At the beginning of 1984, many Americans west of the Mississippi confused New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo with a middle-aged crooner whose first name was Perry. Not so today.
With the publication of his journal, The Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo: The Campaign for Governor, his eloquent keynote address at the Democratic National Convention last July, and his controversial speech on abortion at the University of Notre Dame, the confusion over the governor's identity has abated in the public mind. Widely discussed as a possible presidential candidate in 1988, he has become a key figure in discussions of the future direction of American liberalism and the Democratic party. His personality as well as his ideas have accordingly become the objects of increasing scrutiny.
This interview was conducted by Karen Sue Smith and Patrick Jordan on April 18 at the governor's office in the World Trade Center.
You recently said that a "sea of red ink" has resulted from the Reagan tax cut of $750 billion and the Reagan trillion-dollar military budget. How would you propose to balance the federal budget?
Mario Cuomo: First of all, I think it's important that we nail down the fact that, while they call themselves conservatives, the people in command have given us the biggest budget and the biggest deficit in our history. That says a lot of things. It says that they're not opposed to government; they're opposed to specific uses of government. And it says that they aren't credible because they promised us a balanced budget after three years. Kemp and Reagan say, in effect, we're going to grow our way out of the deficit. The vast majority of the Republicans—even the vast majority of the conservatives and all the rest of the rational people—say, of course, you have to do something about the deficit. How?
I could escape this question by saying it's not my place to answer, it's their place. And it is. But they haven't done it. I'll make a prediction, however, that what Fritz Hollings has said, what Bob Dole said in the beginning, what the governors have said as a group, is do it across the board. Take down defense. Take down some social spending if you will, but not means-tested programs. And you have to do something about revenues. We must do revenues. That does not mean a tax increase that would punish the middle class and be a disincentive. You could institute a corporate minimum tax that gets General Dynamics and those great big hitters—everybody knows they're ripping us off by anybody's definition. They don't need to be free of taxation as an incentive to build missiles, they have a virtual monopoly. So, I think you have to deal with revenues. You bring down the social side. You bring down the defense. You do it across the board the way we did in this state in 1983 to deal with the mini-deficit—only $1.8 billion.
Commonweal: This is the 450th anniversary of the death of Thomas More. Recent studies portray More as a man of no small ambition. The same has been said of you. What is the relationship between public service and personal ambition?
MC: What is personal ambition? The desire to get to heaven? It depends on how you define personal ambition. If you mean ambition in terms of material things—wealth—you don't get wealthy in this business. You get poor in this business. I had to sell my diary, frankly, because I had no money. I'm not embarrassed to admit I had no money. I could make all the money I want; I always could. But we spent eleven years in this business and used up what savings we had, with five children. I'm not complaining. The point is, if you want to get wealthy, this is not the place to be.
Fame? You have to be stupid to really want fame. If you want 51 percent of the people to say you're good, what do you pay? You pay the price of 49 percent of the people saying you're an idiot, arrogant, stupid, and—if they can't think of anything else—probably lascivious. So, no, I don't honestly think that I'm driven with a desire for fame. I think it's possible for me to win plaudits and applause as a public servant when I don't deserve it and I know I don't. And it's possible for me to be condemned, as I have been from time to time, when I don't deserve it. It's possible to get applause when you deserve it and condemnation when you deserve it, too. But much of it is irrelevant as a true measure of your performance or your conduct. So, I don't make it a test of how I'm performing.
Power? I hope I'm not that sick! I'm afraid of the power, frankly. I feel more like Lincoln, I think, who apparently didn't enjoy the headache of the power. He took it as a kind of obligation. So, in terms of fame, wealth, and power, I don't think these are my ambitions.
My ambition? To spend as useful an existence as possible and have some fun at the same time. Yes, that is my ambition; that motivates me, though I understand that I may not achieve anything. Still, the effort is worthwhile and can justify my existence. I'll settle for that. The chance to make the good effort in this important work and have some fun at the same time. That's my ambition.
