Mario Cuomo

Doing for Others What Has Been Done For Us

VTR Date: August 4, 1983

Guest: Cuomo, Mario


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Mario Cuomo
Title: “Doing for Others what has been Done for Us”
VTR: 8/4/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When Mario Cuomo was my guest on the other television series I do each week, From the Editor’s Desk, I pointed out that in his gubernatorial inaugural he had touched thoughts and expressed ideas peculiarly evocative of those another New York governor had offered as he moved on to become President of the United States just 50 years ago. Indeed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous first presidential inaugural was echoed quite clearly in essence and understanding, in philosophy in Governor Cuomo’s attack on the modern resurgence of political thinking that one has to identify with the brutality of 19th Century Social Darwinism in which exploiters of the poor and the unfortunate sought to translate Charles Darwin’s observations of natural phenomena into laws of social behavior. What governor Cuomo said in his inaugural was that survival of the fittest may be a good working description of the process of evolution, but a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order, on which tries to fill the cruel gaps left by chance or by a wisdom we don’t understand. And “I would rather have laws written by Rabbi Hillel or Pope John Paul II than by Darwin”.

Well, that I submit is on a level not attained every day by America’s political leadership. And that’s what I want to talk about with the governor today.

Governor Cuomo, thanks so much for joining me here. I suppose usually people ask you about a race for the presidency, about what’s happening in New York State right at the moment. And I want to talk about Charles Darwin and the Pope and the Rabbi and why you address yourself to larger political questions fro the point of view of the moralist.

CUOMO: I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s the point of view of a moralist. That suggest a whole new frame of reference outside of what I think are the practical and governmental considerations. I think government has a purpose. I think the purpose of government is not just to clear obstacles for the way of the strong so that they can achieve the maximum success that they can make on their own; I think government’s role is to help those who have been left out. I think that for 50 years that ws the government of this nation. I think that that was the kind of government that gave my mother and father an opportunity, people who came here with nothing but the willingness to try and to work, people who had no education, no job, no friends, no money. They were able to live a quiet comfortably after working very hard because this was a society whose government felt it had an obligation to take care of them when they needed relief, to give them a hospital when they couldn’t afford a private doctor, even to give their children education which they couldn’t afford to pay for. So I see myself as the child of parents who were able to succeed in life because of a compassionate, aggressively outgoing government that saw its role as much more ambitious than simply making way for the strong to succeed. I think we’re beginning to forget that. I think all the children who benefited from that kind of generation of aggressive, compassionate government, now that we’ve achieved some comfort of our own we’re adopting a different philosophy, which is; God helps those whom God has helped. And if he left you out, that’s not our problem. I don’t think it’s a moral proposition.

HEFFNER: Why do you shy away from that characterization?

CUOMO: For a lot of reasons. It gets you into a whole different realm. It has certain theological implications and religious implications. Morality and the law are two separate frames of reference. It misleads people too. You say “morality” to some people, they might accuse you of being morally righteous. I’m afraid that it’s the kind of word that I reserve for myself. I’ll make my own moral judgments. What I talk to people about are really matters of law and policy and legal judgments, and that’s a different area altogether. I think frankly, this is a kind of sad time. I think this is a time when people are turned very much in on themselves, have become a lot more self-centered than we used to be, a lot more unsure about our capacities. I think the American people right now, more than the people in New York State, because I see us coming back to a kind of confident aggressivism in the state, but I think the people of the nation know that we now have the largest homeless population that we’ve had in 50 years, the largest number of poor people in our history perhaps. They know that. They’d like to be able to do something about it. They really would. But they’re afraid that government has lost its capacity to deal with the problem, and so they’ve turned to a kind of conservatism that says, “Hey, look, don’t even try dealing with that problem”. And I think that that creates a tension that the American people are unhappy with. They know that we’re not doing the right thing when we let 34 million people live in poverty. But they don’t know the way out of this dilemma. Some people might even call it a moral dilemma. And it’s a very sad time. I think Roosevelt was right, I think we were right for 50 years from 1932 on. I think we were wrong in 1980 no matter how genial and affable the communicator of the neutral. I think a government that says the only capacity we have is to put $1.6 trillion into defense, but we can’t do anything else really for people. I think that’s an unfortunate attitude.

