Mario Cuomo

Reason To Believe, Part I

VTR Date: November 14, 1995

Guest: Cuomo, Mario


Guest: Mario Cuomo
Title: “Reason to Believe” Part I
VTR: 11/14/95

I’m Richard Heffner, and I do indeed have an Open Mind. But it’s not so open that my brains have fallen out, nor do I think of presiding over a weekly program like this one for so many years requires that I be an intellectual eunuch. I have, of course, on the air, rather much muted my personal convictions, political and otherwise, and I’ve been particularly pleased over the years with the many letters that impatiently demand to know just precisely where I stand on one issue or another discussed on this program.

Actually, I’ve been most satisfied when attacked both for leaning too far to the left and for leaning too far to the right on the same Open Mind subject. On one subject, however, I’ve never been neutral, and offer that full disclosure, if you will, right up front. I’ve always hoped that my guest today would someday run for the presidency of the United States. And so I introduce Mario Cuomo, former three-term governor of New York with that bit of personal wishful thinking very much in mind as we parse his exhilarating new Simon and Schuster testament, Reason to Believe.

Another old friend I salute at the end of each Open Mind, Edward R. Murrow, used the title, This, I Believe. And I would ask Mario Cuomo what larger social constructs we Americans will likely come to believe if we ever embrace what his idol, Abraham Lincoln, called “the better angels of our nature.”

CUOMO: I think the point I try to make in the book, more than any other, is that, in the end, in order to elevate this society to the levels of civility and strength, and even sweetness, that we’re capable of, you have to think of yourselves as a community. You have to see a relationship between and among all the parts. The parts being, principally, the people. There is interconnectedness. There is interdependence. The struggle now, it seems to me, can be described as a struggle by the Republican right, mostly, saying we should go back to some form of rugged individualism. I think of it as a kind of primitive individualism. That says, in effect, you know, “We’ll clear the path, and you will use your best abilities on an open field. And as for those who are disabled and too old to run or too weak to run, or who don’t know how to run, they’re on their own.” And those people who say, “No, that doesn’t make sense.” It might have when you were all villages for the first 150 years, the first 150 years of our development. But in this more complicated world it’s obvious that we should pool our strengths to some extent, and, while insisting that everybody run as hard as he or she can, we ought to teach them how to run. If they have an impediment, we ought to help them get rid of it. We ought to help empower people to be as strong as they can as individuals. And so we ought to have a blend of personal responsibility, absolutely, stronger than we do at the moment. The old days can teach us that. But also an intelligent communal sense. Not a mushy genuflecting to the principle of Tzedakah or charity. That’s not what I’m talking about, although I believe in that. But an intelligent recognition that you will find your greatest individual capacity by strengthening the whole community.

I think the path to perfection, from the slime to the sublime, the whole universe’s direction, is by way of integration, not disintegration, not fragmentation. We’re now fragmenting ourselves; I think we have to come together. That’s the basic principle. When we understand that we’ll do better.

HEFFNER: You know, I was going to ask you when you would say that, because you said it in your inaugural address, as governor, the first inaugural address as governor of the State of New York. I remember taking note then, in 1983, “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. One which tries to fill the cruel gaps left by chance or by a wisdom we don’t understand. I would rather have laws written by Rabbi Hillel or Pope John Paul II than by Darwin.” I can’t help but ask you the question: Why hasn’t that point of view prevailed? It is so humane, it is so much American, it is so much Lincolnian. Why hasn’t it prevailed?

