Mario Cuomo

The Principles of Governance, Part I

VTR Date: May 3, 1986

Guest: Cuomo, Mario


VTR: MAY 3, 1986

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And it’s actually been 30 years now since I said that for the first time. It’s early May 1986 as we record this program; I began THE OPEN MIND in early May 1956. And perhaps nothing changes. Then THE OPEN MIND’S first two programs were about the American Presidency: Dwight Eisenhower was in the Whit House; John F. Kennedy would succeed him in a few years. This week’s 30th anniversary program – and next week’s, too – must also at least touch on the Presidency…for my distinguished guest, who in his wisdom doesn’t totally deny or confirm, is so often suggested these days for the highest office in our land: Mario Cuomo, the Democratic Governor of New York. I didn’t, of course, ask the Governor to join me on THE OPEN MIND today to discuss a Cuomo Presidency. I suspect that if I had, he wouldn’t have. But his thoughts and words and deeds as Governor – throughout his life, in fact, if one takes the time to study them – contribute so importantly to any effort to understand this great nation he may someday lead, that I want again to press him closely on where it is he believes the thoughtful American – indeed, Americans as a family, to use his favorite metaphor – must take a stand and say: “This I believe.” To be sure, to many Mario Cuomo said it best in his inaugural address, attacking the resurgence of political thinking he identified with the b totality of 19th century social Darwinism in which exploiters, of America’s unincluded sought to translate Charles Darwin’s observations of natural phenomena into laws of social behavior. Governor Cuomo said 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, one which tries to fill the cruel gaps left by chance of b y a wisdom we don’t understand.” He said, “I would rather have laws written by Rabbi Hillel or Pope John Paul II than by Darwin.” Eloquent words. Heart warming thoughts. But I want to ask Governor Cuomo if what we have done as a people in the years since his inaugural address may not indicate that his is a lonely kind of stand. Governor, is it a lonely stand? Is this Mario Cuomo speaking these wonderful thoughts without the backing of the American people?

CUOMO: That is very hard to say. If you were to use presidential elections as the criteria, then I think … which most people probably do … I think what happens is they interpret President Reagan’s first victory and then his second victory as a confirmation of an attitude that says no. What you said about Hillel and Francis of Assisi is not appropriate. We have a new view, or a different…it’s not a new view, it is actually quite and old view, it does all the way back to Hoover and before, a different view of government ad that is that we’ve tried to do too much for people and what you ought to do now is simply let the natural processes work, help the fit to succeed, encourage the business environment, and the rest will happen naturally. We call it supply side in its latest form, and that’s what Stockman is talking about. Stockman says it was all a cont game, but I’m not sure that the American people are yet ready to agree with Stockman. We’ll probably find out a little bit better in the next election.

HEFFNER: Governor, why do you say you’re not so sure? What do you base the question mark on?

CUOMO: Well, I don’t know how one would determine. I don’t believe in polls. How do you tell what the American people are thinking? First of all, you’d have to get them to focus before the question would be fair before you could know how the American people feel on any subject, you would have to give them some event that would allow them to focus on that situation and then make some kind of judgment. It’s a very tricky business, trying to assess where the American mind is, or what the American mind is. Are you talking about the voters? Are you talking about people too young to vote, or people so disenchanted by the system that they won’t even bother? So it’s, it’s a tricky business. I think for myself as a politician, it may be interesting, maybe even useful, to find out where people are, but if it is much more important to figure out where you think they should be and then try to lead them there. Or, so it seems to me. Now, that’s not the best way to win, of course. The best way to win is to figure out where they are the direction they’re going, and then get just a pace or two behind them, but shout as though you were leading.

HEFFNER: I remember when another governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, was considering entering full force in the Presidential race, looked at some of the polls, decided where he was wasn’t where the people were, and withdrew. And Elmo Roper, the public opinion polar, described that use of polls.