HEFFNER: You seem to t have no sympathy then with those who say it was because of that outreach of government for so many years that we find ourselves in the position we’re in today.

CUOMO: I think that’s a kind of interesting irony. Contradiction’s a better word, because most of the people who’re saying that believe in the government that’s now in Washington. And that government now in Washington has given us more government than we’ve ever had in the history of the nation. The people who came into power in 1980 said, “Our problem is the government tried to do too much”. They then created the largest government budget in history. Only instead of putting it into housing or education or wheelchairs or food for hungry people, they put it into missiles which they swore never to use. And so now we have a $200 billion deficit, a government run completely amok. No progressive liberal democrat in his or her wildest moments would have suggested that we should live with a $200 billion deficit. We have a lot of conservative people who wear vests with 11 buttons who say, “Well, deficits maybe aren’t so bad when they are created by a defense budget and tax cuts”. No, I think we are surrounded by the most palpable contradictions out of the government that now commands. And all of those people who said that we were victimized by government have contradicted themselves by giving us the largest government in history and also many of them, just a teeny bit hypocritical because they were the ones who profited from the government of the last 50 years. I was made comfortable by the government of the last 50 years. A lot of people in my generation were. For us now to turn around and say to the new generation of seekers, the new generation of immigrants who may be a different color and come from a different part of the world but have the very same problem, to say to them, “You should make it on your own”, after we made it thinks to an aggressive government, that’s just a little bit hypocritical.

HEFFNER: But you know, it’s interesting about that. Not so many years ago, back before Ronald Reagan’s victory, there were those members of your own party, liberal members, self-proclaimed liberal members, who were saying that the great society, ultimately the great society had failed. We had thought that government could do this, that, and the other thing, and it worked out that it really couldn’t do so efficiently and effectively enough.

CUOMO: Correct.

HEFFNER: Have you no sympathy with that point of view?

CUOMO: Of course. It’s a correct point of view. Every government fails. Every government fails to be perfect.

HEFFNER: I’m not talking about perfection.

CUOMO: Oh, no. To suggest that the government of the last 50 years, for the great society, failed to make people more comfortable, to educate them, just look at the numbers. Just look at the record. Al Smith wasn’t so wrong. Just look at the record. There are more minority people graduating from high school, there are more minority people living better, there are more people generally living better thanks to the programs of the last 50 years. There is no question that it meant enormous progress for us. Was there waste? Indeed. But is there waste in the defense budget? David Stockman would tell you even more than there was in the great society. And so the question now is where you wish to put your wealth. Waste it in a defense budget? Achieve some good and social programs? Of course they can be overdone. Andy good purpose can be overdone. And it was. But so is the present conservatism. I think overall the excesses of the past I prefer very much to the excesses of the moment that produce nothing good for anybody but munitions manufacturers and some very wealthy people.

HEFFNER: Governor Cuomo, how would you identify those excesses of the past?

CUOMO: We started some programs with very high aspirations but made the mistake of thinking that all it would take is expenditure of money. We thought that all you’d need to do is relieve people’s temporary discomfort when what you really should have done was to teach them to relieve it themselves by providing them with opportunities to work. And we weren’t, I don’t think, careful enough to give people self-sufficiency in the beginning. We built a welfare program that lured them away from self-sufficiency. And in doing so I think we debilitated them to a great extent. I think we’re on the right path now with job training and job training partnership programs and the kinds of things you see in this state where we’re teaching, for example, women on welfare to care for other women on welfare’s children so that they can go out and work. And that, incidentally, contrary to what was popular wisdom until recently, the attitude of the people out of work is that they want to work. You remember the 60s and the early 70s where everybody looked at the welfare population, everybody who wasn’t in the welfare population, and said that if they really wanted to work they could. But then you showed a few opportunities in the middle of New York City for 300 jobs and 4,000 people showed up and you began to understand that everybody does essentially want to work. So we made mistakes. They were mistakes born of good intention. They were mistakes of ineptitude, mistakes of short-sightedness. But once we learned the lessons instead of improving on the programs and becoming more efficient we began to abandon them. We’re not in the period of abandonment. But if we live long enough it will change because all of this is a pendulum. Our only real strength is to react. And what will happen is, now we’ll move into conservative…Reagan wins again in ’84, ’88…I guarantee you you’ll have a liberal, if only because the other guys have been in power for eight years.

