Mario Cuomo

An American Legacy

VTR Date: December 8, 1994

Guest: Cuomo, Mario


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mario Cuomo
Title: ‘An American Legacy’
VTR: 12/8/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And it was a dozen years ago that my guest today joined me at this table for the first of what became, for me at least, a series of the most intellectually satisfying and exciting discussions I’ve ever enjoyed. Later, he would permit me to include still another magnificent oration, his fabled “A Tale of Two Cities” keynote address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in my “Documentary History of the United States”, setting it there, quite appropriately, amid other American leaders’ seminal words that have made our history, marked the best of our national heritage.

But the first time Mario Cuomo came here to The Open Mind, it was to discuss his intriguingly visionary first inaugural address as governor of the State of New York. Now, however, 12 years later, the people have spoken again, and mustn’t we ask the governor whether his vision for Americans, however compelling, hasn’t simply proven more than we can bear or share with him. And remember that vision, because what the young governor said was, “I believe government’s basic purpose is to allow those blessed with talent to go as far as they can on their own merits. But I believe that government also has an obligation to assist those, who, for whatever inscrutable reason, have been left out by fate: the homeless, the infirm, the destitute. To help provide those necessary things which, through no fault of their own, they cannot provide for themselves. Of course, we should have only,” said the governor, “the government we need, but we must insist on all the government we need. So a technically balanced budget that fails to meet the reasonable needs of the middle class and poor would be the emblem of hypocrisy. It has become popular in some quarters to argue that the principal function of government is to make instruments of war and to clear obstacles from the way of the strong. The rest, it is said, will happen automatically. The cream will rise to the top, whether the cream be well-endowed individuals or fortunate regions of the nation. Survival of the finest,” said the new governor “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 tiles to fill the cruel gaps left by chance or by a wisdom we don’t understand. I would rather have laws written by Rabbi Hillel or Pope John Paul II than by Darwin.”

But, Governor, I wonder whether that thought is really shared by enough of the American people.

CUOMO: Well, there was more than one thought. And I think, if you take the basic idea that this country ought to find a way to give everybody opportunity, and to make a special effort to provide opportunity for those who have, for some reason, been left out by chance and fate, I think that is a proposition we accept. The argument at the moment, I think, is: Is that government’s role? Or should the rest of us do that voluntarily, through the thousand points of light, if you will? I don’t think that a lot of Americans or that most Americans would say, “Hey, look, Governor, God helps those whom God has helped. And if he left you out, who are we to challenge his judgment?” I don’t think that we are a cruel people who believe in dog eat dog. I don’t accept that. What people are saying now is, “Yes, we should take care of one another. We should certainly take care of the mentally ill. A child who is born disabled ought not to be abandoned. A blind senior citizen ought not to be left in the street to find her own way to security. But we don’t think government does it well. We think government is wasting money. So leave it to us to do it privately.” That’s the judgment. I think there aren’t enough lights in the thousand points of light to do the job welt. And I think we have to improve government’s ability to do it. That’s where I stand. But I think most American people would accept the proposition that you are your brother’s keeper.

HEFFNER: You would literally say that? That’s…

CUOMO: Oh, yeah. I believe that.

HEFFNER: That seems so strange to me.

CUOMO: Well, no, no, no. Think about it, Richard. Can you think of anybody in your own experience who you believe would say, “Hey, look, if that woman is sick and needs an operation for ovarian cancer, and her husband wasn’t good enough to get health insurance and wasn’t good enough to hold a lob, and nothing else is available, let her die. That’s the way life is… I don believe Americans feel that way. They would say, “This is an outrage. We had that case this last week. And someone went out and committed a crime to get money for the operation. And all of America said, “No, no, no.” And thousands of people wrote in and said, “We’ll do it. We’ll come forward.” And the Catholic charities come forward, and Jewish philanthropies come forward. This is a very generous nation. This is a nation of volunteers. In New York State you have about 140,000 men and women fighting fires. Only 30,000 of them get paid. All the others leave their places of business; leave their homes to attend to the fire in your house. That’s in New York State. And that’s just one example. So, we are a charitable people. We are a compassionate people. We’re also a very tough and practical people. What’s happened now is people are soured on government. And they say, “Look, let us take care of the poor, because you don’t know how to do it.”

HEFFNER: So that you would maintain that I am and we are our brother’s keeper, and that that philosophy…

CUOMO: Yeah.

HEFFNER: .. .that bit of morality is shared by Americans.