CUOMO: This, we have the time on this show to think, which makes this show unique. So we can do this in two steps. I think the first point you have to make in answering that question is the point that this show makes so brilliantly. The very idea that this Open Mind notion of lengthy, relatively lengthy talk with nuance, with depth, with analysis, that is unique if not unusual, is a very good indication of what’s happened to us over 50 years. Over 50 years, I think this society has become saturated with information, thanks to the electronic progress we’ve made. For 50 years we have sat there and learned all about everything, for ten hours a day, if we like, without philosophy, without editors, without translations, for the most part. All of a sudden, in this blink of an eye, as you measure it, history, we’re sitting there learning everything, just so filled with information that we’ve lost the time to think, to analyze, to speculate. We are more knowledgeable and less smart than we have been probably in our history, and that reflects itself in many different ways. The simple wisdom of: You have to do something for those kids in the ghetto, you have to think of them as connected to you, in self-interest, and if you don’t take care of them, they’ll probably get on drugs, and you pay for it, crime, and you pay for it, they’ll lose their productivity, and you pay for it. So, in this case, compassion and common sense come together. The simple intelligence of that has gotten lost somehow. And now we have been fooled into believing that all those attempts at interconnectedness and interdependence, trying to invest in people who may for the time being have less capacity than you, they don’t work, that you waste your money with anything called welfare. Even public education. Maybe we should walk away from public education and let everybody do it in the private system, starting with vouchers. We have closed our eyes to common sense. We’re tempted by this new truth, which, for those of us who are capacitated, is very, very self-indulgent and very, very tempting. Because what it says is, “Hey, look, I don’t need that kind of help. I’m the one who’s going to pay for it; I won’t get it. I am enough for me.” Of all the retreats from intelligence, of all the departures from sophistication, that’s one of the most egregious. Believing that I am enough for me. The cavemen knew better than that. That’s why they formed families and clans and tribes. Everybody understands that you are not enough for you. And when you become the center of your universe, you condemn yourself to despair. But we’ve lost that over 50 years. Will you win it back? You try it this way, in the way the Contract with America says you should, you know, the heck with the kids in the ghetto, the heck with the baby who made a baby. Just shout a sermon at her, castigate her. Don’t help her in any way. Don’t give her a job, don’t give her an education, don’t improve her housing, don’t improve her community; just shout at her. You try it. And what will happen is you will see the hardening of hearts occurring all around you, and you will reject it as a society. That’s beginning to happen. They haven’t even implemented it yet, and it’s beginning to happen. And we’re reduced to a very practical bottom line. Ask yourself politically: Why won’t the Republicans, as we speak today, why won’t the Republicans incorporate all of their new harshness into a bill and hand it to President Clinton, and say, “We’re not going to talk to you about compromise deals. We don’t want to compromise. We’re right. You’re wrong. Here’s our bill. Cut welfare, cut Medicaid, cut Medicare, cut everything, take care of the rich people, invest in the owners who are already doing well. Here’s the bill. You tell America how you feel.” Now, why don’t they do that? Why are they slowing everything down demanding that Clinton come to the table? Because in their heart of hearts they cannot stand that confrontation of their new harshness all in one piece, all theirs, up for judgment by the American people. It would be rejected. Why did they want Colin Powell, who agrees in everything with Clinton, if this new harshness, this individualism, this selfishness would work so well? Because they knew it wouldn’t. And they knew, a lot of them, that Colin Powell was more acceptable than their program.

HEFFNER: But why wouldn’t it work? Would it not work because we are a more tender-hearted people?


HEFFNER: Then why?

CUOMO: We’re smarter. We’re not a tender-hearted people. We never have been. And there’s something else we have to admit to ourselves if we’re to have an open mind. Incidentally, I borrowed your line. I do a little radio show now on Saturdays. It’s syndicated nationally. And I say, when I have to hang up on somebody who is just being stupid, I say, “We’re open to everything but a closed mind.” And I hang up.

HEFFNER: Fair enough. As long as you give credit…

CUOMO: We’re the open mind radio show. We have never been tender-hearted. We have been racist from the beginning. We have been brutal — not everyone, maybe not Heffner and Cuomo, maybe not — but in our beginning we were racist. “You are redskins and you do not use this land well enough. We are European. We are smarter and better than you. And we are entitled, above you, beyond which, we have weapons you don’t have. So we will kill you and drive you off the land unless you give it to us.” We are the most violent people in the world. We are, in many ways, the most lawless. We are the most drug-ridden. Five percent of the world’s population; 50 percent of the world’s cocaine. All of this because of our beginnings, and because of our immaturity. We’re only a couple of hundred years old as a nation and a society that has groups and nations that are thousands of years old. So we have a lot to learn.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but how then can you expect work of us?

CUOMO: Self-interest. Tender-heartedness? Yeah, in our youthful way we’re very generous too. We have plenty of volunteerism. 140,000 people fight fires in the State of New York, for example. Only about 30,000 of them are paid. All the others do it free. They’re called “volunteer firepeople.” And that’s just an example. The Catholic church built the first AIDS hospital in New York City, with volunteers, you know, people going in to serve the AIDS patients. So we have generosity too. But what the American people will come to conclude and are beginning to perceive is that two-thirds of this country, at the very least, is struggling. The poor people are despairing, but the middle class is now sliding downward. Sixty-one percent of our workers, people in this studio perhaps included, maybe you and I, 61 percent are low- or moderate-skilled people. Only 39 percent are high-skilled workers. And in this global economy, where you declare record earnings and 3,000 layoffs in one breath, those 61 percent are being pushed out of their jobs. They’re being downsized out of existence. They’re losing to Taiwanese, they’re losing to Germans, they’re losing to other people. They’re going from their $50,000 job to a $20,000 job without health care. So they are now a new, embattled group. And sooner or later, and they’re beginning now, they detect their similarity to the group under them. They’re sliding downward. The group at the top is very small. It’s getting stronger. And all these new harsh policies have the effect of saying no to the strugglers, and yes to the successful. Your tax cut. They’ll throw you a few pennies, $500 a kid. But if you’re making $20,000 or $22,000, what good is the tax credit? What taxes will you use it against? You’re broke. You don’t have health care. You know, you can barely pay your bills. But it’s a great break for a guy who has capital gains. And the people who have capital gains are already doing well. If you had mutual funds this last year, you made 30 percent, 20 percent on your money. Why do they need incentives? And the people are starting to figure that out. You’re going to cut my Medicare and give defense $7 billion more than was asked for by the admirals and generals? Why would you do such a thing? And so now we’re beginning to detect, number one, the unfairness of it, and the stupidity of it. If I have only 61 percent of us with high skills that can compete with the rest of the world that pay low wage rates, I should be the most skilled worker in the world because I have to compete with a guy who is going to be paid a lot less than I am. The only way to beat him is through productivity. He should be educating me. No, no. We can’t afford to educate you. We’re going to give tax cuts, and we’ll cut education. See, the common sense of it is coming to bear on the American people. They’re saying, “This isn’t working. Forget about compassion. This isn’t working. First of all, it’s unfair to me, and I’m part of the two-thirds or more. Secondly, we can’t make it this way. If you’re going to have two-thirds of us and more as an anchor on our society, what are you going to have? A society of the elite? The shining city on the hill, and all the rest of us living in the gutter? Doesn’t work.”