HEFFNER: I won’t ask you at this point whether you have any suggestions as to who that liberal should be in ’88. Or should I ask you?

CUOMO: I wouldn’t know. I’m not sure who the candidates for the Democratic Party should be in ’84. I really don’t know. I think right…I think its very interesting. We talked to a group in Washington. A candidate could be broken down in terms of two elements that he or she has: persona, the personality, whatever emanations that result from their look and their style and their sound and the way they behave; and their ideas. Reagan has this incredible persona. Reagan was Reagan before he was president. He had an identity before he became president, and that identity has remained. As a matter of fact, it eclipsed the presidency, when Gorsich and the EPA were a disaster. I mean, that never touched Reagan. When the economy went to heck, well, he suffered a little loss of popularity, but not as much as anyone else might have. That’s because his persona was so dominant that it eclipsed the events around him. He was still Ronald Reagan: attractive, genial, a miracle, black hair at age 71, you know, without a barber’s help. And he had that. On the democratic side, the only candidate who has any of that celebrity persona is John (???)…Not as much as Reagan had, perhaps, but he definitely has celebrity. As for ideas, if you ask the six candidates or seven candidates on the democratic side, “What idea do you have for us that will allow the American people to feel inspired or to feel confident or to think we can do it differently and better?” I don’t know what they would answer. I haven’t heard the idea. So on the democratic side at the moment you have a kind of limited persona quantum, and no ideas yet that have inspired anybody. That’s going to have to change if we’re to win.

HEFFNER: You know, I tell myself that on THE OPEN MIND one doesn’t talk about politics, one doesn’t deal with these matters. I can’t help as we sit here at the beginning of August 1983 nevertheless asking you whether there is a backlog of ideas that you have not heard expressed by the now six candidates for the democratic nomination that you would put forth.

CUOMO: There are a lot of ideas I think that you’ll hear before the campaign is over. Whether they’re mine or someone else’s is really not important, I don’t think. You need to have some mechanism to reignite the engine of the economy. President Reagan thought in 1980 that a tax cut would do it, and obviously it didn’t. It wasn’t enough. You need to do something to help the old industries that are deteriorating, like the steel industry, Lackawanna and Allstate, the old Bethlehem Steel. You need smoothing to supply then with the capacity to compete, because you can’t simply walk away from all the old steel vending industries and leave the generation of steel workers who are now 35, 45, 50 years old, leave them by the side of the road as the price we pay for progress as we move into high tech. That’s absurd.

HEFFNER: But don’t these six candidates say the same sort of thing?

CUOMO: No. For example, we need something like a reconstruction finance mechanism, something, some kind of device, whether it’s the Kennedy device or the Felix Roledon device or Frank Wile device, we need something that will help us to generate the capacity to deal with those old industries, and give us the capital we need for that. We need an approach to environmental problems that doesn’t leave it all to the fates. We need to be aggressive about acid rains. We’re doing nothing at the national level to prevent them from the Midwest, really. I mean, we’re sitting here being rained upon by the coal dusts of the Midwest and there’s a national government that completely ignores that. That’s what Watt is all about. I think we have a lot of ideas. We need someone who will step forward. John Glenn probably is the best to do this because he’d be instantly credible on the subject of defense, to step forward and say, “Hey, wait a minute. There was waste in food stamps. Everybody knows that. All you have to do is get on a line in a supermarket. There was waste in welfare. Lord knows we’re familiar with that. You have the same waste in defense. We’re not going to allow a company to sell us a manual for a missile for a million and a half dollars. And Dave Stockman sat there and said there was $30 billion in waste. I’m going to do something about that waste and I’m going to put it into education and teach children how to use computers”. Now, you need somebody who can say that, mean it. Reagan obviously doesn’t mean it. Because Stockman said there was $30 billion in waste and nothing happened. I mean, you don’t even have an Inspector General of waste. You couldn’t bring anybody to this table out of the federal government to explain to me how you people go after waste. You have an Inspector General for food stamps. You’d put a guy in jail for cheating you on welfare. When’s the last time you locked up a manufacturer for beating you in a deal on a missile?

HEFFNER: Now, I didn’t quite understand you. Are you saying John Glenn could be saying these things? He does say these things?

