Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo … Governing Principles, Part II

VTR Date: March 7, 1987

Guest: Cuomo, Mario


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Governor Mario Cuomo
Title: “Mario Cuomo … Governing Principles”, Part II
VTR: 3/7/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. “Would that my enemy wrote a book”. In polities that might translate: would that he or she had kept a diary and made it public.

With that in mind, as I prepared for this two-part Open Mind conversation with Mario Cuomo, I went back to his wonderfully readable account of his first campaign for Governor of New York published by Random House a few years ago and, indeed, even to his earlier diary, his very personal recording of Cuomo, the citizen/negotiator.

Mostly these diaries provide the framework for our picking-up intellectually and ideologically — where we left off last time, on The Open Mind And so, Governor Cuomo, thanks again for joining me, for staying with me and for letting me, perhaps, relate to a couple of other questions beyond … I was going to say beyond the values matter that we discussed, but what could be beyond them. But, Jack Newfield in the Village Voice just a few days ago, said, “Cuomo also has the intelligent man’s distaste for the inevitable small deceptions of politics which he has mastered, but doesn’t enjoy”. And then he said, “Because most politicians say the opposite of what they do, those who try to be truthful tend to be misunderstood”. And I wondered whether you found that to be a true characterization?

Cuomo: Jack Newfield says I’ve mastered the small deceptions? I must have fooled myself in the process because I didn’t realize that. There’s much about the political life that’s distasteful, not just to me, but to a lot of people who are in it. You deal with a lot of subtle truths, a lot of complex truths in a state like mine with a forty billion dollar plus budget and eighteen million people and every conceivable kind of problem. It’s hard to communicate the subtlety of everything. And I guess sometimes you’re required to be simple to the point of being at the edge of being simplistic. Maybe that’s what Jack means I’m not sure … I’m not going to make the statement that I will never lie to you, because I know a Southern President who got into a lot of trouble for saying that. But I’m not sure that I would admit to having mastered the ability to play with small deceptions. I will admit that there’s a lot about political life that I don’t like. But that doesn’t make me unique; a lot of politicians feel that way. It’s a very hard life, especially for those of us who, and I think this is true of all of us really, cherish privacy. You’ve got it. You can go home, be by yourself, enjoy your family, for all the celebrity you’ve had, you can shut down the celebrity. A lot of us in public office, the Mayor of the City of New York, certainly the President and to some extent, even a Governor, it’s very, very difficult not to be communicating with the public; just to shut yourself off from them. And that’s very difficult.

Heffner: Then why do it?

Cuomo: I hesitate because, to answer, because every morning I keep a diary, in order to address that question directly or indirectly. I want to be sure that the reason I’m doing it is a good reason. I believe that the reason we continue to do it, and it’s very much a family effort. I mean there’s no way I could do it if Matilda said she didn’t want to. Or even if the kids where still at home, or the kids who aren’t at home called up and said, “Pop, you’re blowing this thing; you’ve got it all wrong; you’re not doing a good job; or you’re impure at it”, I would stop doing it. I think … I believe that we can help improve the conditions of people’s lives. That the leadership we’re bring to the State of New York helps, occasionally, in small ways, sometimes in not so small ways, in larger ways, to improve things for people. I really do see this state taking homeless people off the street; making more jobs available, bespeaking a certain attitude. I believe deeply in people. I believe deeply in things like love. I think love is essential to our human condition. I think you’re supposed to feel for one another. I’m not embarrassed to say that. I feel more that way as I grow older, I think it’s a good thing to share. I enjoy sharing it, and I think it’s good for people to hear it. And as long as I feel that I have something to offer people in this leadership role that’s good f or them, I make a terrible lot of mistakes and I’m awfully imperfect. Even that’s not so bad for them, to see that you can be imperfect, you can make mistakes. And still get to be a Governor. My very presence in my imperfection offers people a kind of hope. So as long as my presence is doing good things for some people, then that’s why I do it.

Heffner: Of course the question of doing good things … in your diary here there is this wonderful…

Cuomo: Also, I like the house and the free meals … and two other things. I mean we have to be honest. I don’t like raking leaves

Heffner: And you don’t have to.