Thomas More? I don't like what they're doing to him. I don't like what Marius did to him [Richard Marius's biography, Thomas More]. I don't want to read that Thomas More was obsessed sexually, that he should have been a monk, and married his second wife only because she was past child-bearing years and, therefore, he didn't have to stay with her. I want to believe the Lone Ranger was the Lone Ranger. I want to believe Thomas More was Thomas More. I don't need to see his warts. I'm surrounded by people with warts; I have my own warts. I want the Thomas More who put his head on the block. I don't want to hear that Joe DiMaggio got the lump in pressure moments.
CW: Now that the presidential campaign abortion debate has subsided, what is your own assessment of that dialogue? Do you think that Catholic Democratic politicians are under any particular handicap on this issue which will come up again and again?
MC: Under a handicap? I wouldn't call it a handicap, a disadvantage, unless you want to describe every belief that you have that's not shared by 51 percent of the people as a handicap. Then, for example, my position on the bishops' pastoral on the economy (which I expressed again at St. Peter's College in Jersey City on April 16), would be a disadvantage. Novak and Buckley and these people who are beating up on poor Archbishop Rembert Weakland, they might have some support among Catholics. But I think the Catholics are wrong for feeling that way. But I wouldn't think that a position that says it's going to do something for the poor is a disadvantage politically at the moment.
So, the Catholic view of abortion, even if it happens to put you at a disadvantage politically, I couldn't call that a handicap. That's the way it is. As a Catholic, you are what you are. You believe what you believe. You are using the word handicap to suggest that there is something unfair about it. I don't think so.
Is a Catholic less likely to win political office in this country at this point in time because of his view on abortion? Well, it would depend.
Let's stay with the abortion debate for awhile. I think it was an extremely good thing overall. I think Archbishop O'Connor did a good thing, when you look back. I think surfacing this question was a good thing. Did it help the Democrats? No. It helped feed a mood that was against the Democrats anyway. It didn't beat the Democrats. It probably increased the margin a bit, but politically, I regard it as inconsequential overall. I do think it was good that it came up. I do think it was good that Archbishop O'Connor helped to bring it up. And I do think it was good that I went to Notre Dame, although I had great reservations about it at the time. It's the only time I ever perspired. Matilda made that point. She said, ''I never saw you perspire before. I saw you give speeches when you were sick, when you had a temperature, but you never perspired.'' And I said, "That's because I was never that worried before." The discussion was good. Why? The problem exists, it hasn't been solved, and we're not near a solution.
The problem is: How do you deal with a proliferation of abortions that everybody would admit, if they were candid, is undesirable? I don't know of any woman who calls herself pro-choice who says abortion is desirable. That a woman should have this option—you’ll hear that. But not that abortion is desirable. I think there is near unanimity on the proposition that if we could avoid the necessity for abortion, that would be a better situation.
How do you do that? That's the problem we haven't solved. Do you do it by passing a law? Obviously not. Do you do it by encouraging the Supreme Court to reduce the period in pregnancy during which abortion is allowed? How do you encourage the Supreme Court to do that under our legal system? Do I think a Catholic would lose if he came out and said that you should be against abortion? No. I'm against abortion. What if a Catholic came out and said you should be against abortion and you should adopt a constitutional amendment? I would say then, yes, that would hurt you, and it should hurt you because you can't adopt a constitutional amendment. There is none.
CW: What if a Catholic came out and said, "I'm not opposed to abortion in all cases, or in many cases''? Do you think that a Catholic would have a chance with the Catholic community as a candidate?
MC: I don't know "the Catholic community." I have a guess that there are a number who are immutably fixed to the proposition that you can't possibly say abortion is right. They would say: all abortion is a fundamental matter of life and death, and if you don't feel that way I'm not going to vote for you. That's a hard core of Catholics, and by Catholics I mean baptized people who would call themselves Catholics if you asked them. By hard core I mean, of the people who go to church, 25…30 percent—that's high, I would guess. I would say there is a sizable number of Catholics who wouldn't want to write it on a piece of paper or say it out loud, but who are confused on the subject of abortion even with all that the bishops are trying to do to get the message across. That's one of the reasons they're trying so hard to get the message across. Daniel Maguire and some theologians are saying the bishops are wrong. That would shake me, too, if I were a bishop. If seventy theologians say: "Look, Augustine and Aquinas and…you're not even right about the basic proposition." That's upsetting to a bishop, and it should be. Apparently, this is how Geraldine Ferraro was interpreted, as saying there is some question about whether abortion is right or wrong in the case of rape. Would that hurt you with Catholic voters? With some, I'd say yes. With some Orthodox Jews, yes. Also with some other religious and areligious people who happen to think abortion is wrong—this is not purely a religious proposition. I would guess, yes, it will hurt you some.