CUOMO: Credible. Yes, because I think the American people…No, he doesn’t say them yet. But he will, I hope, before it’s over. Oh, but John Glenn has an advantage on the other candidates. He was a marine and an astronaut. And the way we are as an American people, if he says to you, “Look, I know how to make you safe. I did it. I was a great hero. So I’m telling you you can take $30 billion out of the budget in waste and still be safe”.

HEFFNER: He sounds as though he’s your candidate.

CUOMO: No. No. Right now the candidate I know best is Mondale. And I supported him as part of the Carter/Mondale team in 1980. I don’t have a candidate at the moment. I’m just trying to be objective about the strengths and weaknesses that I see. Glenn also has some problems. There’s some problems on the subject of Israel. He has some problems with some votes he’s had, there’s some problems in the Northeast. If you took a poll now he couldn’t win New York State.

HEFFNER: You think he could win two years from now?

CUOMO: My mother has this wonderful expression. She says, “Between now and then…”…which means, “Between now and then a pope will be born”. Who knows what will happen, Dick?

HEFFNER: I don’t know why I said two years from now. I really didn’t mean quite that long, though it may take two years before a viable democratic candidate surfaces.

You know, as you spoke about your own feelings about this matter, I couldn’t help but think about a program I did with Alan Greenspan here in which I said that perhaps it’s time that we asked people in public life those most basic questions: “Are you a Hobbesian or a Lockeian?” Talk to them about their basic political philosophies. And I presume that what you’ve said as governor, in your campaign for governor, what you’re saying now, reflects an attitude toward the nature of human nature that could be described, could be set against the yardstick that would measure the six candidates for the Democratic nomination and candidates for Republican nomination. You think you could identify your fix on the nature of human nature that leads you to say the things you do and do the things that you do?

CUOMO: I don’t know. That’s very, very difficult. I have a certain set of predicates that are so fundamental to everything I believe and everything I do, that I kind of take them for granted and don’t reflect upon them a great deal. I think the best thing that you can do in life after you preserve yourself against the elements and the attack is to improve the conditions of other people’s lives. I don’t think it takes a genius to know that the thing that has come closest to giving people satisfaction in life is loving other people. Now, we don’t like to use the word “love” because it sounds terribly weak or affected. But that’s what Buddha talked about and Maimonides and Jesus and every great thinker. I mean, they all had one version of the golden rule or another. And I think way down deep everybody feels the way a mother feels about a child, the perfect satisfaction you get for having given yourself totally. And I really think there’s a little bit of that in everybody in the sense that, hey look, if I can, if I can afford to without hurting myself or getting damaged in the process, I’d like to be able to help. I’d like to be able to share, I’d like to be able to spread happiness. I really believe that. I believe the American people are very much like that. I believe the American people are the kind of people who when they see somebody down on one knee, their first instinct is to help them up. I think we’ve always been that way. That’s a very important part of the way I see government. See, I think the Reagan government, the instinct of the conservative is to say, “Nonsense. If the guy’s on one knee, he probably belongs there. I mean, everybody knows you could do…My father did it on his own, didn’t he? Why can’t they do it on their own?”

HEFFNER: That’s the survival of the fittest, isn’t it?

CUOMO: What they forget is that when their father came here and couldn’t speak the language it was a federal officer that let him into Ellis Island. It was Mary Immaculate Hospital that gave him a free bed. It was Relief that gave him a check. It was a WPA project that put him to work. They want to forget that. They now say, “Hey, make it the way my old man made it”. Well, your old man made it with the WPA.

HEFFNER: But you know, that’s predicated – you talk about predicates here, and you wanted to avoid the use of the word “moral” as we began – but what you’re talking about is a sense of one’s moral obligations, isn’t it?

CUOMO: No, it’s a human instinct. It’s a kind of human instinct. And I believe that. I think there’s another human instinct, and it’s called “fear, greed, taking care of yourself, taking care of your own family”. I think the job of the government is to somehow bridge the gap between these two instincts; the instinct to give, to share, to want to see other people better off than they are, and this instinct to take care of yourself. And so the job for government is to show everybody their particular self-interest in the good of a neighbor. Two thousand years ago in the Old Testament they talked about it: “You must learn to find in the good of the whole community your own good”. So we’re going, we have a Rebuilt New York Bond Issue in New York State. What you have to show every part of the state is that by helping New York City or helping…County you help us all. You have to bridge that gap between the instinct to share and the instinct to be…yourself.

