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30th Anniversary Issue / Mario Cuomo: Keeping the Faith

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I had not even thought of running for president until one day in 1991, at a small fund-raiser, completely unanticipated, someone stood up and said, “Hey, Mario, in all the years we’ve supported you, we’ve never heard you talk about the presidency, and we want to know why not.” Matilda was there. I said, “Well, you know, the truth is, Matilda and I have never talked about it. The family and I have never talked about it.”

They didn’t believe it, some of the people in this room. They said, “You were ahead in the polls twice. How could you not?” I said, “I know. Never once came up at home.” And it never had. And they were astonished.

Vincent Albanese, an old, old friend of mine, and a lot of people in the room were Republicans whom I knew and liked; we started together from the old neighborhood and from St. John’s, and they were with me because I was their friend, not because I was a Democrat. They didn’t like Democrats, a lot of them. And they said, “You should look at the presidency.” And with Matilda sitting in the room, I said, “You know, I owe it to you. If you say I should look at it, I will.” I came out of the room; there was a press conference. I said, “We’re going to look at the presidency.”

A couple of months later, I said, “Everything is so good . . .” I mean, the polls were good. I was first in the polls. Money was there; everything was there. I said, “If I can only get the Republicans to make a budget.” See, people forget, because it’s arcane and no one knows about state government anyway and what the budget is and what it means. We were then in a recession in New York State. We were still in the recession of ’89.

I felt, The state’s in trouble -- this is no time to leave. So I was trying to make a fifteen-month budget. The Republicans said no. On December 20, 1991, as a jet with its engine running waited on a runway in Albany to take him to New Hampshire for the announcement of his candidacy, Cuomo decided not to run for president. If I had left for New Hampshire without a budget, just imagine what the media would have done. And they would have been right. They would have said, “How dare you come to New Hampshire and say, ‘The problem with America is the economy,’ when you don’t even have a budget for your state -- and it’s required by law?’”

It would have been hopeless for me. I would have walked away from my obligation as governor. And it would have been foolish politically because the media would quickly -- and properly -- have reminded me that I was contradicting myself by saying that I could help the federal government and the nation to strengthen our economy while at the same time I wasn’t able to produce a budget in my own state.

That wasn’t the only issue. Everything was an issue. The Mafia is a question every time an Italian raises his head. One guy (I won’t mention his name because he’s a fellow I like a lot, a famous national columnist) did a column that said, “He’s a terrific guy, Cuomo, but there are no Marios down South.” Like I would be some kind of strange beast in the South because my name sounds like an oratorio. What he really meant was Italian. But I never had a problem. People like Rudy Giuliani, God bless him, who was United States Attorney and who was not a political booster of mine by any means, and was ambitious for himself, said, “Look, nobody knows better than I do: This guy is golden.” And that’s very important to me. That reputation that I brought out of my political life is extremely important to me.

That would have been a reason to run for president, not a reason not to run. That’s like saying you can’t be president if you’re a Jew; you can’t be president if you’re an Italian; you can’t be president if you’re a woman; you can’t be president if you’re a black. No, no. That was one of the reasons I ran for governor. So that was not a reason.

Colon cancer was mentioned as another reason I didn’t run. Never did they mention 28-year-old blondes. Which I always took to be an insult. One of my daughters came to me and said, “Do you want us to start a rumor?” I said, “What would happen?” She said, “Everybody would laugh.”

If I made a mistake in terms of running for president, the mistake was not in refusing to run in ’91. It was in running for governor in ’90, a decision I made because the state was in trouble. So do I have any regret? No. Look, I am the luckiest person I know. I have been given much, much more than I ever deserved. Life, you discover after you’ve lived it for a while, is largely a matter of circumstance and good luck. Yes, it helps to work hard; it helps to try to stay as honest as you can. But your health is not something that you can control. Having a Matilda is not something that everybody gets. Having five fantastic kids is not something you can earn for yourself. Being in the right place at the right time in 1982, when everybody else dropped out of the race because Koch came in -- that you couldn’t have arranged except through prayer. So I’ve been so lucky. The people of this state were so good to me. Letting me serve for three terms! My God. And I had no money, I had no friends, I had no reputation to begin with. How could I ever admit to regretting anything? I made a lot of mistakes, and they let me stay anyway for three terms.

I had a chance to go on the Supreme Court of the United States, and my whole family was more disappointed in my deciding not to do that than in my deciding not to run for president -- much more. Because most of my family thought, Gee, this is natural for Pop, and this is his thing, it’s what he likes -- he doesn’t like the cocktail parties; he doesn’t like asking people for money and all this other garbage of politics. But I said no because we learned so much in twenty years of politics and twelve years of the governorship and eight other years serving. . . . I learned so much that I thought it would be a waste to just bury that under a black robe and limit myself to the very important work of a justice of the Supreme Court. I mean, what I am saying now about America’s condition -- if I were a judge, that would be still one more voice quieted on this subject.

In the 30 years or so that I’ve been in politics (and there’s this interesting coincidence between New York’s celebration and my career), there has never been a time when we needed a progressive point of view more than we need it now.

Let me give you some facts. Five percent of America is now making $100,000 or more. That’s the highest percentage ever. There are more millionaires and billionaires than ever. Here at Willkie Farr, where I am a partner, I tell my clients, and have been telling them for over a year, that the Dow Jones will be 10,000 by 2000. Owners, formidable investors, and high-skilled workers are having a bonanza. But there are 16 million children in danger of being involved in drugs, being victimized by violence, and made susceptible to teenage pregnancy, and we lead the industrial world in teenage suicide. The average family wage is $34,000. That’s more than half of America not doing well enough to be worry-free, stagnant in wages. But what is not stagnant is the cost of higher education, the cost of health care, the cost of nursing homes, the cost of housing, the cost of automobiles -- all escalating at beyond the inflation rate.

This would be my line if I were running right now. This is the greatest nation the world has ever seen, and we have had eight great years, but we are nowhere near what we could be. And the gap between the best of us and the weakest of us is growing larger even as we experience this affluence. And unless you conclude that you can have this kind of strength only by tolerating this kind of weakness -- only if you say that -- can you settle for what you have now.

Interviewed by Craig Horowitz


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