Guest: Cuomo, Mario
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Governor Mario Cuomo
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. In The New Yorker magazine recently, political commentator Ken Oletta’s profile of New York governor noted that “from the standpoint of political symmetry, he’s hailed as a natural. An Italian-American with Harry Truman’s common touch and Adlai Stevensen’s eloquence. On issues that interest liberals, a nuclear freeze: opposition to the death penalty, gay rights, care for the homeless and the poor, support for labor unions, he takes the correct position. but unlike many Democrats, who shy away from speaking publicly of personal values, Mario Cuomo, in his speeches, often refers to 9ctd, to his Roman Catholicism, to family and Papa, with the unselfconscious patriotism of an immigrant s And this makes him popular among more conservative voters.” Well, now the governor, like so many others in this political season, has written a book. His diaries, in fact. And I want to ask him why. Not that the world will little note or will long remember what he’s written, but why. What should we learn from it? And that’s really the first question, Governor Cuomo.
CUOMO: If the suggestion is that I wrote a book recently, then I ought to clarify that. I’ve been keeping a diary for ten years, ever since I entered public life. The first portion of it was published by Random House some qears ago, in 1974. These entries that were just published by Random House ‘Mere entries from ‘80, ‘81, ‘82 when I ran against Ed Koch for govern or.
HEFFNER: Well, why publish them now?
CUOMO: Well, first of all, they were written for me. They ‘were written as an opportunity to give me a catharsis, or a retrospective, a chance to do some prospective thinking, and I did it on a daily basis. And round it very helpful, especially in the months of the campaign. Some people are surprised that we were able to manage enough time each day to Co it, usually in the early morning. Out I found it very helpful to rue, actual did it for myself, and possibly I or my family, for some later point in time when I’d want to leave behind some record of what I was thinking, what I was feeling, and what I was doing in this political business. I decided to publish it after Random House came to me and suggested, having read it, that it might have some usefulness. And I concluded that it would Three bits of usefulness. One, it tells about a political campaign, a very interesting one, a come-from-behind campaign that surprised a lot of people, against Koch and then Lew Lehrman. It tells about it in a, maybe, unique way: from a candidate’s point of view. It says a lot about government and our philosophy of government here in New York State. And I think that’s going to be very relevant now that we’re trying to configure our soul in this presidential election. And then, I have three kids still to pay for, and frankly, the money took care of three tuitions and helped fill their lunch pail, and that, I must tell you, was also relevant.
HEFFNER: I can sympathize with that last point. What do you mean by “configure our position in relation to the presidential election’?”
CUOMO: think this year, somewhat like 1980, will be defining the kind of nation we want to be. Now, I remember Nixon/Kennedy well enough to remember the television debate. You think back to that campaign. Ask people, “How many issues divided Nixon and Kennedy other than Kay may? Matsu?” It would be very hard to say, “Well, this one, philosophically, was here, and this one was way off there.” And that’s true many times. What was Nelson Rockefeller in New York State? A conservative? A liberal? A lot of people said that he called himself a Republican but behaved like a Democrat. This time, you have a clash of two sharply defined philosophies: President Reagan, who says, in effect, God helps those whom God has helped. And if God left you out, who are we to presume on his will? You know, we’ll take care of the rich and the strong, and hope that they take care of the rest of us. Well put a lot of money into defense, and less money in social programs.” And a Walter Mondale or some more traditional Democratic type who says, “Look, we have confidence in this government. We think we can be fiscally responsible and still take care of people in wheelchairs. And be reasonable and have a kind of government that we’ve had since 1932, from 1932 to 1960, that raised up a whole generation of the middle class and better” So you have a choice here that’s dramatically different. That says, for the first time in a long time – since ‘80, at least – “It’s more than you wear an elephant and I wear a donkey. You think basically different than I do.” And that’s going to be the challenge for the American people; to pick a philosophy. And so I thought it was, we talk a little bit about political philosophy in the book. And I think it might provoke some further analysis of the present election. And I think that’s going to be good.
HEFFNER: There’s no question that, for me, that when Random House published the Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo, this particular volume, one of the most fascinating things in it is your statement of a political philosophy. And it’s certainly a very, very personal philosophy. Indeed, you say in it, you talk about what a tough time certain political maneuvers are good about, but whet they meant, too. You are such a personal and private person. And that’s why I wondered what your intention was in publishing these diaries. They’re so personal in so man ways.