HEFFNER: All right. It is just how large that gap is that where we come down to the question before us. You say, “Immense”. You know, again coming back to the Greenspan program, I’ve always been particularly interested because I felt that what he was saying was that that gap is immense and that the notion that I am my brother’s keeper is to some extent secondary in terms of the nature of human nature to a self-seeking instinct on the part of human beings. And therefore the question of whether we will provide what we have provided in the last 50 years and the 50 years ahead for the unfortunate becomes very important because where is it indicated that American people are stretching out, reaching out to tax themselves more impressively to find in their own pockets the means by which they’ll be their brothers’ keepers?

CUOMO: You know, a couple of thoughts, Richard. The American people would tax themselves more willingly than they do now if they believed that government would spend the money properly. The American people…If you put the question to the American people now, “Will you tax yourself more for better education so that your kids can learn computers?” The answer would be 65 percent “yes”.

HEFFNER: And for someone else’s kids?

CUOMO: Even for someone else’s kids, because they understand that education is important to the survival of all of us and to the future of all of us. The reason the American people won’t pay a tax or don’t want to pay a tax is they feel it’s being abused. Some of us feel if you’re going to admit blithely on television to $30 billion of waste, if you’re going to put $40 billion into a B-1 that half of the population of Washington says is obsolete, why should I give you more money? You don’t know how to spend it. You’ll either give yourself a raise or blow it on a bomber or make a corrupt deal. That’s their attitude. It’s not that they’re not willing to sacrifice. Our people are great at it. We are born to people who came here out of sacrifice. My father and mother’s life, and the reason I talk about it all the time is because it is typical in this country, they gave up a whole lifetime just sot that the next generation would be a little bit more comfortable. Everybody has a grandparent or a great grandparent. I was blessed to have a mother and father like that. So we’re born out of sacrifice. We understand it. Let me tell you, Richard, the notion of family says everything that I’m having such difficulty saying here very simply and understandably. Alan Greenspan’s notion that people find it difficult to remove themselves from this selfishness, if you will. That’s why the idea of family is so instructive. What it says to people is, look, consider form primitive times we have decided that the best kind of culture was a culture that understands the need to come together. What is a family? A family is a coming together of a group of people for the good of the whole. A family is children who put money in the pot, into a common treasure, and when one kid is a cripple and needs an operation you take it out of the treasure. You don’t say, “Well, no, you didn’t contribute tot the pot. You happened to be a cripple who couldn’t work, so, you know, you can’t afford an operation, no operation”. Family doesn’t work that way. A family shares benefits and burdens. We all understand it. We all take it for granted. And all I’m saying to the people of New York, and they’re beginning to hear it, is, “Hey, look, why shouldn’t a government work that way? If it was intelligent enough for the cave people to think up this notion, if we have lived eons with family as a device to keep it, why not think of ourselves in this state as a family?”

HEFFNER: You would concede, I assume, that others might feel otherwise without merely being protective of their own financial interests, wouldn’t you?

CUOMO: I say, Richard, that in the State of New York and in the nation of the United States, I will not speak beyond that. We all think like families with very little difficulty, at least in clear situations. For example, AIDS. AIDS appeared to be striking a very well-delineated portion or our population. Homosexuals, it appears, are especially vulnerable to AIDS. What happened in the State of New York? We put together a program for $5 million without any difficulty at all. Everybody on both sides of the aisle. People who were homosexuals, people who were not homosexuals. No one paused to say, “Hey look, I’m not a homosexual”. There weren’t a lot of people in this country who believe as one columnist and commentator on television whose name I won’t even utter, “Well, this is the price you pay for violating some of God’s law, and God is punishing you”. In our state there was a genuine family response that here are people in difficulty. It’s not affecting me. It’s affecting only a small part of this population. It never will affect me, but I will give my tax dollars. The homeless. Fifty million dollars we gave for the homeless in the State of New York when we had a $1.6 billion deficit. That could only be a family notion, because the people who are giving the money and paying it are people with homes.

HEFFNER: Governor, we belong to a family, and I have to say the family is waving that our time is up. Thank you so much for joining me today, Mario Cuomo.

CUOMO: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.