Mario Cuomo

Why Lincoln Matters … Now More Than Ever

VTR Date: May 26, 2004

New york Governor Mario Cuomo discusses the legacy of Lincoln for contemporary times.


GUEST: Mario Cuomo
VTR: 5/26/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And though I admit I’ve often been more than a little put off by that old and usually quite self-servingly present minded political conundrum that “if he were here today …” Washington would have said … or Jefferson would have said … or sometimes …Lincoln would have said …

That’s mostly been because as a one time disciple of Clio and a practicing American historian, I’ve usually known just how wrong both the allusion and the alluder have been.

But this time, it’s different. By which, of course, I mean how much this time I embrace and agree with the filiopietism of the slim, but wonderfully evocative new Harcourt volume titled, “Why Lincoln Matters … Today More Than Ever”, written about his political hero, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President of the United States by my American political hero, Mario M. Cuomo, the most recent three term Democratic Governor of New York, who should, I still insist, have run for and become President of the United States.

A thoughtful and challenging meditation on what Lincoln’s wisdom tells us we Americans should be doing today and tomorrow … that’s historians Arthur M. Schlesinger’s description of my guest’s new book. His provocative, yet touching tribute to Lincoln’s words and deeds.

And first I want to ask Governor Cuomo to tell us at least a bit of what he believes Lincoln does say to us today about war and peace, about civil liberties, race, the role of government, religion, the Supreme Court and even global interdependence, the major issues of our times, if not always of his. What does he tell us, Governor?
CUOMO: First of all, if I may, Dick, why … why even refer to him as relevant today? I think, I think that’s a question I’d like to ask and answer for you. Because I get asked it all the time. I’ve been invited to do books on Lincoln for a long time since I did the book “Lincoln on Democracy” eight or nine years ago.

And I said, “well, I’m not a historian, I’m not going to do Lincoln’s speeches, Lincoln’s shoes, Lincoln’s hats, historians will do all of that.” But then came 9/11 and the first memorializing of 9/11 and The New York Times called, a reporter called and said “if you were still Governor, you know, what would you said at the memorial services … 9/11”.

I said well that, that truly is a daunting prospect for the Governor, the Mayor, the old mayor, former Mayor, Rudy Giuliani … to interpret 9/11, what a difficult thing to do. I said, I don’t know what I would say. It would be a great challenge to explain it, to react to it. And came 9/11 and none of them wrote a word. Or spoke a word. And instead they read from Lincoln. Which immediately raised the question for me … not, why didn’t you speak. That I understood because I knew how difficult it would be to try to put it in context, to try to make people understand what it means. It was so hard to know what it did mean.

But what I was intrigued by … “are you saying then, clearly, Lincoln’s more than just a lovely relic, he’s relevant.” Relevant in a way that Polk is not, that even Roosevelt might not be. Everybody quotes Lincoln … the Democrats, the Republicans, they always have, whether it’s Teddy Roosevelt, or Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, or George Bush 1 or George Bush 2. Everybody’s cited him. And so there is this insistence that, yes, he is relevant today. So then I asked myself the next question … well, if that’s true, why not ask him about pre-emptive war? He spoke to Herndon(CHECK SPELLING), his partner about that.

Why not ask him about war, generally. He certainly knew a lot about that. Or taxation because he gave us the income tax … it was unconstitutional when he did, but he gave us the tax. So that was the reason for doing it.

And then to try to, to try to sum up what he might say today, there is … at the end of the book, as you know, what some people might think is a conceit … it wasn’t really … a speech by Lincoln … 2004 … in Lincolnesque language to, to as close as you can come to Lincolnesque language … on the current issues.

What would he say if he were President today? To the Congress in a State of the Union Address. I wrote it five or six months ago. But … maybe more than that. But it, but it’s held up fairly well and it tell us what he would say. What he would have said first of all about the war is that our diplomacy failed us and that’s why we went into war.