CUOMO: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question about that. I really don’t. Now, of course, an American who is working hard to provide for her own family or his own family is going to be careful in the judgments they make about which people deserve generosity from them. And if they think, for example, that you could be working but you choose not to, well, then they will leave you to freeze in the cold. And one would argue that they could be right. So they’ll be tough in their judgments as to who is deserving of aid, but when you get, for example, to the mentally ill, we raised the largest amount of money in history in my last slate budget, $241 million for the mentally ill. Nobody spoke out against that.

I’ll give you an even better example. My first year was 1983. That was the first year of AIDS in this country. The first year. AIDS didn’t strike until ‘81, ‘82. There was no government program until ‘83, and that was my first year. We also had a huge deficit that year, and I had to raise some fees and had to cut back on a lot of programs. But this state of conservatives, many conservatives, many Republicans, many liberals, but not as many as conservatives and Republicans put together, voted the first AIDS package in the United States. And it was a very generous one. And they didn’t trouble to say, “Well, how it happened.” Remember then they were talking about it as a homosexual disease. And there was a great deal of bigotry even then, as there is now, toward some gay people. But that notwithstanding, the idea that you had this new disease, this terrible plague that none of us understood, and that was killing people, that was enough for New York State to say, “Look, we’ll put up” – I forget what it was, $20 million or whatever it was, but it was an awful lot of money – for that year. And that was another example, I think, of the compassion of the people. They will respond.

HEFFNER: Then you believe that the recent political upheaval was simply a reaction to inefficiency, ineffectiveness in government?

CUOMO: The one thing I’ve learned is that this country is not good at admitting confusion. You know, maybe it’s because we’re so young. We’re only a couple of hundred years old. As an historian, you know how young that is, in a world where civilizations are thousands of years older than we are. And we’re not old enough to understand that a lot of times you don’t know what the situation is. I’m not sure what the people of the United States of America were saying in the last election, except that they are very unhappy generally. And “they,” incidentally, is a small sliver of the population. Thirty-eight percent of the people voted. The difference in the vote was about six percent. So it wasn’t everybody in the United States of America. But even assuming that they spoke for everyone in the United States of America, what seemed to me was that, yes, they were unhappy, and so they threw out a lot of incumbents, especially a mega-incumbent like Mario Cuomo. I mean, I was an incumbent-squared. You know. So I obviously, I lost too. And that was clear, that they wanted something else. It was generally clear that most people — not everyone — but most people felt that we lacked the efficacy in government that government should be capable of. That’s true. But when you start getting exquisite about the judgments… They want term limitations? Well, they say so in a poll. They want to cut off welfare people after two years? I don’t believe that. And I believe that’s too exquisite a conclusion to get from this general unhappiness. And I would concede that there’s a murkiness there that we can’t see through. We don’t know exactly what the causes of the unhappiness are.

HEFFNER: Why then, not being able to see through, why do you come down consistently on the part of we do accept the notion of being our brother’s keeper?

CUOMO: Well, because we have to make judgments on the evidence that we have. I can’t see exactly what they’re saying, and so I have to make my own best judgment from the evidence I have available to me from the people around me. it’s not just the election that instructs you; it’s your everyday association with citizens in this state and in this country. And I make a judgment on the basis of that. What other evidence do we have? The polls? Do you really think that the polls tell you what Americans feel? You don’t know who takes the polls. You don’t know who gives the answers. You don’t know the conditions under which they give them. You don’t know what they say when they give those answers. You don’t know how well they understood the question. You don’t know what evidence they relied upon. You don’t know what they would say if they had been instructed for an hour by both sides with some of the evidence. Do you really think that’s the best… That is what some of these radical right people are doing. I daresay some Democrats do it as well. What I hear from Newt Gingrich and from his people is: the gathering up of the ten most popular complaints. They took polls, and they refer to them all of the time. If you notice, if you push Newt Gingrich enough in an argument, his bottom line always is, ‘You just don’t get it. Eighty-one percent said this, 79 percent said that.” Always it’s the poll. So they took the ten most popular grievances, the ten most popular home remedies – cut off the welfare — and they made an agenda out of it. They selected nothing that was politically ambiguous or inconvenient, no matter how important to the American people it is. For example: they didn’t say anything about infrastructure. Roads and bridges from one part of this country to the other are in desperate condition, 40 percent of them need repairs. Bridges. Forty percent of the roads were described as “almost intolerable” – a poor word, but that was the word used by the congressional committee. They don’t even mention it. They don’t mention health care. They don’t really mention how you’re going to create jobs. What you’re going to do about this corporate downsizing that’s puffing so many people out of work. They don’t mention the environment in any substantial way. I don’t regard that as an accurate description of our condition.

Let me offer you something else. I’d like your opinion on this. I think you’d have to concede that they’re putting very heavy emphasis on the polls. Why don’t we have a new national poll. For example, ask the American people this question: Do you think we should order Congress to spend less time in Washington and immediately cut all their salaries in half? What do you think the answer would be?