CUOMO: Yes You know, let’s make that clear I spent more than half-a-hundred years telling people nothing about myself, and listening to them tell me all about themselves. And liked it that way. And I still do. A lot of us don’t like disgorging what’s really intimate arid personal and, always has been with me, private. So I did this somewhat reluctantly. And it was not the unanimous vote of my family that I should do it. And even now that it’s been done, there is a little bit of disconcertment, if you will – I’m not totally happy about it – but we cid it for the three reasons gave you, with some reluctance, and after a lot of discussion at home, I’m writing still in my diary. But en interesting thing has happened. Since I gave this up and gave it out, and people have gotten that glance, I find it very difficult now to write the same way that I did there. It’s as though you had given up your virginity, your psychic virginity; and you can only do that once.
HEFFNER: Do you think you have?
CUOMO: Yes. I think so. I think it would be very difficult for me now to write the same way that I wrote that. For the same kind of intimacy. Because now there’s always the suggestion to yourself, that whet you’re writing is someday going to be read. So you’re really not writing to yourself. You’re writing to the outside world. And it is that which wasn’t true when put these notes down.
HEFFNER: Does that mean there is, in a sense, a different kind of Mario Cuomo now?
CUOMO: There’s a different kind of diary now.
HEFFNER: Whet about the men?
CUOMO: Well, I think, you know, you get to be 50 or so, you don’t change a whole lot. I don’t think I going to change… hope to learn some things from here until it’s over; but I don’t think that there’s going to be any dramatic change in my personality or my style. For better or for worse, it is what it is.
HEFFNER: You know, it’s so interesting you say that.
CUOMO: I’ll lose some hair. I’ll tell you one thing that’s happened, that Ken Oletta didn’t write down. There have been other comments made about me, and I having a lot of fun collecting them. William Rusher, for example, did a piece recently in which he described my philosophy as being dangerous to all conservatives. And he finished his piece by saying. “And if you saw this guy’s face, he has the face of a fried egg.” (Laughter) He’s so… But there are some comments being made about me that aren’t as flattering as Ken Oletta’s.
HEFFNER: You mean you take exception to that?
CUOMO: Oh, no. I love it. love the fact that you could irritate a Bill Rush sufficiently to make him reveal his, kind of, mean streak, which I think is very good for people to understand about conservatives. A lot of them do have that mean streak.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, talking about mean streak: Don’t forget. Oletta began the first part of his profile of you by quoting that 1952 – and that’s a long time ago – the report about you when you were playing for a Pittsburgh Pirates team, the – What was it?
HEFFNER: Then of the Florida league, yean. And the report on you said, in part, “He is another who will run over you if you get in his way.” And I reed so many of these statements, particularly in that magnificent inaugural address of yours when you become governor, about social Darwinism. And that sounded like running over people. Have you changed, or is this an inaccurate reflection upon the way you won?
CUOMO: That was a scout describing how I play baseball. And I like to think that when I played baseball I played it all – out and was competitive. if this suggestion is that I would now hurt someone or ignore their welfare in order to achieve an objective, I like to think that I’m riot like that, and that would be concerned about people and not hurting them. Indeed, that’s part of our philosophy as Democrats. We like to think that the reason we’re in government is to improve the conditions of people’s lives, net leave footprints in their chest on the way to a goal. So I’m flattered if it means competitive; if it means ruthless and mean, then I’m unhappy about it, and then when I was 20.
HEFFNER: What about the nature of politics? Doesn’t it – I don’t know whether to use the word “require” or not; “command” or not – some kind of “leaving footprints in the other guy’s chest?” I think – we’re taping this show in the middle of May – meanwhile, three of your fellow Democrats are leaving footprints upon each other’s chests. Isn’t that in game?
CUOMO: To some extent. I’ve spent a lot of years in a courtroom, in political races. In all these contest situations, the unhappy part is that in order to have a winner, you have to have a loser. So that there is always the element of having defeated or beaten someone, whether it’s the race against Ed Koch; or there is all the jog of winning. But it can’t come without the sadness of someone losing. So too in a ballgame, and certainly in a courtroom. So, to some extent – and all of these combatative situations, these competitive situations – yeah, there is a certain element of having to defeat someone. And that’s true of politics, certainly. Mondale cannot be the president unless he defeats Hart and Jackson and Reagan, and leaves behind him at least three very unhappy people. And that’s not the most pleasant part of the business. But there’s no question it is part of it.