Now, all of that wasn’t made clear in 1994, in the so-called revolution. But it’s beginning to get clear now. Why do you think Clinton is sitting back smiling, not yet smirking — he has to be careful — but smiling? Saying, “No, no, no, Republicans. I’m not coming to the table. Just tell the Americans again what you’re going to do to Medicare. Just explain that to them. That you’re going to cut the Medicare for the old, sick people, deny it to some poor, old, sick people, deny some child a meal, but you have $245 billion to give away in tax cuts. Explain that to them again.”

So I think our common sense, I think one thing we always have been is smart. One thing we always have been is survivors. And the people who need to struggle to survive, they’re beginning to figure this thing out. They’re not there yet, but they’re getting there.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m puzzled, I must admit. You’re the most eloquent man I know. And my question, of course, is when you speak that way, then why aren’t you running for the presidency, or maybe you will this next time around. But I would ask you, I read from your first inaugural. That wasn’t a very practical point that you made, “I would rather have laws written by Rabbi Hillel or Pope John Paul II than by Darwin.” Darwin was the practical one. I don’t mean Darwin. The social Darwinians were, in a sense. You were saying something different. You weren’t talking about a utilitarian approach, as you are now.

CUOMO: It is both. It is both utilitarian and sweet. Here. The ancient Hebrew one asks, “What would you have of me, Lord?” And the Lord answers the Hebrew and says, “Tecun olam,” “Repair the universe.” Now, what does “Repair the universe” mean? Well, “Repair the universe” means, when I say it to you, what “Be a collaborator in creation” means when I say it to the Christian. It means you have to understand you’re related to the whole world around you, and you have to contribute to it.

Incidentally, here’s a footnote. “Tzedakah” means you have an obligation to treat everybody as your brother and sister. Why do I need to do that, Lord? Well, look, because I’m out of time and I don’t want to get too subtle with you. Because it’s good for you. Believe me. It’s good for you. Take care of your brother, take care of your sister, take care of the whole family. Jeremiah says later, “You will find your own individual good in the good of the whole community.” So love is sweet. And love suits most of us. If we thought we could afford to love, we’d love a lot more. And you can’t afford not to love. That’s the truth of it when you come to understand it. That when they say you treat everybody as your brother and sister, that’s the way you can grow. That’s the only way you can grow in this society, if you are a collectivity like this nation.

So I meant everything I said in 1984. What has changed since then is people have gotten more utilitarian. People have gotten more pragmatic. And so now you have to remind them that there are two reasons for doing it. One is it’s sweet. The other reason is it works. Nothing else will work for you here. You can’t leave out the struggling middle class and the poor in your calculations and say, “We’ll go with just the strength we derive from the top.” The place will explode. After awhile there’d be a revolution. There always is. You can’t do it that way.

Matilda and I were in Moscow in 1987. I came back from Moscow and said, “The Cold War is over. Forget about it.” The New York Times did an editorial blasting me, saying, “He doesn’t know anything about foreign policy. He oughtn’t to run.” And I talked to some reporters about that. And they said, “What do you think of the editorial?” I said, “Well, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know anything about television, they don’t know anything about basketball.” I said, “Basketball? You have Russians playing here. With guys who are making a million dollars. Then the Russians have to go back and stand on line for a potato. Are you kidding? Do you think you can have people play basketball with people who make a million dollars, and then go back and stand in line for a potato, and say, ‘That’s all right. This is the appropriate way for me to live.’ Do you think that you can see Americans on your television set living the way we live and keep control of a country where, you know, the alcoholism rate is killing people, where they’re living a primitive, barbaric… It won’t happen. They will become so discontent.” I said, “Gorbachev is not a great leader, pushing them up the mountain. He’s sprinting to stay in front of them. They’re going, they’re moving. They’re going to throw this system over.” I said, “What you have to be concerned about is, having thrown over the system, if they don’t construct an economy in an awful hurry, the lines may be longer for the potatoes. Then where do they go? So you have to deal with the economic problem.”