Cuomo: (Laughter) I never have to rake leaves. You know, when we were running for the second time in 1986 and I said to Tony Burgos, a young fellow who was hanging around with me, working with me, I said, “Tony, we have to win”. He said, “Why?” I said, “Do you realize if I lose I have to go back to doing leaves. Do you know what it is to put that ladder up and to take those leaves out of the gutter and get that … you know, the chicken wire, cutting up your hands”. I said, “I don’t want to go back to doing leaves out of gutters”. And I don’t want to go back to shoveling the snow until I have to. So that’s another reason (laughter) why I do it.

Heffner: For those of us who want you to move on in politics, Governor. Can we “threaten” you with having to shovel snow and to pick up leaves?

Cuomo: Of course, there are some people who suggested that we consider taking a look at higher office than the Governor’s office. I decided for a whole variety of reasons that that wasn’t right for me. The main reason being, that I run the State of New York as Governor. It’s a very, very important job and requires all of my energies I work at it seven days a week, literally. In order to make a respectable race, you’d have to go to Iowa for thirty, forty, fifty days. You’d have to go to New Hampshire for thirty, forty, fifty days. If you don’t make those two states, you’re out of the race, everybody admits to that. You can’t do it with television; you can’t send proxies. If the race didn’t start, for example, until December of 1987 and lasted for only six months, it would be a different proposition.

Cuomo: But, having to go, as we speak now in March, having to give up the legislature, having to walk away from my state. I don’t see how you can do it. And, Dick, the truth is, no one has. Since Roosevelt, no incumbent governor has ever done it successfully. No one has done it even as a legislator and the demands on a senator or a congressman are a lot less, you don’t have to run the place. AU you have to do is participate with this body. Not since Kennedy has an incumbent senator done it. Now that tells you something; Incumbency is not really easily compatible with the terrible demands of today’s primary system. When Roosevelt did it, he could wait at home until he got the summons from the convention, saying you’re our candidate. He didn’t have to roll his wheelchair fifty times to Iowa to appear in a caucus state for one primary. So, I think, and I’m not alone. Governor Jim Thompson has won four times, I think, in Illinois. He’s one of the country’s leading Governors, a Republican. He was asked, “Will you run?” He said, “How can I and be Governor of Illinois?” Mike Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, is thinking about it at this moment. So my situation was not unusual.

Heffner: Governor, when do the Democrats meet in Atlanta to choose the next candidate?

Cuomo: You got me.

Heffner: Sometime in the summer?

Cuomo: June or July of ‘88, I guess.

Heffner: June, July ‘88. Suppose it’s June. Is the period between June and the first Tuesday in November, is that an intolerable campaign period?

Cuomo: No, it’s not. But it will be academic by then. I think the way it works out now. Right now, March, April, May of 1987, there’s a huge vacuum. They could write about Dick Heffner being a candidate for the Presidency, plausibly. You can do that all the way up until the end of this year in ‘87.

Heffner: How about that.

Cuomo: Not a bad idea. It’d be nice to have your kind of intelligence, your kind of objectivity, your kind of youthful good looks, and your kind of style and certainly if you consider it … under no circumstances would I. But once you get to ‘88, it changes instantly. Because you have Iowa and New Hampshire. And here’s what’s going to happen. You’ll take the field as it exists. Whoever wins kiwi becomes the whole story until New Hampshire. The press will never mention Heffner again. Whoever. Gary Hart wins Iowa, Mike Dukakis wins Iowa, and whoever wins Iowa that will be the whole story until you get to New Hampshire. If New Hampshire is won by the same person, well that will multiply the story. Or a different person then they’ll be two stories. The guy who won Iowa; the guy who won New Hampshire. That’s where Gary Hart came from in 1984. But the publicity, the focus will eliminate everybody else. The primaries will make the field the whole game and it will be too late for any other entries. That’s the way I see it. Now Sam Nunn apparently a brilliant, brilliant Democrat from the South, from Georgia. He has not ruled it out. He said he might run. As late as September, October of this year. Maybe. Maybe you could get in that late. But you certainly can’t wait until ‘88 and seek to make a move.