HEFENER: What does it take to get involved in that part of the business?
CUOMO: Well, I think it varies from individual to individual. I think it’s true that some people do it out of sheer egoism, I guess, and some people do it just to win, just because it’s so important to win. They can make the effort just in order to succeed, for whatever reason, but to be able to tell themselves that they won. I think more people than the general public would admit are in this business because they want to serve and they really mean it, just the wag rabbis serve and priests serve and nuns serve and schoolteachers serve and parents serve, out of love. There are politicians who do it because they think they can bring something to society. There are stereotype of the grubby, mean, egotistical, stop-at-nothing politician who will run over you to achieve his objective. That’s a very common perception. But it is often, I think, a misperception. There are some like that. But there are some like that in your business.
HEFFNER: But I know that you are a group believer in the wisdom inherent in the people. Wouldn’t you say that most people think of politicians in terms of the former description rather than the latter? The description of those who are out for power, and the devil take the hindmost?
CUOMO: Yes. I think, certainly, most people think of politicians that way. Even most people that vote, which is a smaller number than most people. I think much of it, however, is misperception. Most people think of lawyers that way, as well.
HEFENER: And you think it’s a misperception?
CUOMO: Yes. I think so. And I hope this book, for some people, erases part of that misperception. I mean, what this book tries to sag is that, I or all of our failings, and for all of our weakness, there are politicians who are trying, at least, to do the right thing. I’m not saying they do it, and Fm not saying they’re very good at it. But that we ought to be measured, at least, by our intent. I think people are unhappy with politicians for a number of reasons. And I think their opinion is off for a number of reasons. We have a society that likes to write bad news before it writes good news. Now, I don’t understand that, fully. I don’t understand why the assumption is, in the media, for example, that a slander is more newsworthy then some happy story. But there is no question that that’s the case, that the media, to a large extent, sees it as its mission to tell the unhappy side of the story on the assumption that the politician will tell you all the rest. And, number two, people are always dissatisfied with the status quo. Very few, relatively few people are satisfied with the condition of things. It could always be better for them. To a large extent, they blame government for the condition of things. And since they’re dissatisfied, they wind up blaming the politician. And then the bottom line is: there is ignorance – enormous ignorance – about politics; how it works. In my state, people are constantly revealing to me in forums that they don’t understand some of the most basic propositions about the legislature’s role, the executive’s role, the executive’s power, the legislature’s power, what a mayor does for a living. .So, yes, I believe, Richard, it is, in large measure, a misperception about politicians. A lot of us are bums, but a lot of us are not.
HEFFNER: When you said you don’t understand why the media emphasize the negative rather than the positive, isn’t it a function of the assumptions one makes about human nature, the nature of human nature, that you make certain assumptions, and others make different ones?
CUOMO: Yeah, but why couldn’t the media suddenly be struck, collectively, by lightening, knocked of f their metaphorical horse, and be converted to this state of mind? I’m tired of this tedium and unhappiness. There’s much that’s good in this society. Let us set about to write the good things. Let find them and write… Here’s an interesting story: Here’s a state legislator in Georgia who had a chance to be corrupt and turned it down. My goodness! Look at him. Here he is at home, with his family. Isn’t he the one… Here’s a picture of him at the Baptist church on a Sunday morning. Leading a perfectly… And a lot of people, “Isn’t that nice?” What wrong with that? What’s wrong with once in awhile saying to the American people, “Hey look, its riot all Watergate?”
HEFFNER: Suppose you and I agree that there’s nothing wrong with that? Why doesn’t that happen? Why, as you understand the nature of human nature, has that not happened?
CUOMO: I’m not sure. I think the present thinking of much of the media is that it is their role to keep the system straight. That, “All that happy news you’re going to tell them, Cuomo, or Reagan, or Koch, or all you people in power. As a matter of fact, you’ll exaggerate it. You’ll paint only a rosy picture because you think that’s good for you. It’s our job to put the whole picture into proper perspective, and in order to do that we have to look under those stones that you’re sitting on to conceal the dark truth.” I think that’s the present thinking. And I think that they are guilty – a lot of them – of hyperbole. They have simply exaggerated that side of things. Incidentally, none of this is going to change anything, I’m afraid (Laughter). Don’t expect the media, in my lifetime or yours, to alter their way on this subject. And politicians have said exactly what I’m saying for many years.