But in terms of how people will react to the recognition that you are gathering the goods of your society and just, you know, shunting them up to a very small percentage of the people… What percentage of the people do you think, Dick, make $150,000 in this country? One? Two percent of the people make $150,000? Is that so much in New York City? You know, $150,000. Only one percent make that. Fifty-five percent of the people in this country make under $35,000, $34,000. Working people. Fifty-five percent make less than $34,000. How do you live? You couldn’t live in Manhattan. You couldn’t have kids. You couldn’t be married. You couldn’t do what Matilda and I did: raise five kids, leave Matilda home on one middle-class salary. Five kids, have a Belair Chevrolet, a cape cod, and live reasonably well. Can’t happen.

Now, I recognize that and my kids recognize that, because they lived with me as a middle-class family. And they know they can’t do what I did. And they resent that. They’re better educated, they’re smarter, they’re better looking, they’re tougher than I am, and they can’t do what I did. Of course they’re angry. How long before that anger puts together the bottom and the middle and turns on the top? So I think the change is inevitable.

HEFFNER: When, years ago, we’ve done many programs together. One of them was on teaching values in the schools. You weren’t then talking about teaching the value posed by the question: Am I my brother’s banker or broker? It was: Am I my brother’s keeper? And the answer, to you, was yes. You seem to have shifted. No? You seem to be saying times have changed, one has to be utilitarian, pragmatic.

CUOMO: No, no, no, no. I’m saying, Dick, it has always been true, it has always been true, and I have always believed that there is a moral obligation to live this way, that I am my brother’s keeper. A moral obligation. In every family, in every society, you have a moral obligation. Just on the basis of what is right and wrong, whether it’s good for you or not good for you. Put that aside. You have a moral obligation to take care of people. Every religion understands that. And if you’re a Christian you ask what is the rule, and the lawyer, tempting Jesus, says, “What is the rule? Sum it up in a single sentence.” And Jesus plays the game and says, “You really want to have it in… You’re a wiseguy. You think I can’t do it in one sentence. Here it is: Love one another as you love yourself, for the love of me.” Love one another as you love yourself. Now, that’s essential pragmatism. He understood you do love yourself, you know how to take care of yourself. Well, love the people around you, incidentally, tzedakah, love the people around you as you love yourself, that same pragmatism. Apply it to your brother and sister. Why? For the love of me. Who am I? A greater truth. What I’m really telling you is this is right. He’s also telling you implicitly it’s also the best thing for you. So those two things come together. It is not going to hurt you to strengthen your family. Eventually, as a family grows strong, everybody grows strong. It won’t hurt this country to take some wealth, not too much, not to confiscate, not to kill incentive. Today’s budget is a very good example of that. Instead of $7 billion more than the generals and admirals ask for in the defense budget, move that over and put it into education, put it into job training. Especially education since they’re going to school 210 days, we’re only going 180 days. Will that cost you something? Well, there’s a case where it won’t cost you anything, because you’re wasting it in defense. You’re just, you know, creating some jobs in Connecticut where they’re making a submarine or something… That’s all political money. So, there are ways to do it.

No, I haven’t changed at all. The emphasis was on the language of compassion. If you look in the book, for example, you’ll see, in 1974, my first political speech to the New Democratic Coalition in this city, the City of New York, I said, in my first political speech ever, that one of the things that the liberals are doing wrong is you are pushing the middle class out of the Democratic Party and to the right. And with a heavy hammer forged by that coalition of wealth and power on the extreme right, with the middle class, they’re going to forge a hammer that beats the poor into oppression. That began with Reagan just a few years after that, when the old Democrats, the blue-collar Democrats got pushed out. And I said, “And how are you doing this? With your rhetoric. With your failure to acknowledge the subtlety of this issue, making everything a moral issue. Saying, you know, you have a moral obligation to do this without pointing out how it is also practically beneficial to them to encourage the poor.”

HEFFNER: Will you stay where you are?

CUOMO: Yeah.

HEFFNER: We have a few seconds left.

CUOMO: Sure.

HEFFNER: I want to talk about Reason to Believe. We’ll do another program. And I want you to parse this. I was hoping you’d begin, “I was hoping that a great chorus of voices would rise up to say what seemed to me most clear.” And then what you’re saying here is what I would have said: “And a great chorus of voices didn’t rise up.” And I want to ask you about that. So stay where you are, Mario Cuomo, please, and we’ll see you next time.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time too. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $4 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another 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.