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I'm Right, You're Wrong:
Mario Cuomo Vs. William F. Buckley

Waiter? Thesaurus! When Cuomo and Buckley sat in for our quarreling regulars, the bons mots flying at the Four Seasons were a mouthful. Some excerpts:

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Maer Roshan: Our two dominating political figures of the past decade are Giuliani and Clinton. How will they be remembered?

William F. Buckley: Giuliani has been a very effective public figure in the La Guardia mode, though public opinion is not always in his favor. I don't think he's handled such basic issues as taxes and the influence of lobbyists, but I think on the whole, he is an impressive figure. Clinton's most enduring legacy will be Monica Lewinsky.

Mario Cuomo: Both Rudy and Clinton are extraordinarily good politicians, though historically, politicians are judged based on factors over which they have little control. If you measure the popularity ratings of the major governors and mayors over the past eight years, you will find they were all over 50 percent. Either we suddenly bred a genius generation of political leaders, or there was a major force that caused this -- namely a tremendous economic bonanza. So how will they be remembered? Giuliani will be remembered as very successful. Dinkins will not. Clinton will be remembered as successful, Carter will not. Pataki will be remembered as successful, Cuomo will not.

M.R.: You don't think you'll be regarded as a success?

M.C.: No, no, no. Sadly. They'll look at job numbers, etc., etc., and judge me a failure. I'm resigned to it.

M.R: Now that your son's running for governor, won't he be damaged by that?

M.C.: The idea that the public will attribute to a candidate demerits from his ancestry is foolish. No one said that just because Bush's father raised taxes, his son will too.

M.R.: The leading Republican running for mayor is Bloomberg. Are you a fan?

W.F.B.: Not really. I know nothing about the man except that he owns a huge media enterprise, which says nothing whatsoever about his qualifications. Except to the extent that media people learn some of the nuances of democratic expression. If as a result of spending your life in the media you become sensitive to public grievances, that's a good attribute.

M.R.: The media moguls I've come across seem most sensitive to their placement at the Four Seasons. Laughter. You've never been a big fan of George W.'s either.

W.F.B.: Even so, there is a sense that he has vindicated the judgment of people who had confidence in him. That doesn't include me; I never wrote a pro-Bush piece. But I think those who said that he did have some presidential qualities are being vindicated. There is a communicable affability about this guy and a feeling that he is genuinely committed to public policy that serves him in good stead.

M.C.: I don't want to be fresh about this, but Buckley's description suits the headwaiter here perfectly. "A communicable affability." Laughter. My own view is that Bush has wisely allowed himself to be an instrument to be used by the more knowledgeable people around him. His great strength is his humility -- which is not a sarcastic way of saying "lack of ability," because he's no dope. But he knows his limits. A lot of people with more talent than he have less humility, and the net product is weaker. But especially as the economy weakens, compassionate conservatism is not what we need.

W.F.B.: So you think "compassion" sucks?

M.C.: That's right, Bill. Compassion sucks! No. It's just that Bush throws "compassion" around cynically. He doesn't really mean it. He means "I don't want you to think I'm harsh." But his programs prove otherwise.

W.F.B.: I've always loathed the term "compassionate conservative," because it has the effect of emasculating correct conservative thought. Correct conservative thought says there must be consequences if you do the wrong thing. If you don't learn how to read, you're not going to get a good job. If you don't diet, you're going to get fat. If you don't submit to the discipline of the marketplace, you go out of business. Bush isn't more compassionate than I am. He just talks a better game.

M.C.: I just hope he talks to his father. Especially during the China crisis, it was a relief to know the old man was waiting in the wings.

W.F.B.: Couldn't Powell or Rumsfeld give him equally good advice?

M.C.: Powell and Cheney may be smarter than the old man, but Bush Senior has hands-on experience. He's thrown up on leaders all over the world! Laughter. Cabinet members all have their own agendas. His father has him as his agenda. For that reason, Andrew will listen to me before he'll listen to someone smarter than me.

W.F.B.: So you would concede there are such people?

M.C.: I assumed we were talking hypothetically.


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