CUOMO: Yeah, I think probably Roper is right. I mean, there were so many quick changes. Look, for example, at the matter of defense budget. And 1980 through 1984, with President Reagan’s ascendancy, the defense budget was very popular. There was this stark contrast between the old social programs that were terribly wasteful, and the obvious imperative of a defense budget. And what happened? A couple of toilet seat covers, a couple of revelations about General Dynamics, a little pain that resulted from cutting back in social programs, and the American people looked up and said, now wait a minute, maybe there is waste in defense programs, too. And if you were to use polls as a measure, just compare the polls on defense budget today with the polls three years ago, four years ago. People change their minds, and they can be made to change their minds. Goetz pulls out a gun in the subway and blows away a couple of kids and all of a sudden vigilantisim is popular. If you took a poll the day before Goetz and a poll two days after, you would get two different views, very dramatically different views. Shoreham is a nuclear plant on Long Island – proposed. Before Chernobyl, one thing, after the event, another thing. And the point is, therefore, that the mind of the American people, like your mind and mine, can be affected, it can be educated, it can be enlightened, and it can even lead to some extent. So I wouldn’t abandon the pursuit that I thought was important to us because the people weren’t there yet.

HEFFNER: You know, if you talk about nuclear energy and what has happened the end of April, 1986 in the Soviet Union. What is your own position, what is your own fix on the question of nuclear energy-peace, peaceful uses of that nuclear energy?

CUOMO: first of all, maybe it is a function of getting older, but the older I get the more difficult it is to encapsulate my answers. I’ve discovered I need all kinds of causes tacked on, agenda. In the State of New York it is easy to answer the question by saying we’ve adopted a policy. The State of New York adopted a statute some years ago that said no more nuclear plants. So that is the firm policy in the State of New York. It excluded two there were being worked on: Nine Mile II upstate New York, and this plant called Shoreham on Long Island, neither of which is officially opened, but it is in the process and was at the time that the law was passed. So the state of New York has spoken clearly. They said those that you are working on, those that we already have, okay. But no more because we’re at a little bit concerned about nuclear. For me, I think, we have nuclear reactors, nuclear energy, nuclear plants everywhere! Our defense system is impossible without it. People think about nuclear plants, they think about commercial nuclear plant. We have nuclear facilities as you know in this country, run by the United States Government for defense purposes that have no containment chambers, precisely like the Russian situation. How do I feel about it? Nuclear energy is with us and will remain with us and maybe even grow as a part of our energy group, but it has to be made more safe. It asked to be maintained more intelligently. The Federal Government has to be more intelligent about its role in terms of safety, it never has been. The Federal Government has done nothing about developing a technology in this country. Other places like France and other parts of the world were intelligent enough to seize hold of the situation, construct the technology that worked. You have plants all over the country that abandoned – five, ten, twenty times their original cost because we didn’t understand the technology. So I think … in my state, I’m opposed to Shoreham on Long Island because it’s not safe, because the place can not be evacuated in the case of some accident, and in that case I come down on the side of safety. Nine Mile II is up state, and of the nuclear facility-evacuation is not problem, I’m not opposed to it there.

HEFFNER: No concerns of a larger nature, no concerns about our playing with this kind of fire?

CUOMO: Oh, of course. Of course there are concerns …

HEFFNER: I don’t meant in terms of the particular plant, I mean in terms of our immodesty it as human beings in trying to tap the source of energy.

CUOMO: Were we immodest when first the cave people and the primitives played with fire? I mean, I would guess in their primitive mind, primitive thoughts course they said: My God, flame, consumes wood, consumes trees, we should never have invented it, cover it with dirt. You know, I’m not sure it is our best course to say that this thing that inevitably will be with us-we’re not going to turn back the clock and say they will be no nuclear energy. There will be no query reactors, there will be nuclear-powered, no more of what we say, no more what we do. I think the more intelligent approach then it is to say let’s be careful about how we use it. I think one could think that came out of the unfortunate episode in the U.S.S. R. is that it got people thinking more about nuclear weapons and the need at least to restrain their proliferation, if not get rid of them entirely. And that’s, that’s a good part. But I think it not realistic to urge on the American people, or to conclude for yourself, that what this means is we should walk away from nuclear, and more than we walk away from fire.

HEFFNER: But you know, of all people in public life I would expect that you would be the last one to quickly, too soon to dismiss this notion of walking away from something or turning the hands of the clock back. You say it as though it were not ever desirable for possible to turn back the hands of the clock.