And that’s certainly true; it was true perhaps of the Civil War as well. He tried diplomatically to avoid it and failed. Maybe because he was new; maybe because he, he didn’t have enough help. But whatever the reason, he failed.

Then he said, “you know, we must understand the cause of the war. We must understand what it is that motivated these people to do what they did because no war is won simply by force. And if it is the peace isn’t kept simply by force. And so while you need military strength here, as I needed it in the Civil War”, and he was fierce in the use of it, “there must be more than just a military approach. You must understand their purpose, their objective. And how to change their minds, if possible”. You’re not going to frighten people who are willing to give up their life to take yours with the threat of death.

And he would say that to us. He would say “You should engage the whole world in this struggle.” I said, years and years ago, never having left this country, I understood our significance to the rest of the world and more relevantly, the rest of the world’s significance to us. That was long before you heard words like “interdependent” and “inter-connected” and “globalization”. And so, it’s a terrible mistake not to have engaged the rest of the world. And I would leave immediately, if I were President, for Europe and the Middle East, and the East and I would personally go to all those leaders and put the past behind us, if I could. I wouldn’t hesitate.

He would, on a domestic subject, say “How could you possibly give one trillion dollars, over the next ten years to the top 2% of the population, when you’re running a huge deficit. When you don’t have enough money for your public schools, when health care is lagging so badly. Were, indeed, the continuing threat of terrorism calls upon you to be better at Homeland Security and you haven’t done that job yet. How could you, you know, take this progressive income tax that I dreamed up, where the rich would bear a larger burden, for obvious reasons; take a trillion dollars and give it back to those rich, when the rest of society needed it so badly and they didn’t.” And so the first thing I would do as President is take it back and spend it more wisely.

And so there’s, there’s a great deal … he would have avoided a pre-emptive war in the beginning for exactly the reasons he gave his partner. When his partner asked him about pre-empting through war … he was such a magnificently intelligent and cogent person … something we miss today … not just with President Bush … there’s never been, never been a President more intelligent and perhaps not as intelligent as Lincoln.

Not Kennedy. Not Clinton. Not any of them have come close to Lincoln. Lincoln did all his own thinking. He did all his own thinking on the arguments he had to make on the domestic economy. He had nobody briefing him. He had nobody writing for him. He had nobody giving him books and reports and instructing him. Everything he said, he had taught himself and he taught himself how to say it.

So, with all of that magnificent intelligence … I mean there were all kinds of things he, would do differently now. He said, with that intelligence, to Herndon(CHECK SPELLING) “You can’t use preemptory war. Self defense is something else. But preemptory war makes it too easy for a tyrant, or a mistaken leader, to choose the wrong reasons for war. To see the need for war where it doesn’t exist. That’s precisely what happened here. You thought you needed to go to war in Iraq. You gave the reasons for your pre-emptive attack. And you were wrong on every single one. That’s what I said to Herndon(CHECK SPELLING) that if you try pre-emptive war you’re apt to do that. And you’ve proven that I was right.”

So, you can go on endlessly. I’m not going to do that because I’m sure there are other things you want to hear.

HEFFNER: But I do want to ask you about pre-emptive war. Lincoln’s so-called strategy of defense at Fort Sumter was, in the minds of a number of historians, almost a pre-emptive strike.

CUOMO: Lincoln was … if you can think of a nice word instead of “devious”, you know I’m looking for a word that, that …

HEFFNER: To apply to Lincoln.

CUOMO: [Laughter] Yeah. That says “devious” without making it sound cruel. But he had a very, very subtle mind and he was capable of great deviousness. And I think probably what he did at Sumter was make it appear that the others had fired the first shot and therefore, it was … he was purely retaliating. He did not want to be the one to start the war. He wanted to be the one who responded to the war. So he supplied the troops, he sent them there, knowing what was going to happen.

