Mario Cuomo

Words that make our history

VTR Date: January 22, 2009

New York Governor Mario Cuomo discusses speeches and speechwriting.


GUEST: Mario Cuomo
VTR: 01/22/09

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … have been since 1956.

And most of the time when I’m asked who my favorite guest has been over all these years, my answer comes quite quickly…with no hesitation.

And he’s my guest again today – Mario Cuomo, long-time Governor of New York, who first joined me here more than a quarter century ago…when our topic was his own Inaugural Address as he challenged then President Ronald Reagan’s simplistic formulation that government isn’t the answer to America’s problems…but rather is itself the problem.

Addressing the dog-eat-dog, anything goes, untrammeled free marketplace, Social Darwinian, survival of the fittest ideas that have prevailed in high government and business councils even more in recent years than then, my guest famously proclaimed that “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.”

Added the Governor — very much like our new President — “I would rather have laws written by Rabbi Hillel or Pope John Paul II than by Darwin”.

Well, as you might guess, I’ve always admired Mario Cuomo’s speeches – even placed one of his best in my own Pantheon of great American expressions – my paperback Documentary History of the United States.

Indeed, as I now revise and update my book for the 8th time since its publication in 1952, I struggle to choose wisely and well from among the very best of Barack Obama’s many extraordinary speeches … from his 2004 Democratic Presidential Convention keynote address; his Springfield, Illinois announcement of his own candidacy for President; his Berlin speech last year; his mesmerizing mid-campaign speech on race relations; his Grant Park speech the night of his election…and now his inspiring First Inaugural Address.

Many expected from it, of course, the power of Lincoln’s, FDR’s and JFK’s Inaugural Addresses all bound up together. Some were disappointed, said that it didn’t – it couldn’t – reach that impossible height.

Yet I rather thought it did, particularly when my wife suggested that I look at and listen to it again – and again – and then heard from it, saw in it – a superb summons to greatness in our times.

Still, what you and I all really want to know is how one great speechmaker judges another.

So, let me ask my very patient guest how he thinks history will – how history should! – judge Barack Obama’s First Inaugural Address.

CUOMO: I think most historians will have the wisdom not to judge it until they see how it was followed with performance. There’s one thing … it’s one thing to judge the speech today, before he’s had a chance to do anything.

A long time ago, 1985, to be exact, I gave a speech at Yale in which I said, “you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose. And the prose is much more difficult.”

I must have heard that thing twenty times in this last election because he, specifically, was talking about change … constantly talking about change. And talking about it poetically. And he did in his speech, talk about it poetically. But that was poetry, he didn’t prescribe specific ways of getting it done. He simply reminded us of how many problems we have. More problems, I think, than any President … any new President has faced in modern history.

And he summoned us to get prepared for the hard struggle and he challenged us to join him in fighting that challenge.

And, and … but what historians will do is to say, “what happened after that? How did he follow the promise in that speech?”

Was there hope in this speech? Oh yes, there was great hope. And you can’t have hope in a speech unless what he says has plausibility. And it did have plausibility because he’s a very intelligent person. And he wrote an intelligent speech.

In describing the problems, he described roughly the values that would carry us to solutions. So I think it was a good speech.

It was not his greatest speech. His greatest speech will come after four years, or after 8 years, when he has to sum up what he did. And when he is finally able to thrill us all by proving to us that we ourselves had the capacity to join him in this great battle and to win it. That will be the great Obama speech. The speech of triumph after he’s successful.

HEFFNER: And if you had to predict now and you can reject the question, of course, what would you predict about whether he will follow through after the speech. Will we permit him to?

CUOMO: We, huh … I think the answer is “Yes, he will be successful.” I think in the first year that won’t be obvious because the economy is the principle difficulty. If you could solve the economy overnight, the other problems would be relatively easy. You wouldn’t have to worry as much about health care … you wouldn’t have to worry as much about real estate and finding a place to live, etc., etc.

But he’s not going to be able to solve the economic problems right away. He has to deal with two problems. The financial aspect of it … the banks and their shortage of money being loaded down with bad investments. How do you get rid of those investments, how do you replace it with cash that they can use to go back into the lending and borrowing business. That’s going to take a long time.

We don’t even have a good hold, at this moment, of how precisely to do that. Paulson started with an idea which he later abandoned within a matter of weeks. And now we’re talking generally about the government giving more bailout money to banks.

But they haven’t gotten detailed about it. They haven’t gotten specific about it. And we’re going to have to get those specifics. There’s still some inventing to do, some designing to do that hasn’t been done.