CUOMO: Well, let’s… let’s be sure that I’m being understood and that I’m clear enough to be understood. When it comes to commercial nuclear facilities, my state has stopped the clock and said no more. So that’s fine. But now to undo all that occurred to say, for example, we’ll travel around New York … The United States and close down the nuclear facilities, and even if you did that what would you do with your defense system that is totally dependent on nuclear power? So, I think the reality is you’re not going to be able to rid yourself-that doesn’t mean you can’t more intelligently dispose of your uses of nuclear energy in the future.

HEFFNER: You know I, it brings me, it may seem like a magnificent jump, but it brings me to the question that I really wanted to start with, and that is …

CUOMO: And that one you weren’t interested in?

HEFFNER: (laughter) I want to ask you, what basically are the ideas, the conclusions, the attitudes towards the nature of human nature. And I put this question to Elie Wiesel just a couple of weeks ago at this table. What is it that informs Mario Cuomo, that makes him tick the way he does in terms of his attitude towards people, toward his God, toward Human nature?

CUOMO: Who knows?

HEFFNER: Oh, you must. Who does, if you don’t?

CUOMO: Who knows. What makes you feel, what makes you think the way you … you do? A thousand things-maybe a thousand times, a thousand things. Um, your… your sense of the ultimate, if you have one.

HEFFNER: You do, don’t you?

CUOMO: Oh yes, I, I have a sense that the year, there is a … there is a force that we call a God. I think it is personal. I think there is a nexus. I think there is an accountability that we construct for ourselves, perhaps, but that there is an accountability. But that’s only one thing. How you feel emotionally about other human beings, the things that satisfy you without thinking, the joy you feel when you are unable to lean down and help someone to their feet who has fallen. To intellectualize about it, you feel good when you do it. The feeling you get at that time of the year when people find it especially appropriate to be sharing, people feel good around Chanukah, they feel good around Christmas. There is something about touching one another that makes people feel good. I, I don’t know what informs me, I don’t know all the forces that are at work. I generally feel this way about things. We don’t have a whole lot of them here. I try very hard to make it meaningful. I try very hard to find some significance. I am most on happy when I feel that I’m doing things uselessly or mindlessly. And the best thing I have been able to find in more than 50 years of looking, most useful, most important, most satisfying is being able to touch someone-do something good for someone else, being able to share. I think that comes as close to a general principle as I’ve been able to find and it applies everywhere, it certainly applies to government, I think. I think the best government is the government that encourages the whole group, the whole community, the whole society to share and share the benefits, to share burdens. That sense of mutuality, that sense of intelligent synergism, that interconnectedness-I think that’s the central thought. As a matter of fact, if I had to comment on this world, at this moment, the thing that we need to know better, it would be that need for mutuality, that need for interconnectedness, whether you’re talking about terrorism, or we can’t get Mitterrand and Craxi and Cole to agree with us on how to behave with respect to Libya because we didn’t have that sense of interconnectedness, or you are talking about nuclear energy. The one thing that’s clearest to me is we are a world that desperately needs its self connecting and we’re not gonna … So what informs me? I don’t know, but what seems to me most important is an ability for us to relate one to the other and we don’t do it as well as we should.

HEFFNER: Do we do it as well as we used to?

CUOMO: That’s a difficult … that is a difficult question. Um, I’m not sure we do it any … I don’t know. That’s a very difficult question. I’m not sure. We used to have tighter societies, smaller circles. And I guess when you live in a village or in a neighborhood or in a town, and what you were whispering in New York City wasn’t heard in Tokyo. It probably was easier to relate, certainly when the groups came-the Pilgrims and the pioneers, and even the immigrant-the cluster was very relevant, more relevant than it is now. The need for one another was so apparent that people were practically forced to relate the tribe – that notion. Over the years we’ve lost some of that, we’ve kind of dispersed and maybe move away from one another. I’m not, I’m not sure.

