close to being the dominant note. If you were to put side by side the statement “I think government is designed to meet, or should be designed to meet the failings of the market system, which are many and grievous, by interventions that call upon us to share our strength for the sake of our weakness in order to make us all more productive” and put that next to, you know … “the less government the better” and then quote Jefferson, the less government the better would win. If you said “the less government the better” and quoted George Bush, it would be a tie. [Laughter] But if you quote Jefferson, which you could, it would win. So I think … yeah … I think the dominant strain in our Federal government now is the less government the better. Now that leaves out, of course, things like war.

Heffner: You know, when you said George Bush … it would be different … in his … I was going to say election … and I don’t really mean that … when he became President, more than half of those who voted were voting in a different direction. And I wondered at that time … I thought of what you had said to me on this program long after that first Inaugural Address of yours … times have changed … and you didn’t run for President of the United States. I thought of that and I wondered whether the election of 2000 was in a sense a revolution of 1800 all over again; that the majority of those who voted, opted for big government. That era wasn’t over.

Cuomo: I wish they had opted for … first of all, it’s obviously absolutely obviously correct that more people voted for Al Gore than voted for George Bush. And so that George Bush can be said to have lost the argument with respect to what he would do for government.

Heffner: And I’m thinking of Nader, too. Put them all together.

Cuomo: Yeah. Well, if you add Nader’s two million or so votes to Gore’s then it’s even more distinctly a victory for Gore. And, and to go further I think you could fairly say that Al Gore himself would say he did not run the good race he was capable of running. So he wasn’t at his best, and still he won. Well, if he wasn’t at his best and still he … he got a lot of negative press all through the campaign, because the press seemed to enjoy making fun of him for one reason or another … this changing personalities … he’s not sure of what he was.

Take all of those negatives, and then look at the fact that he got more votes than Bush and you have to conclude, but what could it have been, other than his positions? And his positions, especially near the end of the campaign were the heavy corporate interests against the rest of us. And he won, I think, largely because of that. And also because there was a serious question about President Bush … then Governor Bush’s capacity. Most people didn’t think he was a smart as Gore; most people didn’t think that the Texas experience was the best way to get ready for being the leading executive in the world, in terms of political power.

I say you put that all together. But I don’t think it was specifically a, an endorsement of the notion that well now, government can take care of our big problems.

Look, Richard, let’s be very practical about it. What are the big problems? Right now in this country, you have … not 41 million, closer now to 48 million people, not old enough for Medicare, not poor enough for Medicaid and not lucky enough to have a health insurance policy. That means in a country where the average wage is $41,000 … average wage $41,000 … a hundred and fifty million voters … only one out of five high skilled …you… in that group you have millions and millions and millions of people without a health insurance policy.

That means if it’s a breast cancer and you’re 28 years old and you’re a secretary, but a temporary and your employer doesn’t have a policy, and you only make 22, 23 thousand, 25 thousand dollars and you happen to have two very young children … you can’t afford a health insurance policy. You get breast cancer, you’ll get the care, but you’ll be bankrupted. And you’ll probably limit severely your future capacity to help your children. How do you explain that at the same time that you have more millionaires, more billionaires than ever in our history … the gap between the top tier and the rest of the country has grown wider and wider and everybody knows it.

You didn’t need Kevin Phillips’ new book to tell you about wealth and democracy … everybody knows it, everybody lives it. Most of the workers, the 120, 130 million who are not high skilled. They’re sliding downward even if they have a job and now close to 9 million don’t have jobs, if they have a job, their income will go up, what a point a year … if they’re lucky. Airline attendants don’t get raises for the most part. They’re, they’re hoping for bonuses in an industry that’s failing in large part. And the cost of everything they need … education, even CUNY, even SUNY … education becomes more expensive by more than a point a year.

Healthcare, 7/8% growth in the cost healthcare and so on and so forth. So you have huge problems, and I’ve only mentioned one small one … you have 34 million poor people in the richest country in the world.

16 million people, according to President Clinton and Colin Powell … a few years ago … 16 million of them children at risk. At risk of what? At risk of abuse. At risk of being raised without an education. At risk of living in a ghetto where they’re emptied out into the street at the age of 2 and a half and surrounded by pimps, prostitutes, become familiar with the sound of guns and gunfire before they’ve ever heard an orchestra play. Wow. How did that …

And then you have the biggest surplus in world history; the biggest tax cut in American history; and now we’re being told that notwithstanding there’s a huge war coming … you can afford still another very large tax cut. Not for those workers, not for the people who are suffering, but for me and my clients.