HEFFNER: You know perfectly well it would be, “Of course.”

CUOMO: Of course. Well, then why, if that’s true – and I can do that 50 different times – do you think there should be a capital gains tax cut, 70 percent of the immediate benefit going to people who make more than $100,000? What would the answer be?

HEFFNER: Of course not.

CUOMO: And you would go on and on with this. Would Newt Gingrich then stand up and say here, “The people have spoken. You don’t get it.” Do you think that the American people would answer this question yes or no: Government ought not to regulate the private sexual activity of consenting adults?

HEFFNER: You ask that question that way. Of course, the answer is no. But…

CUOMO: Exactly. Yeah.

HEFFNER: . . .Newt Gingrich asks It another way. What does this say, Governor, about your own feeling of the level of the intelligence of the American public? What does it say?

CUOMO: I believe that if we could have this conversation, and instead of Richard Heffner and Mario Cuomo being here it was Richard Heffner, Mario Cuomo, and the entire American public also at the table, and you spent the same time, they would conclude, the way Heffner and Cuomo do, that life is more subtle. I think we are not being fair to the American people when we suggest to them that we’re going to put everything on Internet – another radical right idea, I love information – we’re going to put everything on Internet. But where they’re going is: And then you’ll be able to make the decisions. Really? Is that what the Founding Fathers had in mind? That someday we’ll be able to put a computer on your kitchen table, you’ll hit the screen, today’s question: Do we send the troops to Bosnia or not? Come on, quick, you have to go to work. Yes. And then tally up all the votes, get rid of your congressional people, you don’t need them, just have somebody read the computer. They say troops to Bosnia. Mr. President, don’t call in your Cabinet. Don’t have any discussions, and whatever you do, don’t mock me with the arrogance of your leadership. We don’t need leadership. They read it on Internet. Troops to Bosnia. Right now. Is that what you want?

That is not, that is not too extreme an hyperbole, given the way they’re talking. The American people asked for it; give it to them. They want the death penalty. Did you explain to them how expensive it is? Did you explain to them that Israel, that knows more about murder than any place in world history gave it up, except for terrorism? Did you show them that in all the states that went back to it in the last seven years the homicide rate is up higher than it is in New York State, which has now dropped out of the first 25, New York City, without the death penalty? Did you tell them all of this? Or are you simply accommodating their anger?

HEFFNER: If you are accommodating their anger, and that must say something about pushing the buttons. They know how to push the buttons.

CUOMO: Oh, absolutely. So do I. So do you.

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. Clearly, I don’t.

CUOMO: Sure you do.

HEFFNER: You did. You didn’t in this past election.

CUOMO: Sure.

HEFFNER: You didn’t press the right buttons.

CUOMO: Of course. Because the right buttons to press to get a reaction are anger, divisiveness, negativism. Richard, true or false: Hate has always been easier to communicate than love.

HEFFNER: That’s why I question your proposition that we do believe that we are our brother’s keeper. That’s precisely what…

CUOMO: I do believe that we are. I can trigger people’s indignation. All I have to do is to tell them about the most recent horrible murder. And then ask them the question, “Are you for the death penalty?” And they’ll say, “Of course I’m for the death penalty.” That’s the response that’s predictable.

HEFFNER: But you see…

CUOMO: But, if I talk about the American people at their best, thinking carefully about a situation, and letting themselves react normally without that kind of provocation, and with time to be what they really are, this is a generous country. More generous probably than any in world history. This is a very tough country. This is a country born in violence, and violent still. This is an impulsive country, because we’re young, we’re only 200 years old, we’re still in our adolescence. But we have that same generosity and compassion that, you know, children have.

HEFFNER: When led, when brought up right, when the leadership is there. Which, after all, listen, the last time we were at this table, I took sick and we weren’t able to do our program. And I hoped some way that you were going to be convinced to run for President of the United States, because it seemed to me that your kind of intelligence, your kind of leadership is what is needed. But where do we have that today?

CUOMO: That is about, that question is about to be answered.