Heffner: What we’re talking about now is running for the nomination, right? We’re not talking about running for the Presidency.

Cuomo: No. The Presidency is easy in terms of … I mean the general election is easy in terms of the demands on your time, etc. Not easy to win, obviously. But it’s shorter. You have public monies available to you. There are only two of you. It’s really a much easier contest. Not to win, but to handle as a contest. You don’t have to travel all over the country the same way. You can do a lot more with television in the general election. Plus you have the Treasury to pay for you. You don’t have to be gathering money. So that no, the general election is no problem from June or July of ‘88 to November of ‘88. That can be fun. You against the other person; you against the other man or the other woman. With everybody watching the two of you, the fullest possible opportunity to speak. You could probably do it from home. I mean you wouldn’t, you’d travel. The primary is something else again. Look, look at the primary and people ought to think about it. I think Tom Wicker and a lot of others have written some really good pieces on it this year … David Broder. Take the recent candidates: President Reagan. He ran for what, thirteen years? Before President Reagan, President Carter ran for four years. Mondale was a candidate against Reagan, had to run for four years. Before Carter, Ford you can’t count … that was a kind of aberration. Nixon had run for what…twelve, sixteen years? Eisenhower was kind of plucked out. But I mean if you study it, in recent times, no one has been able to do this thing unless you did it fulltime and put aside your other obligations. Now you have to be rich to do that. You have to be free to do it. And I said this in 1984. In 1984 when I was first asked about the Presidency, I said, “Look, in ‘86, if I run for Governor, chances are I won’t be able to do anything else because I’ll take the Governor’s job seriously and that eliminates running for President”. And that’s exactly what happened. But that’s not important. What’s more important are ideas.

Heffner: Well, you say that but suppose one were to say what’s still more important is having the ideas and a person in the White House who understands those ideas and can affect them. Now you know that’s true. The ideas by themselves don’t stand, they fall.

Cuomo: I think still the most powerful thing we have probably is a good idea, properly, adequately communicated. I think that’s probably true. I think the most powerful instrument in the world is not the White House’s ability, even to press the button, but the pulpit. What Teddy Roosevelt called “the bully pulpit”. I think that’s probably true. That the message you send from the White House, message of hope, an intelligent message, if it’s a despairing message, if it’s a bitter message, if it’s a cheap message, if it’s a tawdry message, that could depreciate certainly this country, much of the world. So, yes, I think, I think that’s true. I would agree with you that perhaps the most important power of the Presidency is the capacity to discuss, propagate ideas.

Heffner: Do you think that that power, in the White House, in Albany, in the state capital in California or Illinois or Massachusetts. That that power is sufficient to the power of the press these days to filter what comes from Washington or Albany or wherever?

Cuomo: I think that’s an interesting question. But then all your questions are interesting. I think a really good idea, not to say a brilliant idea, will make it through the miasma of the press and to the people. When John Kennedy stands up and says, “Ask not what your country can do for you …“, the beauty of that idea, its intelligence, its compatibility with our best instincts, its ennobling effect, were such that no one could bury it. No press could so abuse it that it would no longer be beautiful and effective. President Reagan intrigues me as a deliverer of ideas. Because his message was terribly confused, I think, by his persona. His message, much of it is a hard message. Even a harsh one. That you can’t do for the poor what we thought we could do. That all the social programs failed. I think it’s also totally inaccurate. All you have to do is look at the condition of the elderly people in this country, see how much better it is now than it was thirty or forty or fifty years ago and look at why, Social Security, etc. But apart from that, his persona is soft, non-menacing, and sweet even. A beautiful man who in his own personal life proved to be gentle, non-combative, totally unflappable and a beloved human being. His message at the same time was one of lowering aspirations for people. What he really said to this country is, “We can’t do everything we used to think we could do. We’ll have to do less. We can’t take care of everybody”. Now from a harsher person or delivered more harshly than he did, that would have been a tough message and a lot of people wouldn’t have liked it. But from him, surrounded as he was by Cardinals and potentates, talking always of God and religion and baseball and the victory in the Olympics, one of the harshest messages we’ve ever heard, was delivered so smoothly, so sweetly, the American people swallowed it. Or at least enough of them to make him one of the most popular Presidents in history. It’s a fascinating situation and I’m curious as to how historians will treat it. This is a man who said to the American people, “This is a Christian country”. Imagine.