Heffner: All right, you’ve got to now explain … I mean why that picture doesn’t prevail?

Cuomo: Well, the facts prevailed; they’re in the World Almanac …

Heffner: I’m …

Cuomo: … and nobody …

Heffner: … I’m not challenging you …

Cuomo: Yeah, there’s nobody who would argue with the facts. And that makes it all sad and nobody’s going to say, “Oh, no, that’s not right, Mario. Everything’s in great shape.” It’s not.

But what has happened since Reagan, I think, and a little bit in the Carter years …the ineffectuality of government in the Carter years. Not Jimmy Carter’s fault … another favorite of mine …but the insurance, interest rates, the inflation rate gets into the double digits; the hostages are grabbed and we can’t get them back. Ineffectuality, malaise becomes the characteristic of the time.

Reagan, bright, new. Heroic-type gives you a simple formula …he says, “Look, here is the solution to all your problems … a tax cut for everybody. Everybody’s going to pay less (especially the rich people, but he left that out). Everybody’s going to pay less. We’re going to pile our missiles so high the Soviets are going to surrender. More money for the military. And the budget will be balanced in three years by the magic of ‘supply-side’. You won’t need more government. I’m going to give you less government and you’re going to make more money and it’s going to produce more in revenues, even at the lower tax rate.”

It was a fantasy. It was what the current President Bush’s father called “economic voodoo”. And he ran with Reagan, after having called it “economic …” and he was right. And it happened; these tax cuts. And it happened, this defense budget. And it might even have had something to do with the Soviets collapsing, but I don’t think so. What killed the Soviet Union was the economy, not a fear of your missiles. It happened and left us with the largest debt and deficit in our history. But the public never realized that. And they still don’t. Because now President Bush comes to you in the year 2000 and does exactly the same thing. Only now he has the benefit of a huge surplus that Clinton left us with. And he says, “Now I’m going to give you a huge tax cut because we don’t need the money.” Comes up with a big tax cut … two years later we now have the largest debt … larger than the Reagan debt … the largest deficits … larger than the Reagan deficits. And what is the country’s response to that? President comes forward and says, “Now I’m going to give you still another tax cut.” $640 billion dollars … 40% of which is going to go to the richest people in America. What does the country say? “Okay.”

Why? Because somehow our consciousness has been paralyzed. Somehow we were mesmerized into believing … in the eighties … that any tax cut is good for you. That the less government you have, the better. Until you get to a war. Then everybody understands the value of the biggest bomb in world history. And they’ll spend money on it. That’s the survival instinct at work.

So everybody recognizes the facts I gave you. Everybody, given the facts, will refuse to even attempt to dispute the reality of our failure …

Heffner: But …

Cuomo: …But they will also say the government doesn’t work to cure it. That’s what Reagan convinced them of and nobody has unconvinced them of it. And in the middle of the Clinton years … just before we go to the big surplus … even Clinton said, “the era of big government is over.” That’s why I think that is such an important statement. See, the one opportunity we would have had to say, “no, it will work” … it gave us the surplus. You know, I did all these good government things and we wound up with a big surplus. He gave you big tax cuts and he wound up with a big debt and deficit.

This would have been the great opportunity to verify the principle that intelligent governments can make this a better society. But right now there’s still a negative on government, except for wars

Heffner: You know, you make such a persuasive case that I … it occurs to me to ask the question that I asked you before … why didn’t you run for President?

Cuomo: [Laughter] Well, the, the … you know, I’ve been asked that question …

Heffner: Are you at a loss for words?

Cuomo: I am. Only because I’ve been asked the question so much and I’m looking for another way to answer it. Other than the way that people have found unsatisfactory for so many years.

The … it came up in ’84, believe it or not. I gave a speech at a convention in ’84 and people starting saying “you should run for President”. Which … and I said, “This is ridiculous, you know. I’ve been a Governor for one year. I could be the dumbest Governor in American history and you wouldn’t know it.” So forget about one speech {and that was the speech at a convention in San Francisco in ’84) so, so that … I just laughed off. I was there for Mondale. Then came ’88 and people put my name in a poll and it happened to do well in a Democratic poll, and they say, “well, now you should run.” Mike Dukakis called me up, came over to see me from Boston to Albany. Said, he’d like to run, what did I think? I said, “Look, if you want to run for President, Mike, I wouldn’t think of opposing you.” He said, “Why not?” I mean he was humble enough to ask …

Heffner: What was your answer?