The second part of it is, the stimulation. Once the banks have the money and once they’re willing to lend it and, and once that part of it has been taken care of, then you have to figure out how to use that money to create jobs. How to use that money to perfect the weaknesses in our health care system.

How to use it to put us back in the business of selling things to the rest of the world. That’s going to require technology because the … we can’t compete with the rest of the world when it comes to labor, and so we have to do it with the ideas and the excellence of those ideas. And that’s going to require education. And so he’s going to have tremendous investments in infrastructure, roads, bridges … in new methods of gathering up energy and sending it where you need it. Ahmm, that will require a lot of infrastructure, too. And, and all of that … but that we can identify. We know what he’s going to be doing there and it makes more sense to us. The part that we don’t understand yet is the financial part.

He’s going to have to do all of that. And that’s only the beginning. I mean once you get the economy done, then what about the world’s hate for one an other … all over the world … wars … all over the world.

How about the fact that you have weapons of mass destruction … not just nuclear weapons in the hands of maybe nine nations. You have weapons of mass destruction in the form of gas and other things all over the world. You have nations ready to start wars against other nations.

You have nations in wars with other nations. You have Palestine and Israel to deal with. And if you don’t deal with that … eventually you can’t, you can’t prevent the terrorism without dealing with Israel’s problems.

And so there’s a great deal for him to do. That’s why I’m hoping against hope that I’m going to live long enough to hear and see his speech of triumph, when finally he makes it after four or eight years.

HEFFNER: You know, sitting here, Governor, the thoughts that run through my mind have to do with now, for the first time, I think I understand why my friend the Governor of New York disappointed so many of us so, when he didn’t run for President of the United States. Am I all wrong?

CUOMO: Well, if you’re suggesting it’s because I had a sense of how difficult it was … and was afraid of it. No, I don’t … that wasn’t, that wasn’t the reason … and we’ve been through this before and it’s gotten to be a boring subject … it happened so long ago and it’s completely academic.

I think the one thing people will not accept from a politician who said “no” to an opportunity to be, at least, a candidate for the Presidency … is if … if I were … had said at the time … as I did … to Abe Rosenthal … may he rest in peace … the great … the great … although occasionally controversial … editor of The New York Times, “Look I’m not at all sure that I’m the best person for … available to be President of the United States. I … I’m a pretty good Governor and I have never lacked for confidence in my ability to handle the Governor’s job … but to ask me to be the head of the world’s greatest superpower, with the power to start a war that could bring a calamity down on the entire globe, I’m not sure that I’m that good. And I’d like to think that somewhere out there there’s somebody better than I am.” And so I’d rather look for that better person then, then take the chore on myself.

He wouldn’t have believed that. And, and he said so. Said, “if you told me that I wouldn’t believe that because that sounds much too modest.”

I said, “It’s not modest, it’s realistic”. And (laughter) you know, he also said this, he said, “I don’t’ think you have that fire in the belly”. And I said, “Abe, show me a guy with fire in the belly and I’ll spritz him in the mouth with seltzer.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Do you think the President of the United States has the ability to deal with all of these problems, compounded over the years since you didn’t run?

CUOMO: I think what I saw, what you saw, what the world saw, because they saw it in Italy, and they saw it in Kenya and they saw it all over the world … they saw him … they did during the campaign [clears throat] … excuse me … and they did at the Inaugural. I, I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of people saw it.

But he lifted the level of hope to as high as it can get. And you can’t do that, you can’t avoid despair, replace it with hope, without a great deal of plausibility, in the hope. You can’t just, you know, have hope because you want to have hope. You have to believe in the possibility that you’re hoping for.

Because of his intelligence, because of his brilliance, because of the way he communicates, because of the fact that he won, because of the fact that he won against the odds, because of the fact that he was an African American and no African American had ever won before … because of the fact that when this campaign started as we all remember and perhaps admit to one another, if we were willing to tell the truth … a lot of people were saying he can’t possibly win … because a Black man can’t win in this country, there were too many people who were bigoted, there are too many racists out there.

That was a very common argument in the beginning of the campaign. And he overcame all of that. And he stood there and spoke with the magic of his words and the way he puts them together and his ideas … and, and it created hope because there was plausibility. Because people say to themselves, “This is a truly bright person.”

And this is a very strong person … bright and strong, he proved it in the campaign. But bright and strong just looking at him … he’s unflappable, nothing seems to make him nervous.

