Mario Cuomo

The Principles of Governance, Part II

VTR Date: May 3, 1986

Guest: Cuomo, Mario


VTR: MAY 3, 1986

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And this is the second of a series of anniversary programs. For I began THE OPEN MIND just thirty years ago, in 1956… simpler times, indeed. And this is the second too, of a series with Mario Cuomo, New York’s thoughtful, always provocative democratic Governor. Governor Cuomo, thanks for staying here with me. At the end of our first program we began to talk just a bit about the next presidential election and when Norman Mailer was here, a couple of months ago on THE OPEN MIND, he said that women are ruining the Democratic Party. “Look at the candidates we’ve had in the last ten years, they’ve just been as rousing as oatmeal” and I wonder whether you would agree that women have had a dominant role in the choice of candidates, have had a veto over democratic candidates.

CUOMO: I want to make sure I know what Mr. Mailer was saying, that women selected oatmeal-like candidates?

HEFFNER: He said the candidates were like oatmeal and that woman a great deal of input into who was going to be chosen and who was not going to be.

CUOMO: It’s amazing he sells all those books anyway, talking that way. I…I don’t know that the quality of candidates over the last eight, ten years is any different then it’s been over the last twenty-eight years, thirty-eight years. Just go back all the way. How many Lincolns are there? How many Roosevelts are there?

HEFFNER: Well, there was Franklin Roosevelt and there was Harry Truman and there was John F. Kennedy.

CUOMO: Well, let’s see, let’s see. Harry Truman, at the time that he was President, neither of us… I don’t know that the American people would have said that Harry Truman, at that time, was an extraordinary leader. Weren’t they saying he was kind of mediocre when first he came in? Weren’t they making fun of him?

HEFFNER: Yes, but Governor, they elected him over another Governor of the State of New York.

CUOMO: I don’t know, I would differ with Mailer about the quality of our leaders having changed much. I think for ‘88, I just have a guess, nobody really knows obviously what’s going to happen. So much will happen between now and 1988, we’re not sure whether the economy will be an issue or foreign policy. Right now, I guess, people would bet foreign policy, but one never knows. I think I know the kind of thing the American people are going to be looking for though. I think President Reagan will have passed from the scene as President, still beloved, maybe the most beloved president in our history. Everybody will feel good about him, almost everybody. But everybody will also realize that not withstanding his geniality, his sincerity, his stead-fastness in terms of his own ideas — he left us with a huge deficit, an international trade problem, no arms limitation agreement, an uncertain future. I suspect that’s what it’s going to look like. And I think the American people then will say, well, apparently geniality isn’t enough, apparently being sincere isn’t enough. They’ll think about Jimmy Carter. And the American people think that Jimmy Carter was ineffectual. I think they are wrong. I was very close to that Presidency and I thought he was really much better than the American people perceived him to be. Anyway, he was perceived as ineffectual. So they will look for one thing — competence. What they’ll want in 1988 more than anything is the ability to produce a result, not the ability to give a speech, not charm, not geniality, not somebody who makes me feel good. I want somebody who can deliver the goods. I had all those other things. Now I want somebody who can do something about this international trade problem and I don’t care if she sounds good, or he sounds good or not. Show me somebody who can get the job done. A person like Bob Dole, if he’s able to put together some kind of bill that means something. I think he could sell himself as competent. A Jim Baker, who used to be Chief-of-Staff and is now Secretary of the Treasury, he could be perceived as… Tom Kean, on the Republican side, Governor of New Jersey…

HEFFNER: You haven’t mentioned George Bush yet.


COUMO: No… I… George Bush… if the President were to step aside, for example… if the President were to decide… I want George Bush to be the next President. Probably the best way to do that would be to step aside and let George Bush run the country. Then if he ran it well, or was perceived as running it well, then yes indeed, he could certainly qualify as competent. If I’m right about this criteria of competence, it is very difficult for a vice president to convince anyone that he’s been competent. He’s given so little opportunity to do anything meaningful. And I suspect, having been a Lieutenant Governor myself, that there is in the minds of much of our population, a sense that if you chose to be vice president, that creates a doubt about your competence. Now that’s not fair, but I think some of that might have happened to Fritz and Hubert Humphry and some others. So I think they will be looking for competence – on the Democratic side, obviously, forget the Governor of the State of New York. But Governors have a better chance to demonstrate competence for an executive position because they make budgets, because they deal with prison riots, because they have to provide education, they have to provide shelter, they have to do it. Legislators are one of many who mostly are perceived as speaking about it. Governors speak about it but they also get it done. So executives, I think, will have something of an advantage in showing themselves to be competents. Anyway, I think we are going to be looking for competence.