HEFFNER: So what does that …

CUOMO: And he drew their fire. Well, but still … he didn’t make the first judgment … they had to make the judgment to start the war with the shot. And he knew that, see, so there was that difference. He might have invited it; he might have precipitated it. But they weren’t doing it in self-defense. You know, they were saying, “Okay, you’ve said now you’re not going to concede, and since you’re not going to concede, we’re going to start the war.

And they did start the war. That’s a different thing. And he was very clever. Which is another thing that distinguishes him from most of the Presidents after him. He was supremely intelligent about tactics, about psychology. He did most of the strategizing for the war. And when the Generals didn’t let him do it, like McCellan(CHECK SPELLING) eventually they left. Or when the failed to be as tough as he wanted them to be, he got rid of then. He’s an astonishingly … he was an astonishingly capable person.

HEFFNER: And yet I’m surprised to hear you say no one, and you’re including Franklin Delano Roosevelt …

CUOMO: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I’ll tell you why I say that. Maybe, maybe I should say it a little bit differently. Maybe I should say, no one every demonstrated the kind of intelligence he did. Now the difference may be that if you have people helping you it’s harder for you to demonstrate it. Because you’re not given the opportunity to, to work solo. But he worked solo.

All those debates with Douglas … let me go back a step and start again. You go into the war, President Bush, on a subject, an ideology that you don’t really have a lot of experience with. Who are these Middle Eastern people? Who are these Muslims who are not truly believers in the Koran, but are Jihad-ists. You know, who hate us? Why do they hate us? Why are they willing to give up their life? What motivates them? That was all foreign to him. The Middle East was foreign to him. The culture of the Middle East was foreign to him. And so the very reason we were in war was something he did not understand in the beginning. He didn’t know what Iraq was. We had been in, in a position with Iraq for a dozen years in which we were trying to get the weapons, etc. But he was no expert on what Iraq meant to the Middle East.

But if you look at Lincoln, he knew all about the ideology that they were fighting about. He knew more about it than most people who were alive. He knew the culture of it, the history of it, the legality of it, the question of slavery. He knew the construct of the Constitution and what secession would mean, but fragmentation to mean. So the whole subject of the war was something that he had intellectual command of. Now that didn’t give him command of the war, but it gave him a command of the understanding of the war.

This President had nothing like it. Now that’s not necessarily to fault him. And most of the Presidents …

HEFFNER: But it is to fault him, isn’t it?

CUOMO: Well, it’s … it was a deficiency, but, but, you know, it was simply a matter of he didn’t have the experience, he had never left this country, President Bush … he didn’t appear to be a man of great curiosity … he’s still not a man of great curiosity. And most of his thinking, I’m afraid, even on the subject of whether we should go to war had been done in advance, by the people he hired because he respected them … Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz(CHECK SPELLING) and Pearl(CHECK SPELLING) who was on the margins, but was still effective as a force.

All those people that he brought in, they brought their philosophy, their ideology, their deep and profound knowledge, and commitment … and probably a very sincere commitment … with them. And they overpowered him with it. Colin Powell was the only force on the other side. And he, he just wasn’t strong enough to hold back the wave that these people created.

And so President Bush wasn’t leading this charge, he was following … in a, in a real way. And, and then having made the wrong judgment on Iraq … and it was wrong … he said it was wrong … he said, “Yes, we relied on weapons of mass destruction and complicity. And the imminence of threat … although let’s not say ‘imminence’ because they quibbled about that … ‘proximate’ threat … you know.” Yeah, that’s what they thought.

HEFFNER: But that wasn’t his judgment. It wasn’t his judgment, that was the con job, wasn’t it.

CUOMO: Well that was the con job they conned him with and he made it his judgment. He looked at all the evidence, he heard from Tennett(CHECK SPELLING), he heard from his people; he heard from everybody … read the stuff, asked questions about it … even challenged it at some points, said, “Look, I’m not sure I can sell that.” You’ll recall that.