Now, he made a mistake (laughter) but only because a Chief Judge of the Supreme Court (laughter) made the mistake first at the oath, which was one of the funniest things, frankly, I’ve ever seen as a lawyer. A Chief …

HEFFNER: And the President laughed.

CUOMO: Yes, (laughter) and the President did laugh. But that unflappability he has, that poise, that what, you know, people in my old neighborhood would have called “coolness” … no matter what the situation, no matter how hard the debate, no matter how emotional the moment … you just take one look at him and you say, “this guy’s in control.”

And that’s a strength. You put that all together and it creates plausibility. People are saying, “Look, I don’t know how he’s going to do it. But he’s going to give us the change we need.”

He’s not sure how he’s going to do it. And he admits that. He has ideas and he has very smart people that he’s selected who will come up with more ideas.

But at this moment, if you asked him, “Well, do you know precisely how you’re going to get the banks, finally, to have enough money?” He would probably say, “No, but we’ll get there together. And I’m sure we can.”

And I’m sure we can, too, because I trust him. So, do I think he will succeed? Yes. Because I think he has everything it takes to succeed … intelligence, intelligence, the ability to communicate, a strong commitment to values, solid, intelligent values. One of those values is a political value. And it’s the lack of … or the avoidance of rigid ideology.

I remember President Bush, and incidentally something about President Bush I said in an interview in Italy, the other day that got some interest on the other side.

They asked me about President Bush and how I felt about his performance and now that he’s left … etc.…

And I said his, his failure … his Presidency was a failure. But we should remember the Bush family … because before President Bush there was a … another President Bush who was a very good President, and who had a fairly good Presidency and who lost … the second time around – largely because he made one big mistake about taxes. And before him there was another President Bush who served this nation.

And while he was Governor this President Bush … our President Bush, when he was Governor in Texas, there was another Governor in Florida. And so the Bush family … we owe a lot to the Bush family. Ahemm, anyway …

HEFFNER: Why am I so shocked …

CUOMO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … at the time you were taking to say that?”

CUOMO: Well, it, it … I think you shouldn’t be. I think what I’m saying is that there are a lot of great people in this country. And there are a lot of good people in this country. And because you, you find one person in this long line of people who have served … one person who utterly failed … that’s no reason for forgetting all the rest the family has done for us. You, you could probably point to the Kennedy’s or any family and find somebody in the family who didn’t do well in a certain position.

And I, I certainly think that President Bush was a failure, no question about it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t owe his family something.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting talking about the most recent President Bush … ah, 43 … do you think there is any possibility that he would not have performed as poorly as you told our friends in Italy … had he not had Richard Cheney at his side?

CUOMO: I think our President Bush’s problems were profound, they were much more basic than that. He’s not as intelligent as a Barack Obama. He wasn’t as strong in his experience. He wasn’t as strong in his knowledge. It wasn’t just that he … not as intelligent … he wasn’t as knowledgeable. He had very little curiosity even about the rest of the world.

This world as we all know is, is shrinking every day. It’s a much different world than the world of Abraham Lincoln. Much different. It’s much smaller. We’re in one another’s laps. You have to know about Europe and you have to know about the Middle East and you have to know about the rest of the world, or at least you have to know that you should know about them if you’re going to deal with them.

And he had no instinct for that and no, no real concern for it. For he was utterly ill-equipped. And he selected Cheney and Rumsfeld and those people because some of them had worked for his father and he was familiar with them and he figured “well, they’ll do the thinking for me.” Too bad. He picked the wrong people. They did the wrong kind of thinking. They made big mistakes incidentally. They weren’t the only one that made mistakes.

A lot of our Democrats who disagreed with them and criticized them made mistakes including voting for the war in Iraq. So President Bush was just the wrong person for the job. He was simply not up to it.

HEFFNER: You’re talking about President Bush now, what about the election of 2004 in which we had seen what he was capable of and not capable of and we gave him a fairly good Presidential victory.

CUOMO: Shame on us.

HEFFNER: What does that mean about us?

CUOMO: Well, we, we weren’t good at making the judgment. We didn’t pay attention. The … not enough of us showed up. Not enough of us took the race seriously. Maybe, maybe our candidates made mistakes.

I think John Kerry made mistakes. John Kerry would have made a wonderful President. He’s, he’s very bright, he’s very experienced, he has all the things that President Bush didn’t have. But, I think he started too late defending himself against some of the attacks … and that, that proved to be a problem.