HEFFNER: You know, in the speech you delivered not too long ago in San Francisco, before the newspaper publishers, it was pointed out by some … it was observed by some that you had a sense shifted your emphasis, that up until that point, in urging the kind of governmental action and urging the kind of connectedness that you just referred to, you had talked in terms of what should be, what we must do. Now in San Francisco you begin to say if we don’t, we better watch out. If there is not that sense of connectedness then we’re all in trouble. Purposeful shift on your part?

CUOMO: No, I think both things are true. Jeremiah, more than two thousand years ago, you’ll find your own good in the good of the whole community. That is essentially an argument from self interest. Some people are moved by love. Some people moved by compassion, some people give up their whole life to lepers, their whole life to the impoverished, not as a matter of self-interest, but because that’s the way they expressed themselves. It’s enough for some people to say, I have an obligation … it is a sin for me not to love, not to reach down. And for some people that works. For others it doesn’t. And as a matter of fact, for many others, especially in our society, they resent it if it comes from another human being. If it comes from their conscience that’s one thing, but especially from a politician for a government? For you to tell my mother, the favorite syndrome of the ’60s, when I started my political career, it was 1973 or so, I guess, I made a speech before a very liberal group-the New Democratic coalition it was called. So liberal were they… they very rarely succeeded in elections. Some people, like Jimmy Breslin, as a matter fact, called them N.D.C. – November Doesn’t Count – because they were kind of esoteric. But I made a speech to them. And I was just beginning and I knew nothing about politics. My mother and father were from the other side. My mother, an immigrant from Ellis Island, and I said, look, some of you Liberals go to my mother who fought all her life to make it and to give her son an education and her kids an education, and you accuse her of sinning because she’s not nice to the poor people she left behind. You say that she has a moral obligation to help the blacks. I said, she resents that and all you’ve done is turned her off and driven her now in her middle class situation, driven her to the right. And you know what you’re going to produce? You are going to produce a society where the middle class moves over to the right, joins us with the rich who are already there, and with a heavy hammer forged out of that coalition, they are going to beat the poor to death. What you should be saying to my mother is, Mrs. Cuomo, the way you were helped when you came with relief, you didn’t call it welfare, the way you were helped with the municipal hospital, the way your son has helped at Public School 50, where we all put in money in a pot so that your son could be educated in the public school. Now we want to help some other people, and it’s good for you, Mrs. Cuomo, because you will have less crime, and it’s less expensive and it will be less disorientation. Talk to my mother reasonably, don’t deliver a sermon to her. Some people you can talk about love, some people you have to talk about self interest. I talk about both. I think both are relevant. To the publishers, frankly, I thought it was more likely to be affective to talk to them about self interest. Indeed, to this nation now, my guess would be, unless you make the case from self interest, unless you show them that we can’t live with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and the middle-class getting more and more strained, unless you convince them that they are going to have to do something about this under class for the sake of all this, that Jeremiah was right, we won’t do anything. But see … let me just say I’m sorry, let me just add one thought. The most dangerous thing that came out of the Regan years, that come out of the Reagan years-he made the denial of compassion respectable and he also made it reasonable. He created the impression that number one, you are not doing anything wrong if you don’t care too much about how the poor are making it-we tried that, we threw money at it, we wasted a lot of money, we’ve given it our best shot, so don’t feel guilty you know. Now we’re going to try it another way, we’re going to ignore them. Also, I’m telling you, take from me, it’s going to work. We’ll cut taxes for the rich people, will take care of the business people. You’ll see, the engine of the economy will get all revved up and after awhile, you know what? Everybody will have a job. Just remember, and see, he can do it because of his geniality, this marvelous, almost seductive niceness he has. He can hold up a paper with want ads in it and say, see all these want ads? Look, if those people wanted to work, all they have to do is … right? And all those middle class people like my mother, who were dying for a chance to say that’s right, they said you’re right, look at them. The man knows what he’s talking about. Now I think we’re beginning to see something else, however. Now I think the American people are coming to understand. Unemployment in the Reagan years, worse than in the Carter years. Employment in the Reagan years, lower than in the Carter years. You give them those numbers and they don’t believe it. But now they’re beginning to look them up in a finding that’s true.