CW: You recently had an exchange in the National Review on the abortion issue in which you noted the pragmatic course taken by the antebellum Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. in not opposing slavery. Are you really proud of the stand those bishops took? Granted that a certain consensus is needed before moral principles can be translated into law, don't we remember the leaders who pushed at the edges of an existing consensus to shape a new one?
MC: Now, you have raised a question which accuses me of saying that I was proud of the bishops who refused to come out against slavery. I in no way said that. (Boy, am I glad I'm awake!) I never said I was proud of them. Let's get the context: I'm here minding my own business, tortured as everybody is by the subject of abortion, a governor who isn't even at the national level. All of a sudden the issue arises and the archbishop says, "You might be excommunicated." (At least that's the way it sounds on TV—with my wife and son watching the program.)
No one struck me from my horse with lightning and said, "You used to be Mario; now you're Matthew, write me a piece." In that context the bishops' letter circulets [a letter from the bishops of New York State on ''Abortion: the Role of Public Officials"] and now I'm accused, even before they knew what my position was, of being for abortion: "Were you alive at the time of slavery, you probably wouldn't have opposed slavery. And what do you say to that?" So we responded. We said, ''You guys can't read history because the archbishop then wasn't opposed to slavery. Now you brought it up, bishops. You're the ones who circulated this and said let's use slavery as an analogy." I said, "That's a very bad analogy. As a matter of fact, the point it makes is that you can be a bishop and differ with other bishops and other Catholics and other citizens about the practical way to implement politically a solid theological position." What those nineteenthcentury bishops said was, ''Of course slavery is a sin; the question is whether we should make it against the law as well." And they said that it wasn't practical to do that yet.
I have a better example: birth control. And I reject all this talk by the bishops and archbishops that birth control isn't the same as abortion. Of course it's not. One is the taking of life; one is the aborting of the potential for life. But in terms of our church teaching they are both fundamental sins. And so, what I said on slavery was, "You had bishops who went both ways. I'm not about to condemn them. You can say it would have been better had they opposed slavery, but you can't say it was a sin then unless you're going to condemn all those bishops as hypocrites.''
What should the bishops have done about slavery? I don't know; I don't know the time well enough. I've read all I can, but I wasn't there. I'm here. I know what they should do about abortion here: make it possible to have fewer abortions. The best way to do that is not to ask for a constitutional amendment. That's going to make it less possible because then that's where you'll fight it out. What I'm saying to them is, "Why don't you find practical ways like we're trying to in our state—New Avenues to Dignity? Why don't you open hospices everywhere for pregnant women and say to them, 'You can have the baby.' At the end of the line, you say to them, 'If you don 't want to take care of the baby, we'll put it up for adoption. And we'll do it anonymously, and pay every penny of the cost.' Why don't you reach out to every one of these pregnant kids in the ghettos? You want to avoid abortion? Don't talk to me about making a law. That's easy. That doesn't cost you anything. Go into the mean streets. Go into the ghettos."
Now, I haven't heard any response to that.
What was your other curve ball? Give me the second part again.
CW: Granted that a certain consensus is needed before moral principles can be translated into law…
MC: Good. Now, a lot of people would not grant that. Most people who are arguing with us are missing that point entirely, like the radical right, the Falwells, and the supplysiders who are the fundamentalists in religious terms. They say, "He says that his morality is formed by consensus." That's a distortion. I hope they're smart enough to know that it's distortion: then they're only wicked for deceit. But if they're dumb, then we're really in trouble. What I'm saying is not that I form my morality by consensus: I form my morality by my conscience. On birth control, on abortion, I listen to the church. If they order me ex cathedra, then I either quit the club or go with them. But most of the time they don't do that, as we know. And so, you have to do it from your conscience; I do it that way; I behave that way. If my conscience tells me abortion is wrong, then I'm obliged to tell my daughter not to do it. If people ask me, I tell them, "I think it's wrong."
