Mario Cuomo: The 60 Minutes interview

"My greatest strength...was my anonymity," Mario Cuomo told Harry Reasoner in 1984, explaining the impact of his Democratic National Convention speech

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The following is a script of "Mario Cuomo," which aired on Dec. 30, 1984. Harry Reasoner is the correspondent.

Mario Cuomo, a relative newcomer to elective office, is only halfway through his first term as governor of New York State. So how come, whenever people talk about the next Democratic presidential candidate, the name Mario Cuomo keeps popping up?

Well, if there's one single thing you can point to, it's a speech he made last July, the keynote address at the Democratic Convention, his first significant national exposure.

Mario Cuomo: With the keynote, what happened was, it was not a great speech, the words weren't especially well-written and the ideas weren't exotic or new. It was exactly the right speech for that moment, that crowd. It was the magic that occurs once in a while when you have exactly the appropriate thing to say to a group that is just right for it and ready for it.

[July 16, 1984: Keynote Democratic Convention:

Mario Cuomo: This is our credo. We believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need. We believe in a government strong enough to use words like love and compassion, and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities. And we proclaim as loudly as we can the utter insanity of nuclear proliferation and the need for a nuclear freeze, if only to affirm the simple truth that peace is better than war because life is better than death.]

Mario Cuomo: My greatest strength up until then was my anonymity which, you know, it gives you a whole lot of shelter. As a matter of fact, even that night I was congratulated on the street by someone who thought I was Al D'Amato, the senator from New York. I guess when I wear my glass-- we all look alike, you know.

After the election was over, both Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro said in effect that if the Democrats were to win the Presidency four years from now, they would need a candidate who came across better on television. A lot of people think Mario Cuomo fits the bill, but the governor says he has his doubts.

Mario Cuomo: My daughter Madeline, who was 14 at the time that I debated Ed Koch on radio station WOR in New York City- I came home from the debate and I said, "What did you think of that radio debate?" She says, "Dad, you were terrific. You look better on radio."

Harry Reasoner: Some people have said, and we'll accept present company, that we don't attract the best men to American politics anymore because they are not about to go through the kind of scrutiny that nobody can stand.

Mario Cuomo: On the other hand, there- there's another thing to look at. There's something about the ordeal of the campaign, there's something about the difficulty of it, the impediments that are set up, the excruciating quality of it on the- the attack on the psyche. That does, in a very real way, measure your capacity to deal with government. You have to be able to deal with people who don't understand you. You have to be able to deal with people who are hostile to you, who will say things about you and your family in the paper that- that can tear at your guts. All of that gets tested in a cruel but effective way in a campaign.

The governor accepts campaigning as a necessary ordeal, but he also finds the process intellectually frustrating.

Mario Cuomo: Campaigns are not a place for discussing intelligent issues in depth. Campaigns are a place for slogans, you know, 28-second commercials, believe me.

As an example, he likes to recall his own primary campaign for governor against New York City Mayor Ed Koch, during which Cuomo came off strongly against the death penalty.

[Mario Cuomo: I beat Ed Koch, right? He was for capital punishment, torture, whatever; I was against it. I won in 1982. I went up to Utica, where they congratulated- 500 people were cheering, "You did it, Mario. God bless you." They were singing ethnic hymns. It was terrific. On the way out, a guy threw his arms around me, kissed me on the cheek. He says, "Mario, you're right. We gotta burn those bums." I think we have a terrible tendency to oversimplify and to go to labels instead of analysis. I have described myself as a progressive pragmatist, and I've done that for 10 years. That makes people think. They say what does progressive mean? That means you're forward thinking. What is pragmatist? That means it has to work. If that label catches on- see, and I like the label because people have to think it through, they're not familiar with it. Once it gets to be really familiar, it'll become a shibboleth like the other ones, conservative, Demo-, then you invent a new label, "neo-progressive pragmatist". But I think what we have to do, Harry, is come off the labels. President Reagan is a conservative. Everybody knows that. But conservatives believe in small governments. He has the biggest in history. Conservatives believe in balanced budgets. He has the biggest deficit in history. Conservatives believe that you ought to be left alone to your own judgments. He wants to push God as he sees it through your window by passing laws.]