HEFFNER: You know, I want to go, turn back to your diaries. And here you say extraordinarily many good things in this volume. You say, “I’ve given a great deal of thought to the matter of where private morality ends and public policy begins. But still the question remains a delicate one.” Sure, the question remains a delicate one; what’s your answer, though?
CUOMO: I don’t think there is one answer
HEFFNER: But what’s yours?
CUOMO: Well, it depends on the question. I’m an Orthodox Jewish president who believes with all of his being that one ought not to work on a Saturday, the Sabbath. And I believe that is a moral proposition. That is a morel proposition. Am I obliged to seek to interpolate that into the law? i a Catholic who believes that birth control is wrong, maybe even definable as a sin, which is the ultimate wrong. Other people out there don’t agree that birth control is wrong. They think the use of contraceptives is proper. Am I obliged, in order to be a good Catholic, to interpolate my belief on birth control into the law, at least try to? I resolve it this way: Generally, I think the genius of the American democracy is that it anticipated the Orthodox Jew, the Catholic, the atheist, the ethical humanist, and said, “We’re going to have a place where you can all live. And you all come from places where they fixed on one of those moralities – Catholic or Jewish or whatever – and excluded all the rest. Where they tried to save your soul in their constitution; and it doesn’t work. Because always someone gets ostracized. We’re going to have a new place called America, where you can believe whatever you wish to believe as long as you don’t touch another person, as long as you don’t intrude on the life of another person. And so, our secret will be privacy, liberty, openness. And we’re confident enough to believe we can work it out.” That’s what I believe of the American democracy. Which means that, unless I can reduce my morality to something that’s universal, ought not to be seeking to interpolate it into a system.
HEFENER: it’s so interesting that you, for your own reasons, say, “Unless I reduce my morality to something that’s universal.” But the complaint these days, or the plaint these days is that it is reducing morality to make it universal. And I wonder why there are so many people now in the 1960s who are putting their emphasis on a position far different from your own.
CUOMO: It’s very interesting. I love talking to conservatives about this. Conservatives, when you ask them to define themselves, say, “We believe in less government, unless it’s the defense budget or your bedroom or morality. Government should tell you whether or not to pray in a classroom, what books to read.” There’s an interesting kind of contradiction there. I believe this may be true: Many of us who are parents, many of us who were raised to believe in some kind of nexus in between us and some ultimate supreme being, religious, we fail to teach our children and our society the things that we think are right. We fail to teach our children that they oughtn’t to be reading those books, that they oughtn’t to be involved in this kind of sexual activity until they reach a certain level of maturity and commitment. We fail to teach the community around us that our value system is the best value system. And having failed to it, we turn to government. And we said, “You do it for us. You teach our children what books not to look at. You teach them not to smoke pot and not to take coke, because we failed. We failed in our house, we failed in our church, we failed in our synagogue. And I think you have something of that. Now, the argument, on the other hand, is, “Well. Government is making it more difficult when government sends a different signal.” Well, I would say this: “Then remind your children that government’s job is to send no signal. And the signal should come from home, and the church, and the rabbi.” And that will end the confusion. So I think, to answer your question, one of the things that’s happening now is that failed value systems – not that they’ve failed because they don’t work, but your inability to project them as you wish – has induced some people to turn to government to ask them to do the job of proselytizing.
HEFFNER: Governor Cuomo, what concerns me is, in your description of what has happened, is what alternative there is, realistically. Because you describe failure. Presumably then, where there is failure, there is going to be a next step. Something will have to happen. For you to protest against what many people want to have happen is understandable. But if there is that failure on our part, what is the alternative?
CUOMO: When you say… Let’s go back a step. You say, “Many people want to have happen.” What? That government should begin teaching morality?
HEFFNER: It looks that way, doesn’t it?