CUOMO: I think President Clinton has been given a wonderful opportunity. This is the moment for leadership. There is this powerful wave moving in what I believe is the wrong direction. There is this seductive political approach that says, “We’re going to do the people’s bidding.” And the people are not only content with it, they appear to be almost overjoyed with it. They love the notion that the Republican Congress is going to respond to them. This is, to use a very poor analogy, a very poor analogy – and if the radical right is listening, I’ve confessed in advance that ifs a poor analogy — we are assigned to be the shepherds, and we have stepped back and shouted to the sheep, “Go your way. We’ll follow you.” And they’re having a ball. They’re gamboling and they’re nipping and they’re chewing and they’re going under fences, and getting closer and closer to the cliff. And the question is: What happens when they get to the cliffs edge? What happens when they get to the dangerous ground? Do you suddenly say to them, “Well, now, I’ve let you go as far as I could on your own. Now I have to adopt a new principal. That leadership calls for me to listen respectfully to you, but then to bring to bear my own intelligence, my own study, and my own reflection. And if you don’t like it, you get rid of me in the next election. But between now and then, I do it.” And 1 don’t think of it as drawing a profile in courage. I think of it as this is my duty, to be a leader. Whether you understand it or not. Harry Truman understood it. Abraham Lincoln understood it. The big baboon, Mr. Ugly, Mr. Fool, he understood it. And I understand it. Now, Bill Clinton has that chance now.

HEFFNER: And? What do you think will happen?

CUOMO: He will respond. And he will be a great…

HEFFNER: And he will be…

CUOMO: What is his alternative, incidentally? What will he do? Say, “I’ll go with the radical right?” Then he’s gone. “I’ll go three-quarters of the way with the radical right? I will adopt the contract, 80 percent of it”? Then who needs you? No. I think he has, I think, no real choice other than 10 be what he is, a Democrat.

HEFFNER: And, Governor Cuomo, where will you be?

CUOMO: I’ll be with Bill Clinton if that’s the position he takes?

HEFFNER: Where will you be in terms of the leadership role in this play?

CUOMO: Well, I won’t have any official position. I will share my opinions and points of view with, you know, almost anyone who is interested in them. I think for awhile I’m going to have those opportunities, and probably more of them than I can handle. I’ll be doing the National Press Club on December 16th, and that’s a good opportunity, I think, to talk and to reflect on the last election. I’ve been invited to go to Zurich and Buenos Aires and various places around the world and a dozen or so places in the country to speak, and that’s only since the election, so there’ll be plenty of opportunities to speak. And I will. I learned an awful lot. I mean, I’ve lived here more than six decades in this wonderful laboratory, this place where everything happens, New York, where we have every problem and every potential that America has. A lot of it before the rest of America has it, where we see things before a lot of America sees them. And then 12 years as governor. Almost a unique experience in modem history in this state and in this country. It would be kind of foolish, I think, to say, “Well, I’ll forget everything I learned, and I’ll go out and be the head of some law firm and make a lot of money.° (Laughter) I’d like to make a lot of money too, if I could, but most of all I’d like to share what we’ve learned.

HEFFNER: Governor, when you look back over these 12 years – and we just have a few minutes, so, and there couldn’t have been many mistakes anyway – where do you think you misjudged your fellow Americans, if at all?

CUOMO: That’s a good question. I think America is what I thought it was. A great, great, unique experience, the most violent place in the world, regrettably. The most generous too. The softest place in the world. The hardest too. But we’re young. I’ve always thought of us that way. We’re just forming our own culture. What is our music? Jazz? That’s nice. What is our literature? It’s only a couple of hundred years old. You’re talking about the Greeks and the Romans and the Egyptians and the Asians. You’re talking about the Incas. You’re talking about civilizations that were here when you were nothing, you were pristine. And that’s what we still are. I learned a Jot about myself, and I made a lot of mistakes over 12 years. I learned that in our youth and our dynamism, we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the issues coming out of state capitols. And that if you want to reach the people with what you are doing, you have to be very persistent. You have to iterate and then reiterate over and over and over again. I learned a lot about communications. I failed to communicate with my people the way I should have. And I made some other mistakes as well. I didn’t travel enough. I should have traveled a lot more than I did. That was another mistake. I insisted in staying close to home and staying at my desk and working hands-on and taking the redeye back from California if I happened to be there. I went to Buenos Aires and back, and nobody even knew it, one weekend. And I’ll never forget it, because the Saturday I got back was the day I got news about Saul Wachtler and his tragedy. And nobody knew I had been out of town. If I had to do it again I would have tied us 10 the rest of the world a lot more securely in Tokyo and Milan and in Hong Kong and the rest of the world, because the global economy is so important to us. So I made mistakes, but I did not make a mistake in what I perceived the American people to be. We are everything I thought we were, still growing, and with biceps larger than our age ought to justify. We’re stronger than were smart, but that’s because we’re young.

HEFFNER: Governor Cuomo, I hope that we can do other programs in which I can say again: Governor Cuomo, thank you for joining me, than you for making this state a much better place to live in, and for the hope and the kind vision you have about your fellow Americans. Thanks for joining me.

CUOMO: Thank you, to you too.

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, our very special guest, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

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