And then we came very close. I mean we lost, but we did come very close in that race. And incidentally, that’s another thing. When you win these races, even as Obama has won … he had a comfortable margin … but people tend to think of as though it was a wipeout. As though, you know, the whole country voted for him.

58 million people voted for his opponent. So there’s 58 million people in this country who said “We don’t want Barack Obama”. And that’s something to think about.

There were 64 million that said “We do …” but …

HEFFNER: When you do think about it …

CUOMO: Yeah, when …

HEFFNER: As President … how do you comport yourself in relation to your political opponents?

CUOMO: Well the way you should is the way Barack Obama has. He seeks to embrace those people. He seeks to get them in. He knows they didn’t vote for him, and he knows that some of them, still, will be inclined not to approve of him, until he shows them something.

But he has reached out for them … to them. And he’s not been … he’s not made the mistake, and I don’t think he will make the mistake of saying “Look, I, I have enough to control the policies of this country in the Democrats.”

He doesn’t have enough in the Democrats because he will lose some of the Democrats. And he will need some of the Republicans and he’s very intelligent about it. He knows that. He’s already reached out to them. He’s already entertained the person he beat in the general election. And he’s honored him … McCain. And he … he’s smart about the way he’s handling it.

You need everybody. Now, on the idea … a logical point, which got me onto the Bushes was … I’ll never forget his denying money for S-chip which is a health care plan for children who don’t have health insurance.

It started in New York State. We did it in 1993, 1994 as a State program. And then the Federal government picked it up. And the theory of it is these children desperately need a health insurance plan. Where they can get primary care help to avoid serious problems. And it’s just a matter of the State putting up some money, the Feds putting up some money, getting the insurance companies to take it easy on the rates and give them a nice policy.

It would have covered many, many more children than it already covers if he had been willing … President Bush … to give the money. And here’s what he said. He gave a certain amount of money and then he said, “I would give more to this program except my ideology teaches me that this is the way to socialized medicine.”

Now just think about that. “My ideology” … what is your ideology? Well that if government gives money for health care, you’re on your way to socialized medicine. Socialized medicine? Well then Medicare is socialized medicine, and so we should tear it down. Because it violates your ideology. Socialized medicine?

Eisenhower decided to build roads with Federal money. Because the states weren’t building enough highways and they weren’t connecting the country adequately for the purposes of the economy. Would you call those “socialized roads”?

You know the absurdity of taking that simple principle about … you know government shouldn’t do this, government [shouldn’t do that] … and, and making it a rigid ideology.

Obama’s going to disappoint a lot of extreme Liberals. Because he’s not an ideologue. He believes in what Lincoln believed in. Common sense and benign pragmatism. Now I’ve been through this, I think, with you once before.

By benign pragmatism … I say “benign pragmatism” because my name is Cuomo … Mario Cuomo and if said just “pragmatism” you’d think of Machiavelli …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

CUOMO: … and when people think of Maciavelli they think it’s bad … you know, pragmatism is bad. As you know … pragmatism is not bad. Pragmatism means it works. And so … I add the word “benign” to, to show you that I mean that it works for the good of people.

And so common sense and benign pragmatism … that’s what guide he will use. That’s what Lincoln used. When they asked Lincoln “what do you think of big government, little government and all of that?”

And he says, “Well that, you know, that’s a silly, silly question. Big government, little government. Here’s, here’s what government is. Government is the coming together of people to do for one another collectively what they could not do as well or at all, privately.”

That means you do through a government what you can’t get done through the market system. And if the market system, from the beginning of our nation had taken care of old people who couldn’t take care of themselves … if the market system had provided them with free health care and ways to get it … then you would never have needed Medicaid and Medicare. But it failed … for over 150 years it failed … the, the market system, to take care of those people. And so many of them died simply because they did not have the wealth to take care of themselves.

Well in a case like that you learned, belatedly, that you needed government to do something the market wouldn’t. That’s all you need. Not ideology. Common sense.

Same thing with education. We made big mistakes when we wrote … and you’re an expert on this … the documents … when you wrote that Constitution you should have put in it what the State of New York did when it wrote its Constitution before the Federal Constitution. You should have provided for poverty, you should have provided for health care … in the Constitution. You should have made it a right. You should have said in the Constitution “Nobody in this country will die because of a lack of means to provide health care. Nobody will die ignorant because of a lack of means to get education.” That should have been in the Constitution.

HEFFNER: And you’re just as articulate now as you were when you said those words that I quoted earlier in your First Inaugural Address. Thanks so much for joining me today.

CUOMO: Thanks for having me.

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