HEFFNER: Governor, I promised myself that I’m not going to push the business about the presidential race because you are going to take the stand you just took –you’re going to smile at me as you are smiling at me now and I will get no reply. But just between the two of us, why… why this reluctance to address yourself to this question about Mario Cuomo as a presidential candidate?

COUMO: I’m not… I’m not reluctant to address it, I have addressed it. And what I’ve said is…I think that serving as Governor of the Sate of New York has been very satisfying to me. I think that if I felt that the nation needed me as a president, that there was nobody out there who could do it as well, or even could do it better, well, yeah, then maybe I would say, well that’s if I have to strike out after this, I have an obligation to do it. I just don’t happen to feel that way.

HEFFNER: Feel what way?

CUOMO: I don’t happen to feel that the nation needs Mario Coumo. I think… and it’s still very early. We have a Governor’s race in the State of New York for… for re-election in my case, if that’s what I choose to do. ‘88 is still a long way off. I suspect, frankly, that on the Democratic side you are going to see many, many candidates… well, you’ll see several candidates who will be perceived as highly qualified — Gary Hart to begin with. He’s already far ahead of the field… was almost the candidate in 1984, he nearly won it. People forget that now. Gary Hart will have plenty of time to show his wares, to circulate his book, to get his ideas across. You’ll have Chuck Robb, who’s already moving around, who hasn’t talked about the Presidency but would be a very, very interesting and attractive candidate. Bruce Babbitt, another Governor, very bright… young fellow from the west would look… would look strong. Mike Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, who was a Governor before I was, who’s been very successful. So, you known, given that abundance of good candidates, why should it occur to me that… well, yeah, but you know, they really, they need you. I haven’t… I haven’t quite got that feeling yet. I’m always open to an inspiration. I remember that there was a guy by the name of Saul who got hit by lightning and became Paul, so one never knows.

HEFFNER: But you know, I wonder whether you subscribe to the notion that’s been attributed… I guess he’s been quoted… Bob Strauss… that if you do want the nomination you’d better not stay in Albany.

CUOMO: Yeah. I think… he’s not the only one. Jim Johnson who ran Fritz Mondale’s campaign said the same thing. Pat Caddell who is I think interested in Joe Biden, well I know he likes Joe Biden, I don’t know what he is doing professionally. Pat Caddell feels that way. Most of the mechanics I know, people who have run campaigns will tell you that if you want to run for the Presidency in 1988 you better get yourself to Iowa and New Hampshire pretty quick in 1986 and ‘87 because other people are going. Bruce Babbitt, for example, is supposed to be scheduled for thirty trips to either Iowa or New Hampshire. 10:00

CUOMO: And the practicality is today unlike Franklin Roosevelt’s time or Abraham Lincoln’s time where you could do it at a convention. The practicality now is that you have to get out there, you have to be heard, and you have to be seen, and you have to have committees, and you have to have money. That’s why Gary Hart’s not running for the Senate again. So I think, as a practical matter, while it’s not impossible to wait a while, as a practical matter you ought to be striking out right away.

HEFFNER: Okay, that’s a practical matter. The program we did just before was one in which you said you can face practicalities, but you stand for certain principles whether they’re practical or not. Do you think our political system, our presidential choice system, should be operated this way? Would you prefer to go back to a time when this kind of involvement wouldn’t be necessary, when one could…

CUOMO: I think… I think the convention system, the old convention system was not satisfactory. People didn’t have a sufficient opportunity to measure their candidates, to get the candidates to compete with one another and so the primary system brings that. I think now the process is too long, too expensive, wearying, and I think something between the old system and the present system would probably be better. Maybe fewer primaries, a shorter season, maybe some regional primaries, maybe a whole group of regional primaries would be better. I think it’s too long a process now. Look, President Reagan spent twelve years doing it. Jimmy Carter spent four years doing it. Fritz Mondale, four years doing it. Now Gary Hart skipped the Senate race to do it. That’s the way you have to do it now. And I think it’s too much and too long. So, yes, I’d prefer a system that was somewhere between the old convention system and the present primary system, but that’s not going to happen before 1988.