And, and then, decided to go forward. And he’s responsible for that, the way John Kerry is responsible for his vote in favor of his going forward in Iraq. You … you made a mistake, you were conned, the information was wrong … that’s correct, but you made the judgment.

And having made that mistake he wound up in a war that we shouldn’t have been in, and once he got there, he was utterly unprepared for what to do with his victory over what was the remnants of an Iraqi army.

They hadn’t … he won the war with a pre-packaged military delivered to him by President Clinton. He didn’t’ have time to build his own military machine … Tommy Franks, the Army, the Navy, the Marines … all came … did a wonderful job. That having been done, he had absolutely no idea as to what to do next. And so, so it, it’s hard to imagine Lincoln having … being as poorly prepared as Bush was.

HEFFNER: You know there is something that … maybe it’s in “Why Lincoln Matters”, but I didn’t find it … and I was surprised … that wonderful reply that Lincoln gave to a journalist in the summer of 1862, when Horace Greeley wanted Lincoln to turn the war into a crusade against slavery, and he said “No. But when new views prove to be true views, I shall adopt them.”

And I thought that you, of all people, with your sensibility, your incredible intelligence, your incredible ability to see when one moves and when one doesn’t … would have picked that out as his most distinguishing characteristic. That he knew, that you didn’t take out a position and stay with it no matter what your reason told you.

CUOMO: Well, maybe, maybe because his quote to Greeley, another quote to Greeley so impressed me that it eclipsed that one. And, and, that was his quote to Greeley that Gary Wells made such a big point of and so many others have … about slavery … and the war … and wasn’t it Greeley he spoke to when said, “Look, if I had to give up the pursuit of ending slavery in order to keep the Union together, I would.”

And … which disappoints a lot of people because a lot of people would like to believe that the purpose for the war … excuse me … was to end slavery. Which, of course, it wasn’t. The purpose of the war, from his point of view, was to keep the nation together. Gradually, over the course of the war, slavery became a larger and larger issue and in the end, he was totally committed to it and started the process that gave us freedom from slavery, eventually.

But he was absolutely candid about it with Greeley and with others that that’s … “my purpose is in keeping the Union together.” Lincoln was a complicated man. He was by no means a perfect man. There’s no … maybe there was only one in our time … depending on your religious faith. But, the … he was extraordinarily supple.

I was attracted to Lincoln first as a young man … 1955 … my sister gave me Lincoln’s collected works. She worked at Gertz Department Store, as secretary to Mr. Gertz, which made her a very important person in Queens; and she knew I liked Lincoln and she saw this set of collected works by Roy Bassler(CHECK SPLLING), it had just come out.

It was only about a year old, and that might even have been the first year, 1955 … and so I had this whole collection of, of Lincoln works and I just read his language and his words and what struck me was … not just the way he expressed himself … which is magnificent … not always … not in his letters … not, not in his messages to Congress, for example, sometimes they were very prolix(CHECK THIS WORD).

But, you know, the great writings, the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg, etc. … and so I was fascinated by his ability with words. But more fascinated by his tremendous intelligence and his great lawyers mind. And at the Cooper Union speech, which Harold Holser(CHECK SPELLING) has done a very good book on now … maybe the best book every done …there haven’t been many of them done and he did a great job on it.

You read, or listen to Sam Waterston(CHECK SPELLING) …


CUOMO: … who’s doing it on television … you know the magnificent analysis that went into it … for better or for worse … when he had to defend himself on habeas corpus, when he had to defend himself for suspending habeas corpus, and for suspending Constitutional rights, he made an argument from the oath … he said, “I took an oath to preserve the Constitution, the Constitution calls for one country. Unless I do this, the country fragments. And if the country fragments, I’ve violated my oath.”

And so, you know, you can accuse him of a certain Jesuitical tendency and you can, perhaps, find flaws in his logic, but he was always marvelously logical, if he had to be.

HEFFNER: But wouldn’t you find that same logic in much that President Bush has said about the deed to limit our liberties in order to preserve this union today?