Heffner: And got away with it.

Cuomo: Imagine. Can you imagine Jimmy Carter saying to the American people, “This is a Christian country and it’s gonna be for Christians”. And getting away with it? So, ideas. Can you imagine a Mario Cuomo trying it? So ideas are very important but the way they’re delivered is important, too. And that the Reagan Presidency has been, to me, a phenomenon, a contradictory episode in our history. Where his persona clashed dramatically with his ideas. He made the denial of compassion respectable in our time. And only he could have done it.

Heffner: Do you feel that Cuomo’s ideas have had their fair day in court, which means these days, in the press? –

Cuomo: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I mean I have my fights with the press

Heffner: You’re not getting more benevolent in this area of press relations, are you?

Cuomo: Oh no, no, no, no. Well, you know, the press knows that I tell them the truth. And there was a time at the end of the campaign in 1986, campaign for Governor in my state, in New York, where I said very clearly to the press that I thought they were wrong on some very specific situations and I thought they were dead wrong. And I still do. And I told them that and they hammered me for it.

Cuomo: Curious thing about it was, after I criticized them very, very harshly and very openly, I started reading stories that said, “This will hurt him politically”. So we had a big meeting and I said, “How can it hurt me? Are you telling me that now you’re going to distort my message because I criticized you? My God, that would be a terrible thing”. And then all of a sudden the press got better again. So, no I think the press, where I’m concerned, my press, LCA, so-called, the Legislative Correspondents Association, the people assigned to the Governor in Albany, they’ve been very good to me. They’ve made some mistakes, but overall I think they’ve been very fair to me. I have no real complaints about them. I did complain about some specifies and I was very precise about it and I think I was right. But overall, they have been very good to me.

Heffner: Somebody said someone of importance, I don’t really remember who it was, recently, talking about the Iran situation and the trading arms for hostages, and the way the President came out of that. That the press did not do a sufficiently good job of digging into that. And it took happenstance and then government commissions to do what the press should have done and perhaps did at Watergate. Do you think that’s true?

Cuomo: Let me say one, two, three things. One, I have discouraged criticism of the President on Irangate for this reason; he’s our President for two years. I want to see an arms limitation deal made, I want to see us do something about the welfare program; we need a budget and we need to do something about competitiveness in the international economy. We need him desperately for the next two years. So my own instinct has been to be kind of protective of him, without concealing anything, certainly. That’s number one. Number two. There is one thing about the investigation of the Irangate, call it what you will situation that has always struck me as almost absurd. And Pm surprised that it hasn’t gotten more press. With all the explanations o- what happened, of why North won’t speak and Poindexter won’t speak, whether Schultz knew or didn’t know, whether Weinberger knew or didn’t know, one question occurs to me and has from the very beginning and every once in a while, I hear it, but I certainly haven’t seen it in the headlines as we should. “Mr. President, you say you didn’t know. Mr. President, when they finally told you, why didn’t you call everybody into the room, lock the door, turn on the tape recorder and say, ‘Now I’m going to find out. I read in the paper that some of you guys are dealing with priests in Iran about arms. Now who did what? We’ll start with you, Schultz; you’re my Secretary of State. What did you do, what you know and when did you know it. Pm the President, tell me right now’ Why didn’t he call in Poindexter? Why didn’t he call in North? You know why he didn’t call them in, I would guess that somebody said to him, “Mr. President, if you call them in, then their cover is blown, because then they can’t take immunity. They’ll have to tell you the truth and once they tell you the truth, the immunity’s gone”.

Heffner: You think that was the reason?

Cuomo: What other reason could there be, Dick? To me, to me the absurdity is nobody asked the question. I mean have you heard it asked?