HEFFNER: Now, Governor, who is looking what up? Do you know anybody who is really looking up and following what the president says?

CUOMO: The publishers. Because I went to San Francisco knowing that they wouldn’t believe that and these are the publishers, and I said exactly that. I said, I want you to write this down on your pads. And there were eighteen hundred of them. I said, write this down, look it up. Unemployment in the Reagan years? Higher than in the Carter years. Unemployment about three million less. I said, here I am, a lonely target. You look it up; if I’m wrong you can belt me from one coast to the other. I haven’t seen any editorials. Also, more poor, the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than it’s ever been. More homeless … more social disorientation. There is no question about it, we don’t want to leave it. We still want to celebrate our Olympic victory. We still want to think about opportunity and growth, which of course we have, nobody knows that better than I, I’m the American dream fulfilled – my mother and father had nothing and now I live in a big house with they press my pants and give me $100,000 a year too. But it … it’s coming, it’s coming.

HEFFNER: You know, you make it sound as though you’ve concluded at this point that it is fear that is the spur that we have to learn to be fearful of what happens to us if we do not here, if the tension is not paid.

CUOMO: We can do it better than that. We can do it better than from fear. I don’t like fair as a motivation. Self interest suggests that you can help yourself, it’s not just fear. You want to compete with Japan and West Germany. We’re beating out-competed with right now. International trade is a disaster. They go to school for 220 days a year, we go for a hundred eighty-five days a year. They are better than we are at a lot of things. We want to do something about that. We’re young, we’re strong, we want to grow. We’ve suffered this setback. OK, we all agreed to that. Now I tell you, we have 16 million people who are illiterate. We have 12 year old children having children. We have one out of two of our black and Hispanics not … being born to property. We have 70 percent dropout rates in our cities all over … I’m saying that if we’re not to compete with the Japanese and Germans, don’t we have to do something about this population? How are we going to run our factories, our service sector, with an under educated population? Who’s going to do the work? See, that kind of argument-and opportunity for us which we don’t realize unless we incorporate in our success the whole community.

HEFFNER: Governor Cuomo, that point didn’t hold, it didn’t work in 1984. You think it will work in 1988? Is the realization there?

CUOMO: 1984 … interesting, 1984, the election year-Walter Mondale against President Reagan. Let’s go back over it. Walter Mondale says: “This deficit is a terrible problem.” President Reagan: “That’s a joke, it’s only because he’s not strong, Fritz. If you’re strong, you have confidence in the American system.” And the American people ignored the deficit. Walter Mondale, in 1984: “I think we better sit down with the Russians. We ought to sit down and negotiate arms limitation.” The President: “And other evidence of weakness, we shouldn’t sit-down with the Russians.” He won again. International trade, Fritz Mondale: “International trade is a terrible problem, they’re closing factories, shoes …” The President: “That’s ridiculous, I told you, the supply side, that’s going to do it.” Everything Fritz Mondale said in ‘84, let’s be honest, everything he said on the issues proved to be right. Remember he called for a tax increase? Isn’t it interesting what the Republicans are saying now? We need a tax increase? Now Fritz maybe didn’t say it as well as the President said it. This country certainly didn’t agree with Fritz and did agree with the President. I suspect that what really happened is that number one, nothing came off your plate. We talked about the deficit but you didn’t feel it and I didn’t feel it and our kids weren’t in trouble going to school because of the deficit, so the deficit wasn’t real. It didn’t impinge on the American people. So, no, they didn’t react to it then. It’s beginning to show now, however.

HEFFNER: You think they will in 88?

CUOMO: It depends on who the rate is and who the Mondale in this.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s an interesting question-who the Mondale is. Maybe we’ll get back to it. If you will stay where you are and we’ll continue this for next week. Thanks for joining me today, Governor Mario Cuomo. And thanks too to you and the audience, I hope you’ll join us again next time, particularly since the governor will be back. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please to write The Open mind in care of the situation. Meanwhile as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Richard loans three Foundation, the M. Wiener Foundation of New Jersey, the mediators and Richard and Gloria Manny, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence A. Wayne, Pfizer Incorporated and the New York Times Company Foundation.