CUOMO: I … in the, in the section on suspension of civil liberties, I … I make the point that I do not very, very carefully … I do not agree that the suspension of habeas corpus was warranted when Lincoln did it. He made a very strong case, he was very glib about it, very intelligent … and there were other liberties that he lifted as well. I’m not convinced that the country was at stake and that if he hadn’t done that, if he had preserved habeas corpus, the country would have fragmented, that he would have lost the war.

He was afraid of that, it was early in the war when he lifted the habeas corpus and he was afraid of what might happen. He was anticipating, but I didn’t see evidence strong enough. Now, in all wars, as you know, Dick, this happens. Roosevelt, the Second World War … every time there’s an emergency … Presidents take the Constitution and stretch it; sometimes to the point of breaking it. And offending it. And the Supreme Court has almost always accommodated them, at least in wartime and then the war is over and you have ex parte milligan, or the Supreme Court says, “Well, you shouldn’t have done that.”

And so, the reality is that when a war comes and a President feels that “Well, I have to take this liberty for the greater good, to preserve us from the Nazis, from this and that.” There’s always the temptation to do this. Understood. Because it’s understandable. And so now you have to be careful, you have to be careful all the time … but particularly in a war to balance your right to freedom, liberty, not to be invaded by cameras or telephonic or electronic machines or in any way … your right that is the biggest thing the Constitution gave us … Civil Liberties. The biggest thing. What beyond that did it give us? So that’s a very powerful right against my need to preserve your welfare in this war and to preserve the nation’s welfare. That calls for balance. The difficulty comes when you have your thumb on the scale, and I think that’s true of Ashcroft.

And that was true of Lincoln. Not as badly with Lincoln as with, with this current Administration, I think. But, but … no, I did not approve of Lincoln’s suspension of liberties.

HEFFNER: And the income tax?

CUOMO: Well, the income tax I loved because …

HEFFNER: Even though it was unconstitutional?

CUOMO: Yeah, but I love it because it’s kind of delightfully useful politically. And I think labels really have come close to become stupid. There certainly useless. I mean “Conservative Liberal” … what does it tell you? I mean a label presumably tells me all about where you are on the major issues. If you say Conservative, then I’m supposed to know what that means on taxes, on war, on abortion, etc., etc. And it’s not anything like that.

What would you have called Clinton? A Liberal? Hardly. A Conservative … certainly not. So, so those labels are terrible. And, and the last person in the world to try to label would be Lincoln. Lincoln was so intelligent, he was so specific, he was so analytical, that it, it’s hard to call him anything. The income tax was a necessity. There was a war on. There was no income tax on the books, he needed money in a hurry. It was the way he choose to raise the money that was particularly intriguing to me. A graduated, progressive income tax. Up to a certain amount, you pay this … above that, you pay that … that’s what we still have. He thought it up, he said, “Look the more you have, the more you should contribute, it’s as simple as that.”

And that lovely commitment to the progressive income tax, that Steve Forbes and everybody has been arguing about on the Conservative side for so long, has remained at the heart of our tax policy, but it’s regarded as a Liberal thing. And, he of course, did it … of course it was unconstitutional, but that didn’t bother him because he got the money he needed when he needed it and it wasn’t declared unconstitutional until after that and then became Constitutional in 1913. But, but what he was saying … see what he was saying about the income tax …

HEFFNER: In 30 seconds.

CUOMO: … is that, you know, that government, government should do what it has to do to share the strength in the country for the good of the whole. And that’s what the income tax is, it’s government getting the people to contribute … all contribute … sharing that good for the good of whole.

HEFFNER: Mario Cuomo, I’m always delighted when you come here, except we don’t have enough time, so you’ve got to come back again and again and again. Promise?

CUOMO: You mean we’re finished?

HEFFNER: We’re finished. Time is up.


HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today.

CUOMO: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.