[Mario Cuomo: I speak here as a politician, and also as a Catholic educated in Catholic schools--attached to the church first by birth, then by choice, now by love. An old-fashioned Catholic who sins, regrets, struggles, worries, gets confused, and most of the time feels better after confession.

Kennedy was accused of being too Catholic. I was accused of just the opposite.

Kennedy had to say that I won't have any allegiance to the Pope. The- by the time my turn came to be governor, you know, the- the Catholic Church was- was- was talking about just the opposite situation. You ha- you ought to have a greater allegiance.]

Part of Cuomo's problem with allegiance comes from his differences with Archbishop John J. O'Connor. Not long after his installation as head of the Archdiocese of New York, Archbishop O'Connor made a statement implying that Catholics should not vote for candidates who support abortion. Governor Cuomo complained.

Mario Cuomo: Hey, look, we're at our very best when we keep the formal religions as removed as possible from the formal instruments of politics. They can be heard, they can seek to influence, but they can't commandeer, and they shouldn't get entangled. The best thing ...

As for the relationship between a Catholic politician and his church, Cuomo likes to quote an earlier governor of New York State, Alfred E. Smith, who was also a Catholic and also had political differences with his church hierarchy.

Mario Cuomo: And Al Smith said what I have said; only he said it better. He said, "I'm a Catholic and a good one, but I'm also governor of all the people, and I accept what you tell me about the Ten Commandments. I don't accept your judgments on politics. I'm better than you are at that."

[Mario Cuomo: To most of us, the manipulative invoking of religion to advance a politician or a party is frightening and divisive. The American....]

Last September, at Notre Dame University, Mario Cuomo delivered a speech summing up his views on religion and politics. It was during the presidential campaign, and Cuomo thought the Republicans were trying, unfairly, to capitalize on religion.

[Mario Cuomo: The American people need no course in philosophy or political science or church history to know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman.]

One issue on which the Democrats seemed vulnerable was abortion. Vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro was a Catholic and had been criticized within her own church for hedging on that issue. Cuomo, whose position was similar to Ferraro's, tried to communicate the complexity of translating a moral principle into public policy.

[Mario Cuomo: I accept the church's teaching on abortion. Must I insist that you do? The arguments start when religious values are used to support positions which would impose on other people restrictions that they find unacceptable. Some....]

Governor Cuomo argued that making abortion illegal would not solve the problem and would be divisive. He also took the position expressed by most Catholic bishops that abortion should not be viewed as an isolated issue, but as part of a spectrum of related human concerns.

[Mario Cuomo: If we want to prove our regard for life in the womb, for the helpless infant, if we care about women having real choices in their lives and not being driven to abortions by a sense of helplessness and despair about the future of their child, then there is work enough for all of us, lifetimes of it.]

Mario Cuomo was born and raised in New York City, the son of Italian immigrants. He became a lawyer, and also taught law for many years. It was through his law practice that he got into politics.

Mario Cuomo: I spent a lot of time at one stage representing people against government; so-called small people who couldn't supply the wherewithal to hire a big firm that could represent them as against the mayor or the State of New York that was trying to condemn their land. And I got a growing sense of the imperfection of the political system. I became impatient with it, and at one point some people came to me and said instead of decrying the system and, and calling the politicians names, why don't you try getting into it and improving it?

At 52, Cuomo-still-shows, evidence of the athlete he once was. His game was baseball, and he was good enough to have played professionally for a while with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Chris is the youngest of Cuomo's five children. Even though the game is in fun, it's not hard to tell the governor is a competitor.

Mario Cuomo: Blank it!

Harry Reasoner: Do you have a temper?

Mario Cuomo: Do I have a temper? Of course not. I guess, I, I, I would think that all of us have a little bit of a temper. I'm not given to violence.