HEFFNER: You know, I don’t know why I’m reminded of this at this particular point but in terms of you as a person and what you’re willing to do in political life and what you feel you must do, but when we first met, when you first entered the elective arena, I asked a question about the kind of private person you are and I’ll be darned if I can remember what your answer was but the question had to do with how does a person who is as private and who is as well made intellectually, knows what he wants, how does he survive in this fish bowl of American politics?

CUOMO: Well, that’s a difficult question and it’s a very personal thing. I don’t like the public aspects of it a great deal. I know that most people find that difficult to believe because so much of what you do is public speeches, campaigning, that’s the essential part of it. You can’t be a hermit and be a Governor or a public official. You are giving yourself over to the people and you have to communicate with them. And in my case, probably no Governor in the history of the state has had the access to the people that I’ve had, the access back and forth with radio, television, forums of all kinds. It’s hard, it’s very, very hard. I do it because it’s also very satisfying because it’s a, it’s a… to me, a meaningful way to spend my time. The Governor’s position in the State of New York is one which allows me, every day, to have an infinite number of opportunities to do good things, an infinite number. In the beginning I didn’t realize how important it was, for example, to stop and shake the hand of a child. You think of yourself as Mario Cuomo. The child thinks of you as the Governor of New York State, which puts you in an extremely interesting category of people. We’ve had some great governors. So you can use the office in that small way. That child will remember it forever. I write letters — I love writing letters. I go through correspondence and every once in a while a letter will strike me and I’ll write by hand back to the person. That’s very meaningful, not to mention — the biggest housing program in the history of the United States. We’ll have maybe 200,000 people housed, thanks to some things that we did, with me as the Governor. We feed people, we educate them, we take care of people in wheel chairs, we make the life of mentally ill people easier. We bring joy, we protect people. A big part of my budget is a prison system. I don’t like it, but we’ll have 10,000 new cells under my governorship. Cut taxes three billion dollars… hey, that’s not bad, I love telling my mother that, that’s the part my mother likes best. What did you do? She doesn’t understand. I told her: “Ma, I cut the people’s taxes.’ Terrific! So it’s a great job, but giving yourself over to people, sharing constantly what’s on your mind… no it’s not easy, it’s still not easy for me.


HEFFNER: It’s a very dramatic thing to hear you talk about the pluses and what it is, the satisfaction that you get. If you multiplied that by fifty you would then have to say that’s the President of the United States. So there must be…

CUOMO: …oh sure.

HEFFNER: …a thought about what you could achieve.

CUOMO: Well… well, there is no question. The President, President Reagan is perhaps the most influential human being in the world. I guess it’s not too much to say that. And therefore his opportunity to do good things is unmatchable. Incidentally, he has done some great things, not in policies so much as in personal demeanor department. I have said this before and I believe it. He’s taught people lessons about how to behave.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by that?

COUMO: When he was shot. When he had cancer. His grace, his ability to reconcile himself to the situation, his unflappability, his absolute perpetual, continuous, exceptionalness calm, graciousness, kindness, niceness. That’s what you try to teach your children. He shows them and he’s shown them for six years with his conduct. He’s a nice person.

HEFFNER: That’s quite a tribute.

COUMO: And it’s true. It goes far beyond his policies. I mean, he is perceived as a good person by most people, a nice person. That by itself has been a very important contribution to this society. And yes, he has that… to the world he is projected as the American image. And to the extent he comes over — nice, intelligent, reconciled to his own fate. I mean, just the way he handled the shooting, and handled the cancer, that was a moral instruction to the whole country. And not to be forgotten. So of course, he has whatever opportunities a Governor has, he has multiplied. But there is another factor. You then have to decide whether you have the capacity to seize those opportunities and make as much of them as the American people have the right to expect.

HEFFNER: Do you have any question about that about yourself?

COUMO: Oh well of course.