CUOMO: Yeah. Well, if you add up all the different groups, one group wants you to say prayers, one group wants you to condemn. But you try getting 51 percent of the people to agree on any single morality, and you’ll find something else happen. You’re not finding 51 percent of the people agreeing on a morality. If it’s a question of abortion, for example: “Are you for or against abortion?’ “Against abortion.” “Okay, let’s have a Constitutional amendment.” “Okay, what shall it say?” “Well, no abortion under any circumstances: Well, that’s one part of the group. “Except for raps.” Well, that’s another part of the group. Or, “Rape and incest.” That’s a third part of the group. And once you start getting discrete in trying to describe the particular morality you went chiseled into the stone of your Constitution, you find it gets very difficult. And therein is revealed the wisdom of our system. Of course it’s difficult, because as I describe my morality, it excludes you and offends you. And what’s the answer? You leave it to Heffner and Cuomo to teach their own family their morality, and let the government, as far as possible, protect both of them from one another and not impose anything on them. That is not a lack of morality; that’s a respect for all morality.
HEFFNER: Governor Cuomo, you know, personally, I thoroughly agree with you. And I’m not just saying that because you make it sound so good or because I think you’re so wise.
CUOMO: I wish you had said “wise before “sound good.” (Laughter)
HEFFNER: No, no, no. I don mean “sound good” in terms of public relations.
CUOMO: I understand.
HEFFNER: I mean sound as though, and it does, come from your heart and from your head both. And I know that because of the diaries. It’s fascinating that that point at which in the, I guess it was the primary race, before the gubernatorial race, and when you were running against Mayor Koch – or was it earlier on in the first mayoral primary? ¬- when your mother said, “Be for the death penalty. That’s the ticket.” And you weren’t.
HEFFNER: You knew what price you might have to pay. That is, it seems to me, the ultimate immorality: to understand what political risk you run, and to stand by your principles. What do you think most Americans, if you scratch them, feel about that issue? You’re not running now…
CUOMO: Death penalty?
CUOMO: I think if, across the board, you took most adult Americans and said to them, “Do you believe that if a person violently, willfully, evilly takes the life of an innocent person, that that perpetrator ought to forfeit his or her life?” I think most American people would say, “Yes.”
HEFFNER: And you say, “No” because of a personal morality?
CUOMO: Because I believe that if you said to most American people that, “I went to tell you more about this subject, and want to make clear to you what happens when you adopt that kind of rule, and I want to remind you that we have it in many places, and that, if anything, it produced more homicides, and occasionally killed innocent people, and that the lesson of our Western civilization is that it debases people, and if you are truly religious, unless you are prepared to say you believe in vengeance, there appears to be no justification for this.” As you elaborate it, as you say to people, “Come to study your indignation of the moment. Come to study why you feel you should have the death penalty. You look around you, you see all kinds of violent crime, and what you’re really trying to say is, ‘This has to stop.’” And if you gave me a chance to show them that the death penalty wouldn’t stop that crime, but might increase it; if you gave me a chance to show them that there’s a penalty tougher then the death penalty: life imprisonment, true life imprisonment, without parole, that gives you all the benefit, more benefit, of deterrence, without the down side because it doesn’t debase you, it doesn’t presume to take a life, it doesn’t take the chance that you take an innocent person, and it’s cheaper – I mean, if you gave me a chance to reach the majority of the American people – I think their second vote might be different.
HEFFNER: If you could reach them with your moral sense, tight?
CUOMO: Well, no. wouldn’t call it a moral sense. I don’t think this is a question, basically, of morality. This is a question of whet works best for this society. I could put it at a purely pragmatic level: It’s less expensive; it deters more, and would fail to debase you. I think that’s a good… You see, if you get into the morality, you start thinking about sinfulness and personal, private judgment making. I want to stay in the area of universality. I could make a case against the death penalty ¬- and I do – on grounds that go way beyond morality, if you will, that deal with your self-interest and society’s self-interest. I could make a case, I believe, that sags it’s better for you, whatever your particular morality.
HEFENER: But in the meantime you hove to impose, or interpose, if not your morality, then your intellectual judgment between what the people seem to want at this point and what you think is best.
CUOMO: But you often have to do that in my state, I’m arguing very hard to go to a 21-year-old purchase age for alcohol.
CUOMO: Yes. I’m seeking to impose upon 19 – and 20-year-old young people, like my daughter, Madeline, who is 19 – despite the great percentage of people in that bracket who want to go and purchase alcohol – I’m trying to impose a rule on them that I think is better for them and better for all society. We do that all the time. We do it with cocaine.
HEFFNER: We’re going to have to come back and finish that discussion. Thank you so much for joining me today, Governor Cuomo.
CUOMO: Okay. Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”