Cuomo: Well, it was easy. I said, “Look, you’ve been a Governor longer than I. You have going for you the Massachusetts miracle.” Remember that expression?

Heffner: MmmmHmmm.

Cuomo: “Everything’s going well in Massachusetts. You did that after the, the Reagan tax cuts. That’s quite an accomplishment. You’re the head of the National Governor’s Association. You’ve been a politician longer than I. You’re a better politician than I am. And we obviously can’t have two Mediterranean Northeastern Governors (laughter) running in this race, so you want to run? That’s it. Forget about me. I will not run.” I said, “I can’t promise you that I’ll support you, because you’ll have other candidates. But, I’ll certainly …” I wound up supporting him, but only after the primary. And so that took care of ’88.

So all that was left that was realistic was 1992. And in 1991 … in ’90 my son Andrew said, “don’t run for a third term. You’ve had eight great years. There’s a recession hitting us, (which it did in New York). The next four years are going to be terrible and if you’re around here that will be the end of you because people will forget the first eight years and remember the next three”, which was prophetic. “So, let’s run for President.” And I said, “I can’t do that.” I said, “I have had eight good years. But now I know the game and you’re right. New York’s going to have a lot of problems. But then I should stay here and help with the problems.” It’s a heck of a thing to say, “we’ve had eight good years, but now we’re going to have real trouble and that’s a bad time to be in office, (ask Mayor Bloomberg. Ask Governor Pataki) … terrible time to be in office when you have trouble, and, and so I’ll avoid it.” I said, “I don’t think that’s right.”

So I stayed. But because I stayed, I had a tremendous budget problem. In 1991 I did say, after looking for sixty days at the request of some people at the governorship … at the Presidency, I will run if the Republicans in this state will help me by making a budget. Why should they help me? Because they believe I’ll be very easy to beat. Robert Novak has written “there are no Mario’s down South. So he has no chance.” Robert Novak, who himself is a Ukranian immigrant’s son. He says, “There are no Mario’s down south.” And so I said, “They think I’m easy to beat. They control one House in New York. Let them make a budget …” I said this at a press conference … “I will start running in New Hampshire”. That was the deadline date … New Hampshire.

Heffner: Oh, I remember.

Cuomo: I asked them until the very last day, that morning I discussed with Ralph Merino, the leader of the Senate, may he rest in peace, he’s passed away since. I said, “Ralph, we’re, we’re separated by $250 million dollars they tell me in the negotiations over the budget. You can have the $250 million dollars … I’ll work that out. Let’s, let’s make a budget. And I’ll run for President. You can’t lose. If I win you have a President in the White House from New York. If I lose, I’m finished as Governor.” And he said, “No. We can’t do it.” And that was … he says, “as a matter of fact, we’re not going to make a budget until after the primaries are over.” And the last primary, I think, was June.

Heffner: You know, because there are those …

Cuomo: Isn’t that a boring explanation? That’s why I hesitate to give it.

Heffner: No. I don’t think you should be hesitant to give it. I want to know, why you didn’t run for President.

Cuomo: That was the reason. You couldn’t do it. Listen, Richard, if you tried running without a budget, The New York Times would have done a headline “Cuomo’s in New Hampshire. Cuomo’s in Illinois. The State’s going down the tubes. We don’t have a budget … in those years you couldn’t run the state without a budget. You had to have a Spring borrowing to give money to the schools. I took care of that by getting rid of the Spring borrowing. But at that point you couldn’t manage the state without a budget. And the problem of the nation was the economy. To be going around the country saying, “I’m going to repair your economy… this is what we have to do … at the same time that your own state was going down the tubes because you didn’t have a budget and there was chaos because your Legislature wasn’t agreeing. Don’t you remember Pete Wilson went through that for a while.

Heffner: Aha.

Cuomo: You, you just can’t leave the State to do it.