CUOMO: Because I haven’t done it. I know what I can do as a Governor. I’m a very competent…

HEFFNER: Nobody ever has before he sits in the White House.

CUOMO: And every such person, therefore, should have great reservations about whether she or he can do it. You show me a person who says, well, I never did it. Listen to me, Heffner, I can handle it. That’s a person I’m not going to vote for. How do you know you can handle it? How do you know you can take the pressure? Maybe you think you can, maybe all of your experience would indicate that you can, but I would want somebody who’s circumspect about it… not a coward, not somebody who quivers at the prospect, but someone who’s intelligent enough to know that the lives of everybody in this world could be at stake when you decide what to do about Libya. That in one rash moment you could press a button that ends it all for everybody. I would want somebody who understands that and who is sufficiently mindful of it to be just a little bit tentative about whether or not this cup should be allowed to pass.

HEFFNER: I was thinking about the cup passing. I was thinking of Adlai Stevenson and I was thinking of “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” You’re not describing Mario Cuomo that way, are you? You’re not… you wouldn’t be reluctant to take that cup would you?

CUOMO: If I felt that I had to, no, of course not.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “have” to?

CUOMO: Well… well, you have to feel that this is a right and appropriate thing for you to do, then you can serve. Motivations are complex. I would not want to see somebody… or strike somebody… I would not want to see myself get interested in something like the Presidency because it would be a great thing to show Mama – first Italian American elected Governor.

HEFFNER: But it would.

CUOMO: Now first Italian American President. That’s nice, but that’s not enough. You have to have the conviction that you’re in a position to do something for the American people and beyond that, no one else is in a better position to do. If I thought you were better for it than I am and I sought it anyway, I would be doing something terribly wrong. So, you know, I did this once in my life, not many people remember, you do because we did a television show, I ran for Mayor in 1977, Mayor of the City of New York, when I felt that I oughtened to. I allowed people to importune me, I allowed Governors and newspaper editors to say we need you. I thought Ed Koch should be the Mayor and I said so. And I looked around at the candidates in that race — Percy Sutton, Bella Abzug, Herman Badillo, Joel Harnett — and I said publicly, these people are at least as good as I am. It was… I was a terrible candidate, terrible.


HEFFNER: I thought you were pretty doggoned good.

CUOMO: No, but I was very uncomfortable because I didn’t feel that, hey look this is what I’m supposed to do. On the other hand, I ran for Governor in 1982, looked around at the field, I said nobody, nobody should be Governor but me in this field, and not withstanding, we didn’t have the money and we didn’t have the editors and we didn’t have anybody it seemed. We won anyway. I ran with a full heart. That’s the way you have to feel about things. You do this program because you know you can do it… nobody can do it better. That’s the way you have to feel about the Presidency. And if you did feel that way about it then you’d have no choice but to run.

HEFFNER: I’m going to wait and see what happens, Governor. Look, people have been saying that the weak area for Mario Cuomo as President is foreign affairs. Is it true that the people who do talk with you or to whom you do talk about foreign affairs are the best and the brightest from the old guard of the Democratic Party?

CUOMO: Oh no, I do speak to them, but they’re not the only people I speak to by any means, nor the only people I read, nor the only people I learn from. What happened on foreign policy was very deliberately wrought by me. What happened was I… I wouldn’t talk on Nicaragua, for a long time. I went to the Village Voice, this is my favorite anecdote on this subject. The reason I wouldn’t talk on it was because they were writing stories about Coumo wants to be President and I didn’t want them to write that because it wasn’t true. And I figured, well, if I don’t talk about foreign policy they’ll stop writing. I went to the Village Voice for a Board of Editors meeting. They had promised not to ask me about foreign policy, but my old friend Jack Neufield piped up — what about Nicaragua?’ I said, ‘look, what do I know about Nicaragua? Niagara Falls I know about.’ Boy, I must have gotten six hundred letters… Harper’s Magazine saying this clown doesn’t know anything about Nicaragua, all he knows is Niagara Falls. They took me seriously. After that I said, that’s it, now I’m going to start talking about foreign policy. But the truth is I never had until then. Do I know about foreign policy? Of course I do, how could I not and be Governor? How could any governor, how could any citizen for that matter, who has any decent opportunity to educate herself or himself not pay attention to Libya, not pay attention to arms limitation, not care about Salvador and Nicaragua. I mean, how could you do that? And if you’re the Governor where everything is tied together. I’m concerned about educating the people of New York City and Utica, upstate. I get a budget from the Federal Government. That turns on the Defense Budget, therefore I have to be involved in the Defense Budget and so on and so forth. Of course we need to know about foreign policy. If I was just a practicing attorney I’d have to know. As a Governor of the great State of New York? Where the whole world comes by? Certainly I need to know and I do know. I’ve been reluctant to get overly involved in the past, but I’ve changed that. Now I discuss foreign policy questions freely.