Harry Reasoner: You said no violence in your temper, but when you were playing baseball-

Mario Cuomo: I'm going to deny this right now.

Harry Reasoner: ...You- you turned- you turned and hit a catcher without stopping to think that he had his mask on.

Mario Cuomo: I like to think of that as a kind of anticipatory self-defense. The truth is, yes, once in- in the distant, the very distant past, in a very weak moment, on a very hot day in a town, I think, called Cordele, Georgia, where I was playing baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirate chain, somebody said something terribly offensive, and I rose up in righteous indignation-to-- to make clear to that catcher that I thought his comments were inappropriate-and, yes, I hit him in the mask.

[On-air radio show:

Ethel, get us off to a good start. Hello, Ethel.

Ethel: Hello, Governor Cuomo.

Mario Cuomo: Be nice, Ethel. I'm old, tired; I got bags under my eyes.

Say something happy.

Ethel: Well....]

Clearly, Mario Cuomo is a man who is comfortable with himself and with others. More than most politicians, he talks regularly with his constituents at town meetings and at call-in shows on television and radio.

[Taleah: I'm 11.

Mario Cuomo: You're 11. How do you know?

Taleah: 'Cause my birthday was just, like, a couple of days ago.

Mario Cuomo: How do you know?

Taleah: How do I know I'm 11?

Mario Cuomo: Sure, who told you? Did your mother and father tell you that?

Taleah: Yes.

Mario Cuomo: Do you believe everything they tell you?

Taleah: Pretty much.

Mario Cuomo: Did they tell you about Santa Claus?

Taleah: Yeah, but I don't quite believe that.

Mario Cuomo: Well, you don't believe it anymore, but you did once.

Taleah: Yes.

Mario Cuomo: Maybe you're not 11. Maybe you're 18; they don't want you to drive. Hah! You never thought of that. Go ahead, Taleah.]

The governor has been described as a "playful professor." Underneath the joking lies an educator and moralist. Here's his response to a question about the problem of acid rain.

[Taleah: What happens if all the animals die out?

Mario Cuomo: Taleah, that's very intelligent of you. Let me make another point. Environment is a very important test of our morality. You know, are we good enough as a people to invest in things that we won't really enjoy, but that you will, and generations after you will? See, that's what environmental concern is. Environmental concern is, do you care enough about being, and about human beings, to take care of people you've never even met, and who aren't even born yet?]

Last month in New York City, almost 2,000 people paid a thousand dollars a head or more to attend a dinner for Mario Cuomo. The purpose was to raise funds for the governor's prospective re-election campaign in 1986. The dinner brought in close to two and a half million dollars-one of the most successful fund-raisers ever. Like every politician seeking re-election, Cuomo says he has no plans beyond his present job.

Mario Cuomo: I feel strong as governor. I feel that I know what I'm doing. I work very hard. I enjoy it. The idea that I could come from behind my mother and father's grocery store in south Jamaica, where they didn't speak the language and I didn't until I was quite advanced myself, that we could come in one generation to this, the highest seat in the State of New Yor-, that's enough for a lifetime. Do I aspire to something grander? What for?

The governor thinks the Democrats have lots of attractive choices, and he dismisses the likelihood of any movement to draft him as a presidential candidate.

Mario Cuomo: What if the clouds opened and all of these wonderful candidates disappeared? What if none of them struck the fancy of the Democratic Party and they came to you with a single voice and s-? That's ridiculous, you know. I mean, that's rid- that's like saying, what if Citicorp said, "None of us can run this company. Mario, we're going to give you $500,000 a year?" What if the New York Yankees wanted me as manager? All of these things are equally unlikely, I think.

Harry Reasoner: On the other hand, the national chairman of the Republican Party said this about you, "Cuomo is the only one they've got who is like Reagan. He hits people in the guts, and they use the same words to talk about him as they do when they speak of the President. He stands up. He's tough. He's strong." You could run as a Republican, I suppose.

Mario Cuomo: You know, I was- I was just thinking, when- when the chairperson of the Democratic Party starts- starts talking that way, then it's serious.