But to get it changed on the civil side….Would a law need a consensus? Then the question comes: how do you develop a consensus? By pointing a finger at them and accusing them? No. By asking them for a constitutional amendment? No. We tried that. Even the bishops gave up. By doing something else? What? Set examples, give options, prove you're beautiful, prove that love works, be a leader.
We're not leaders. We're perceived as hypocrites. And as long as we're perceived as hypocrites, we won't get it done. To say, well, we can afford to be hypocrites; we'll condemn the poor; we'll forget Cardinal Bernardin's seamless garment; we'll erect new strategies…. The president ran against the poor. Everybody knows that. But he was on more consecrated ground, surrounded by more vestments…I once said, ''He was surrounded by so many vestments, if he had died in the middle of the campaign, he would have been assumed up to heaven.'' Now, that doesn't mean the church should come out against the president. Not at all. But the Sermon on the Mount says you're supposed to take care of the prostitutes, the poor people. And the president is saying just the opposite. He's saying you're supposed to have missiles, tax cuts.
CW: Do you still support the notion of a verifiable nuclear freeze?
CW: The U.S. Catholic bishops' pastoral letter on peace states that not only should steps be taken to end development and deployment of nuclear weapons, but that the number of existing weapons must be reduced. Why do you support the basing of a new naval nuclear-strike force in New York harbor? Do economic considerations outweigh all others?
MC: It is not a new nuclear-strike task force. The federal government can neither deny nor confirm that there'll ever be a nuclear weapon aboard the U.S.S. Iowa. I want the Iowa for the jobs that are there, obviously. Why am I allowing Nine Mile Two to go forward? I don't like nuclear power plants. But I have to put people to work. The bishops have another pastoral—on the economy—that says the biggest problem is there aren't enough jobs. There is more than one truth living in the same world at the same time, and sometimes they are competitive. We need work. We have a 7.3 percent unemployment rate, maybe 40 percent in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and there are people saying we should pass up all these jobs. I made the practical, prudential judgment that we ought to have the Iowa.
I mean no disrespect for the bishops. I put the bishops' peace letter along with the economy letter, and they're very similar. I give greatest credit to their view of the moral substructure of the arguments. They're much better when they talk about our obligation for peace, against violence, etc., than they are when they talk about how many missiles. They're not as expert on the economy—practical implementations—as some others. That does not mean I disregard what they say. But I don't put as much emphasis on these specifics as I do when they're talking about morality. Number of nuclear missiles? What do I know? What does Bishop Malone know? Does he know more than I do? Maybe Bryan Hehir…. So, I listen, I try to study, I read everything. Give me the whole question again.
CW: The U.S. Catholic bishops' pastoral letter on peace states that not only should steps be taken to end development and deployment of nuclear weapons, but that the number of existing weapons must be reduced….
MC: I believe that. And I believe they can be reduced even though the Iowa exists. That's what the arms talks are about. They're not talking about the Iowa.
CW: We talk about "the poor," most of whom are women and children; ''the elderly,'' most of whom are women and many of whom are poor; we talk about "single parents," most of whom are women; we talk about job creation at the lowpaying end of the wage scale, and mean jobs/or "women." Since women do not comprise a single bloc of voters, what can the Democrats do to earn the support of women in 1988?
MC: Well, you mean poor women and single-parent women. I think the Democrats should do what we're doing in this state, frankly. We have geared our programs to that population. We're doing even more next year. The increase in welfare, which the bishops asked for, should be 25 percent, and I'm not proud of making it only 10 percent. I'm delighted I got an increase, but I would prefer 25 percent to 10. That goes basically to AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) which is 90 percent women and children. So, that's policy the federal government is not pursuing; we are, and are beefing up programs there. We are putting a new emphasis on putting those women to work. Keep the temporary employment assistance program; it takes welfare money and breaks it up between an employer and a check. If it's $300 for example, we give you $150, give an employer $150 for hiring you. And if the employer was going to pay $500, now he only has to pay $350, gets you cheap, and it works beautifully. It worked for home relief. We put 1500 people on. We hope to put 3500 women to work that way. They say it's a small amount. Well, I don't know. That's 3500 families that will be self-sustaining.
[For more interviews with Commonweal, see our full list.]