HEFFNER: Where do we go from here then, Governor?

COUMO: In my case, Albany.

HEFFNER: (Laugh) Okay, I deserve that. What do you think? What would you have us do, generally, in terms of foreign policy? What would you have had us do in terms of Libya?

CUOMO: You know, I was asked… I was out in California and President Nixon was there the day before, and President Nixon was asked about Libya and he said, “well, one thing for sure, the President can’t strike again and must make up his mind that there will be no further strike.” You can’t allow this to escalate.

HEFFNER: Your reaction to that?

CUOMO: Well, I was there the next day, and I was asked about that and I said, “you know, I have great respect for the President.” As a matter of fact I said to the publishers that. And I hesitate to disagree with him, but I couldn’t possibly agree that it makes sense now to say publicly to the President of the United States, especially when you were a former president, that you oughten to strike a second time. Then what was the point of striking the first time? How could you possibly tie your hands that way? Whether you were right or wrong, from President Reagan’s point of view, to suggest that he ought not to hold open the option whether he’s going to use it or not, to strike again just makes… it seems to me a mockery of his first move. And of course, President Reagan right after that disavowed President Nixon’s position. He said, no I don’t agree. I also said this, “we’re being asked to suggest what we would do next?” 25:00

CUOMO: Is there anybody who really believes that we are so irrational that we’re not talking to the Syrians and we’re not talking to the Libyans and we’re not talking to the Soviets? We must be! Do you really believe that President Reagan is saying, “hey look, don’t talk to the Syrians there and stay away from Qaddafi people, and whatever you do, don’t talk to the Soviets.” Of course not! Of course we’re communicating. We must be. And unless you tell me what those communications are about, it is foolishness to try to suggest what the scenario should be. I will tell you what I said before the Libyan strike and I think is a general proposition and this is true about our foreign policy. I said, I get the general feeling that we’re playing a one and two move checker game when we should be playing a seven, eight and nine move checker game. And Winston Churchill made that point very well, that we were young as a people and not particularly good at thinking long-range. And I’m afraid that might have happened, that we made our one bold move in Libya but weren’t prepared for the sequellae and the aftermath and didn’t really have a thought-through strategy. I get the general sense, when it comes to foreign policy, that we don’t have any kind of continuity and predictability. Certainly not from administration to administration. One of the big prices we pay for this democracy is that you can go from one president’s view of things, human rights, Jimmy Carter, to a President Reagan, break the chain, have to start allover again in educating the French and the British and the Arab world, etc. Now I don’t know exactly what the answer is to giving us a kind of continuity without tying us into a policy making instrument that is not affected by elections, but we do have to find some way to make more predictable, more continuous, the flow of thought on foreign policy. And so, too, with the Defense Budget. You can’t go lurching from one political extreme to another in terms of the Defense Budget. How do you make budgets for something as intricate as defense unless you can plan longer? So I think we have to find ways to get a little more continuity, both in the Defense Budget and Foreign Policy, generally.

HEFFNER: Governor Cuomo, we have about twenty seconds left. Are you so optimistic as to believe that we will find those ways in a democracy?

CUOMO: We are the greatest country in the world, we always have been. The one thing that we grow stronger in is potential and I expect to see much of it realized.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today, Governor Cuomo. And thanks, too, to you and the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next time and if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program please do write THE OPEN MIND in care of this station. 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 Lounsbery Foundation, the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey, the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney, Mr. & Mrs. Lawrence A. Wien, Pfizer Incorporated and The New York Times Company Foundation.