Heffner: You know, when people have said to me, “Why do you think Mario Cuomo didn’t run, my answer has been “that he doesn’t tolerate fools easily and he was afraid of what he would do in terms of the press, in terms of the constant, constant irrationality of that process of running for office.” And I still think …

Cuomo: [Laughter]

Heffner: … that you’re too damn rational.

Cuomo: Well, I … you know, I wish I could say, “Yeah, that … you’re right.” I wish I could tell you very modestly you’re right … that’s what it really was. But it wasn’t. Because look…I ran and won three times in New York. The New York Press Corps is about as tough a challenge as you can find anywhere. Believe me … it really is … and I love them. I, I think in the end they were better to me than I was to them. And I was often provoked by them. To … and had a lot of fights. Ask Fred Dicker of the New York Post. And got slammed by them repeatedly. That wasn’t a problem. I wasn’t worried about … I had, had no, no concern about the press.

I, I will tell you … I was prepared, as I’ve told you now, to go to forward and said so publicly. But I was always very reluctant about the Presidency. And I’ll tell you why. And, and this, this surprises me that people think this is strange. Ask Abe Rosenthal, great man … he was publisher of … he was Editor of the … Senior Editor of The New York Times. And we’re sitting around a table at The New York Times in an Editorial Board meeting and it was in the midst of one of these times when they were saying “You should run for President, etc.”. Abe looked at me and he says, “You know, Mario, (I guess he called me Governor at the time) … he says, “You know I don’t think you have the fire in the belly to be President.” I said, “Abe, you think you need fire in the belly to be President. Show me a candidate with fire in the belly, I’ll spritz his mouth with seltzer.” I said, you know, that’s the last thing ;you should have … is fire in the belly because you want to be President. You should want to be President, not because you have an avidity for it; or a massive egotistical desire for it. But because you’re absolutely convinced that of all those choices out there, you’re the superior choice. You’re going to be the leader, not just of the United States of America, but of the world. In a very practical way.” And when was it ever clearer than it is today … with … maybe with Roosevelt, but with, with President Bush and what he’s facing. And for you to tell me you want somebody who is so driven for the desire for it that he will brook no obstacles …That’s exactly the wrong person.

Heffner: Okay.

Cuomo: Show me somebody who’s thought about it, who’s said, “Hey look, I’ve looked around and I’m better than he is, I’m better than she is; and practically I have the best chance to make it and be the best Governor, or (it was true also of my Governorship) or President in this group.

Heffner: Okay.

Cuomo: In the governship, incidentally, in 1982, before I decided to run against Ed Koch, I said, “if Paul Curran is the Republican candidate, I will not run for Governor, because I think he’d make a better Governor than I.”

Heffner: We have two minutes left, and I’m going to take what you’ve just been saying and ask you who fills the bill for the Democrats for the next election, the next Presidential election?

Cuomo: Well, nobody yet, in my judgment. No one I’ve seen yet is a clear choice for me. I’ve met and I know a lot of them. I spoke to Bob Graham most recently and people haven’t even heard from Senator Graham yet. They will. He was a Governor when I was a Governor … and got to know him as a Governor … excellent Governor. He’s a Senator on the Intelligence Committee … voted against the resolution to give President Bush the authority to go forward with the war. Is very, very strong on the terrorism issue. Is from the South. Is intelligent. He has a lot of makings. So does Kerry. So does Joe Lieberman. Most obviously, he’s shown you what he has as a candidate for the Vice Presidency.

Heffner: You’re not leaning in any direction?

Cuomo: No, no, no, no. There are some I’m leaning against. But there’s no point in naming them. And the basic reason …

Heffner: In 30 seconds.

Cuomo: The basic reason for not being able to mention a candidate now is, Richard, they haven’t given us their positions yet. They’re running as the “non-Bush”. You can’t win as “the non-Bush”. You can’t win by hoping that he’ll make a mistake along the way. What would you do about the war? What would you do about terrorism? Why aren’t you against those huge tax cuts? Why don’t you say, instead of a tax cut for the richest 1% of the taxpayers, you’ll give it to those one hundred forty million workers. Give it to the states and local governments with deficits. Say something that earns you the right on the rational of a President.

Heffner: They’re telling me to say “good-bye” and thank you for joining me today, Mario Cuomo.

Cuomo: Thank you.

Heffner: I’m still going to nominate you for President.

Cuomo: [Laughter] Thank you, Richard.

Heffner: 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.