Heffner: Nope, no.

Cuomo: One guy did. Larry King. Larry King who does an interview show on CNN, good, good man. Great New Yorker from Brooklyn. He did ask the question. Didn’t get much of an answer.

Cuomo: The President came before the American people, said he took the responsibility, but didn’t tell us, why he … he even went so far as to say, “I hope Poindexter and North will tell the truth”. Well then, why didn’t you ask them Mr. President? Why didn’t you call them in and say, “What is the truth? You work for me”. So that’s number two. Number three. Your question about the press, have they done a good job? You’re asking it prematurely. This has not; this story has not begun to get told. We haven’t seen anything yet, to quote Jimmy Durante. You’re going to have Larry Walsh hasn’t even started yet, the Special Prosecutor. This thing is a long, long way from being over. The American people now get fooled into thinking its over because the President came and spoke and there seems to be a hiatus. But there are going to be revelations for months and months to come.

Heffner: What does that do to your statement before that your wish?

Cuomo: It’s not good.

Heffner: … is that the President would be okay for the next two years.

Cuomo: I don’t think it’s good. The only thing that’s good about it is that one of the best things this country has going for it is the rule of law. The sureness that even if the President himself, mighty as he is, if he breaks the law, he has to pay the price. That whoever breaks the law must be made to pay the price. That’s what kept us together for two hundred years without bayonets, except for a period there in the late 1800’s. And it’s very important that we preserve the rule of law. That requires that we pursue this subject. But that is one of the very few advantages. All the rest is disadvantage. It weakens the President, it weakens our government, it weakens our chance to do business with Gorbachev intelligently without doing it from vulnerability. So I’m not happy about it. I think it’s essential, but I’m not happy about it and I’m not going to relish it.

Heffner: You’re going to the Soviet Union shortly. What’s your reason for doing so?

Cuomo: Well, I planned trips to the U.S.S.R., well, I’ve been invited which is one good reason, Japan, China, France, Italy most Governors do. I said no, I think stupidly, for a couple of years because I didn’t want to feed the rumor I was running for the Presidency. I look back and I think I denied my state, frankly, and myself some good opportunities. So these are invitations I received … now that I’m not running for the Presidency, I feel free to take them. Why do I do it? I’ve a number of connections. They’re not just pleasure trips. Trade will be a subject every time I go over, even with the U.S.S.R. My interest in the academic world, I’ll be talking at a university in Moscow. Wherever I go I get invited to academic circles, and I like that, frankly. And I don’t think that’s bad for us. And this time I’ll be going with the New York State auspices. SUNY, the State University of New York has an exchange program with Moscow. So, to do business, to represent the State of New York around the world the way every state in the union gets represented by its Governor, I haven’t done enough of it. The Japanese and Chinese trips will be particularly important when it comes to trade and a trip to France where we’re doing business with a French company in what’s called “viro-genetics”. I’ll be going with a precise mission there, I’m trying to make a deal to get them to open a business in my state.

Heffner: We have just about one minute left or a minute and a half. Let’s go back to the Soviet trip. And to your hope that there is a treaty with the Soviets, even during this present Administration. What kind of treaty do you want?

Cuomo: Intermediate missiles. It’s been laid out pretty clearly. It came out of Reykjavik, Gorbachev and the President said that they’d pull the intermediate range missiles out of Europe. The Europeans, who were opposed to it, now appear to be for it. It’s a good idea, obviously. -You’d be left with a hundred apiece, some in Asia, some elsewhere. But the main point would be that it would reduce the demand on our wealth. It would free up billions of dollars that could then be used for education, for research. You have the A.I.D.S. problem threatening the entire civilization. We haven’t begun to do sufficient research there. This will free up billions of dollars, some of which can be used for research. And it’s only the beginning. They’ll go from medium to small; it gets us back on the arms limitation path, one that this President left for six years.

Heffner: You’re optimistic about that, aren’t you?

Cuomo: I’m optimistic about everything.

Heffner: Governor Cuomo, thank you on that note for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll loin us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, please write to The Open Mind, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. And for transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”. –

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation.