BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Mario Cuomo, author of "Why Lincoln Matters," what year did your sister, Marie, give you a copy of Lincoln`s collected works?
MARIO CUOMO, AUTHOR, "WHY LINCOLN MATTERS: TODAY MORE THAN EVER": In 1955. I guess that was Bassler`s (ph) first year -- 1955.
LAMB: Roy (ph) Bassler.
CUOMO: That`s right.
LAMB: Why did she give it to you?
CUOMO: Because I had shown an interest in Lincoln already, and she knew it. And she was my oldest sister, and education was everything in my household. My parents were immigrants. My mother died at 95, never having been able to read a book in any language, which was something we talked about a lot, the kids in the family. And so my sister and older brother were constantly after me, buying books for me, et cetera. I wasn`t a kid when she did it in `55. I`d been around for a while. But she knew I had an interest in Lincoln and she thought it would be a good idea. And the collected works have become a treasure since then for me.
LAMB: How big is -- or are the collected works? How many volumes?
CUOMO: Nine volumes, and they have those magic little indexes that they did for a while, the additional indexes. And I wish, you know, they`d kept writing the collected works and -- because they do find new things from time to time. But I think in its original form, it was nine.
LAMB: So `54 did you say?
CUOMO: In `55.
LAMB: How old would you have been in `55?
CUOMO: Well, I`ll tell you exactly. I was born in 1932.
LAMB: So you were in your 20s.
LAMB: Where were you in your life? Had you had college?
CUOMO: In `55, I had just started law school, I guess. Let`s see -- `49 to `53 was college, so `53 to -- yes, I was in law school.
LAMB: So how much time did you spend with the collected work?
CUOMO: And I was married. I had been married for a year or so already.
LAMB: This is your 50th anniversary, right?
CUOMO: We just had our 50th anniversary, yes.
LAMB: So how much time did you spend with the collected works?
CUOMO: You know, over the years -- over the years, I`ve read Lincoln regularly. I`m not a Lincoln historian. I`m no Harold Holzer (ph). I`m not a Lincoln scholar, but I`ve read Lincoln. You know, I`ve done "The Lincoln Portrait" twice. I`ve written on Lincoln, not for publication, although we did do a book in 1985, I think, `86, "Lincoln on Democracy," that I edited with Harold Holzer. I gave speeches in Springfield with Jim Thompson as governor a couple of times, I think.
And I`ve read not everything that comes down because every once in a while, there`s a book on Lincoln I`m really not interested in because to me, the thing that I was totally dazzled by was his extreme intelligence, his incredible ability to analyze, his suppleness with the law, and his big ideas for a man who never stepped out of the country except to go to Canada. In New York state, we don`t count the Canadian border as foreign policy. But that was the only time he ever left the country. But he kept -- he talked constantly about the rest of the world and the effect of the American experiment on the rest of the world.
For a fellow who only went to school for a year, total, formal schooling, you know, his sense of the big, big truths in the world, especially -- and this is particularly relevant, I think, now -- especially on religious issues. I mean, he talked a lot about religion. We`re confronted now by very big religious issues -- abortion, stem cells -- with religious predicates. And his thinking about the fundamental truths, the basic spiritual truths that every religion starts with -- what is your relationship to other human beings? You know, how do you regard other human beings? And what do you do if you conclude that -- well, you`re supposed to respect them, love them, if you will, and work with them. And what is your mission. Well, Hebrews say the mission is Tikkun alam (ph), repair the universe. And Christians say, Be collaborators in creation. He wasn`t a Christian, he wasn`t a Jew, but he said exactly the same thing. Your whole mission is to try to make this place better, make this living experience better. That`s wonderful stuff. We don`t have anybody who talks that way now, and that`s why I wrote the book.
LAMB: You say he wrote a million words.
CUOMO: I`m sorry?
LAMB: You say he wrote a million words. Do you think he wrote them himself?
CUOMO: Well, let`s see what his choices would have been. He didn`t have anybody -- he was practicing law when he wasn`t being a politician, and when he was being a politician, even the people around him weren`t perfectly suited to where he was, Herndon (ph), who loved him and -- you know, Herndon was an abolitionist. He wasn`t where Clinton (SIC) was on slavery from the very beginning. So I think he had to write it himself. And mechanically, he didn`t have much of a choice.
And you know, he did everything, just about everything on his own, unlike most modern politicians. He had to think up the ideas. Nobody -- he didn`t sit around with a bunch of Brahmins trying to figure out, you know, how to get around the Constitution, which he became extremely adept at. And I marvel at the suppleness he showed in dealing with the Constitution and making it sound like he wasn`t breaking it in half, when sometimes he was coming very close to doing that. So I think he did -- yes, I think he did everything himself.
LAMB: Were you able very often in your political life to write for yourself?
CUOMO: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. On the major speeches, always. I`ve had some brilliant, brilliant people work with me -- Peter Quinn (ph), who wrote a great historical novel on Ireland and is doing very well now as an author and wrote like an angel, had written speeches for Hugh Carey before me, the governor before me, and I worked with him several times and -- but in the end, if it`s a speech that I was going to give, and not the ordinary day-to-day address you give to this group or that group. That was always written for me. And sometimes I didn`t even see the cards until I got to the event. But if it was a speech at a convention, like the speech at San Francisco in 1984 or the nomination of Clinton in `92 or the Notre Dame talk -- I had Peter Quinn. I had Bill Hanlon (ph), a friend of his. We all worked together for five weeks, but that was mostly on the theology of it and, you know, the logic of it and making sure we had it exactly right.
If I was going to read a speech, then I wanted it to be as much as possible mine because, otherwise, it wasn`t easy for me to deliver it as well as I was capable of delivering it if the words were mine.
LAMB: Just for a moment, while we`re on this -- in your lifetime, who are the best speakers?
CUOMO: Well, you see, that`s difficult because if you mean readers of speeches...
LAMB: I`m not talking about -- I`m not talking about politicians -- I mean, you know, one side or the other. But who, in your opinion, has gotten the message through?
CUOMO: Reagan did it better than anyone that I`ve ever seen because he had -- first of all, you can`t separate the persona from the performance because if there`s somebody up there you don`t like the looks of, or who seems surly or negative, you`re not going to give him the same willingness to be persuaded. But Reagan was perfectly non-menacing. Nobody ever, ever, ever looked at Reagan and said, I have to look out for this guy. They loved him, in part because they remembered him from the screen, a lot of people, and in part because he was that kind of person. He wasn`t a harsh person. He wasn`t a negative person. He was a gentle, sweet person. So he started with that advantage. And then he could read anything and make it sound good. He could read the menu, I`m sure, and make it inspiring, if he wanted to. And what he did with pauses and that wonderful smile, and his good looks.
My mother I mentioned already -- I was sitting with Tim Russert, and we were watching the candidates -- I was governor at the time, and Tim was working with me. And we were watching the candidates. Only my mother was in the room with us. And Tim asked her what she thought of Reagan. And she asked me, How old is he? And I said, Well, he`s 70, 75. She says, Mi cappelli, sone sui? (ph) Is that his hair? And I said, Yes. And she said, Is it dark? I said, Ma, they say that that`s his natural hair. He didn`t change the color. And she said in Italian, God must love him.
And you know, a guy like that`s going to be persuasive when a woman like my mother can look at him and feel that way about him. So he was wonderful. At Normandy he was wonderful. In his speeches, he was wonderful. We make a little bit of fun of him in the book, in the piece Harold and I got together on in the beginning of this book, Harold Holzer, in which he cited some things as Lincoln epigrams that weren`t really, but that wasn`t his fault. He was a great, great reader/communicator. No question about it. He transmitted sincerity, which is the big key for a politician.
Bill Clinton -- Bill Clinton is a great talker. Bill Clinton is very fluid. He`s very fluent, sometimes too much so, and that was what happened in `88. But he`s so knowledgeable and so intelligent and has the obvious charm, too. So makes him a very good communicator.
I thought Nixon, you know, who I got to know a little bit -- in a book Monica Crowley wrote -- the only place anybody ever described this odd relationship that developed after I became governor. But his economic speeches, which I read, you know, are some of the plainest, easiest language to read on economics that I`ve ever read. And he was good there.
LAMB: Let me just stop you a second. What was your relationship with Richard Nixon?
CUOMO: One of the reasons I went into politics -- and I went in belatedly. I mean, I was not a politician. I`m still not a politician by instinct. I mean, I love politics. I love governance more than politics. I love the serving in government, which was a wonderful opportunity. But I was involved (ph) in the Second Vatican Council, with the Catholic and Jewish Relations Committee and other things, with a rabbi. And then came Watergate. And the rabbi said to me, You know, we`re talking to all these people about what the right thing is. You`ve beaten Robert Moses in lawsuits, Lindsey, Mayor Lindsey of New York, Rockefeller. You constantly beat up the system. Why don`t you become a part of it?
So I went into government. Matilda and I decided, Well, let`s try it so we don`t feel so much like hypocrites, for a couple of years. I stayed 20. So Nixon, in a way, you know, was -- and what did he at Watergate and what that did to the system in part convinced me to go into politics, and I did.
Years later, 1983, I become a governor. He`s out. He`s living in Jersey. He`s the former president. I had never met him. I bumped into him a couple of times, but I couldn`t say they were meetings. I might even have -- maybe I shook his hand. I`m not sure. But there was no relationship.
And then I do an inaugural in 1983, and we get a call from the president`s office in New Jersey, or wherever it was, Did the governor get my note? Nobody knew anything about a note. They looked through my trash pail, and it was in the trash pail. And it had a tomato stain on it, I confess to you. Apparently, it was a ham and cheese with tomato on rye. A note came in written, Dear -- in ink -- Dear Governor Cuomo -- and then it was typed. Then it says, Sincerely, Richard Nixon. They put it all on my desk. When I got there, I looked at it and I figured, you know, This is ridiculous. Nobody -- Richard Nixon -- so I just put it in the pail. I thought it was some wiseguy Republican sending it to me. And it was after my inaugural address, and there was a congratulatory note on the inaugural address. And after his office called, and I was humiliated, and I called to apologize and told him the story, actually.
And that started a series of phone calls. And Monica Crowley was an amanuensis to Lincoln in his -- I`m sorry, to Nixon -- I believe in his last four years. And she was very young and very bright, and he just talked to her all day long. And she made notes. Safire says that Nixon always knew that she would do a book, and he was really kind of using her to get his last story out. And in the course of our conversations, some of which are reported in the book -- so he must have talked to her about them, or she overheard them, I don`t know which -- he suggested, for example, I run against President Bush, I mean George Bush, the first George Bush. It`ll be good for the president, he said, you know? And he -- I don`t want you to win, but -- you know?
So he had a kind of peculiar way about -- he also, with Armand Hammer, who is now deceased, said, You -- you`re going to the Soviet Union. I`m going to arrange a meeting with Gorbachev, which he did. And that was strangely erased just before I left for Moscow, and he -- he swore that it was because the Bush people found out, and they didn`t want that. So it was that kind of thing.
We talked a lot about the economy. No, strike "We talked." He talked a lot about it because at that stage in his life, it was very hard to interrupt his flow. I mean, he would call you. How are you? I saw this, Governor. You did very well here. And then you`d say, Thank you very much, Mr. President. Incidentally, what do you think about boom? And that was the end of -- that was it. Then he would stay on that, whatever the subject was -- the economy, foreign policy. And when you tried to get in, he`d -- oh, yes, very -- but he`d return to -- so it was mostly a way for him to ventilate, I thought, the conversations.
I met him once. He was in New York after that. But most of it was just these telephone conversations until finally, he passed.
LAMB: Let me go to Abraham Lincoln speaking. I know you studied him closely. Would -- what would he have been like, you think, in the television age? Would he have been able to have made it?
CUOMO: Everybody -- you know, it`s such a difficult question. I start with a blunt, crude evaluation. He was so smart, he was so wise, he was so acute in his intelligence that I can`t imagine any of the technological impediments really hiding that. I don`t know what his voice was. You hear all kinds of descriptions. It could be heard at the -- you know, a thousand feet away and -- but it was high, and it was this. And I really don`t know. And a beautiful voice like Reagan`s would help, surely, and a screechy voice would not.
But I think, no matter where you put this man in our history, whatever period, whatever the technology, in the end, his ideas, his intelligence -- I don`t know that his sense of humor -- he had a great reputation, as we know, as a story teller, et cetera. But I hate puns, and when I discovered he liked puns, you know, that kind of disappointed me. And the one that maybe is the worst -- he was walking down the street with somebody saw the sign "T.R. Strong," the name of a company, T.R. Strong. And he looked at it and said, T.R. Strong? But coffee are stronger.
CUOMO: Tea are strong, but coffee are stronger. That was his sense of...
LAMB: Why do you hate puns?
CUOMO: I don`t know. They torture humor. I mean, they`re too -- they`re too crude a use of humor. And for a guy like him, whose subtlety I so admire -- so I`m glad I never heard any of the bawdier stories he told when -- when he was a young guy.
No, so I think, Brian, if you had him today -- and I tried doing this. In page 166 in the book, I do a State of the State -- State of the Union by Lincoln today in Lincolnesque language. And Harold Holzer, who worked as -- and who everybody knows is a great Lincoln scholar and an old friend of mine -- Harold Holzer, who I first gave the -- I said, Harold, I`m going to write this. I`m going to write it tonight. And he said, Gee, willikers. How could you ever get away with that? I said, Well, let me try it -- just trying to do his language and today`s issues -- Iraq, terrorism, the huge tax cut, et cetera. And I did it, and Harold called me up and he says, you know, Son of a gun, I think we can make this work. And I said, Now, go through second inaugural and the other places. Pluck out sentences for me that are actual Lincoln sentences that fit this speech that I`ve written. And we did that and worked on it. And so that`s an idea of Lincoln speaking today.
I think he`d have to change some of his syntax and some of his grammar, but we need him desperately today. That`s why I wrote the book. I think what he said, what he believed, the big ideas he offered you, the wisdom he offers you, we need desperately now. We`re confused. We`re riveted on terrorism and the war, which we need to be. We`re still losing men and women, and other innocent people are dying, as well. And sure, we have to think about it, but we have to be thinking about that and much more.
He thought about the Civil War. He thought about each battle. But he thought constantly about much more than that. He thought about what was going to happen when he finally did win the war and how he was going to reconcile and how he was going to make us one again and how he was going to preserve us for the benefit of the entire world. That`s his mind. That`s what we need now.
LAMB: You say in the introduction, had Lincoln not existed, had he been less than he was or had the battle to keep the nation together been lost, it would have meant the end of the American experience -- experiment. Excuse me. Not experience, experiment.
CUOMO: Right. That was Lincoln`s assessment. That is my assessment. That`s essentially what he says to Greeley (ph) when -- people came at him, and as we know, offered all sorts of possible compromises -- Let these guys go, the heck with them, you know, we`ll be better off in the north, we can survive as two countries, et cetera. And he said no to all of that. All of that would destroy the original idea. The original idea was we went from the Articles of Confederation to a Constitution to bind us together as one, and we have to show we can make it work.
And if you allow them to secede, and if you allow them to create their own republic, then eventually, there will be -- it will be a temptation to have still another fragmentation. And the process of fragmentation having been established, you`ll eventually crumble into particles. That, in essence, is what he was saying. And he was, I`m sure, right.
He said, Look, the whole world is looking at us. There have been attempts at democracies before. Never one like this. Never one with the potential success of this one. And this now is the big test, to see if we can govern ourselves or whether the first time you have a really passionate disagreement amongst yourselves, you`re going to break up, Balkanize -- a word he wouldn`t have used, but I do. And that was his feeling. And I think he`s right, and I think he made the right judgment, and that was to pay the price to keep the union together.
LAMB: You also right in the introduction, neither party, Republican or Democrat, so far has presented a compelling, comprehensive, achievable vision that sets out the basic principles we must live by to bring us closer to the more perfect union described by our Founding Fathers. Now, your own party`s not going to like to hear that.
CUOMO: So be it. I think...
LAMB: Neither party so far has presented a compelling, comprehensive, achievable vision.
CUOMO: I think that`s absolutely true, and I think it`s absolutely true of my party. And I`m devoted to my party and I`m devoted to the candidate we have, but it`s clear we haven`t done it yet. Now, that`s not to say we won`t, and I think, as a matter of fact, we`ll have to, to win, to be honest. I think there`s a reason why we haven`t done it so far. I think, right now, it`s -- the campaign is Bush against Bush, and Bush is losing for the time being because the fact of the situation is that everyone is watching Iraq and everybody`s still concerned about terrorism. And he is the commander-in-chief, and he is in the middle of the action. And so, of course, we`re focused on him.
It makes very little difference what John Kerry or anybody else on the Democratic side says now, Joe Biden or any other spokesperson, because we`re watching our president. They don`t have the power to influence that president. And -- oh, this is not -- and even tactically, if you see the president is subsiding and taking a hit, not as big a hit as you might have imagined, but -- you don`t interrupt that process. Just let him stand until he stabilizes, now it`s moving up, and then you make your move.
So I think Kerry hasn`t made his move yet. He`s not going to be able to -- it`s not going to wait until the last two weeks. You`re going to have to start pretty soon, and I think, probably, the convention is the date. Starting with the convention, he has to start offering the vision I`m talking about. He has to say to the American people, Here`s where we were wrong. That`s easy. Fifty-four percent of you already think that the war in Iraq was a mistake, so convincing you we`ve made a lot of mistakes is not the problem. Convincing you that I can do it better than he did, that`s our challenge, and I accept it. And here`s what we`re gong to do, bing, bing, bing, bing. And then he has to lay it out.
LAMB: You say that parties shouldn`t try to claim Lincoln, either side.
CUOMO: Oh, you can try, but -- oh, well, I would -- I -- forgive me. I think what I say is, Don`t try to make him a Republican in today`s terms or a Democrat in today`s terms. As a matter of fact, don`t besmirch him with any of the modern labels -- the old ones were bad enough -- because the modern labels are an absolute joke.
What would you call President Clinton? A conservative? No, no, no. A liberal? No, no, no. He wouldn`t like that. Well, then, what do you call him? And if the word "conservative" meant anything, why would George Bush have to come from Texas, where he was a conservative, and suddenly become a "compassionate conservative"? And if "Democrat" meant anything, why would you have to run as a "new" Democrat? Why would you need those mitigating muck-up words attached to the label, if the label told you about the -- so the labels don`t mean anything. And they didn`t mean much in his time. He was a Whig who became a Republican. I say you shouldn`t try to label him. He`s too supple for that. And if you absolutely forced me to give you a label which only had two words to describe him, I`d say, Well, call him progressive and call him pragmatic and make him a pragmatic progressive, or a progressive pragmatist and -- because he was broader than that. He was more...
Here`s a good example, I think, of that. Right now, if we have an argument about who are the conservatives, who are the liberals, you`d probably have to start it by saying, OK, what do they say about the role of government? And the conservatives would say, as Reagan did, and as Clinton did, at one point, the era of big government should be over. Big government is the problem. Little government is what we believe in. And then you go to liberals, and they`d say, Oh, no, we need more government.
You go to Lincoln, and what does he say? I mean, he doesn`t fall into that foolish trap. He doesn`t play that simplistic game. He said, Look, it`s basic. The Constitution brought us together. Government is the coming together of people to do for one another collectively what they could not do as well or at all privately. And so if you can use the market system, use the market system. Don`t bother with us. If you could build all the roads we need in this country, don`t ask Eisenhower to do the road program, just build them and make them toll roads, like Europe. If you could educate everybody in this country through the market system, well, then, Lincoln wouldn`t have wasted my time saying one of the first things we have to do is education.
And for your information, neither would Adam Smith have done it in "The Wealth of Nations," when he says, Look, market systems are inevitable if you`re going to have a good society, but they`re not sufficient by themselves. There have to be interventions. And he named specifically education. So Lincoln didn`t read "The Wealth of Nations." Maybe he did. I don`t see any evidence. But he didn`t need to. He was as smart as Smith was, only he said it better.
And if you take that test and apply it to everything, you end this argument about the role of government. It gets to be very easy because then you`re arguing ad hoc. Space program, Kennedy wants one. Oh, conservatives, you want to leave it to the private industry? Maybe Boeing will do it. I don`t think so. So how about government? Yes, it`s a good investment. And so we`re in it. And on and on and on.
With Lincoln, it was internal improvements. We`re talking about a bank. We need a bank. With Hamilton, it was the national bank, et cetera, et cetera. But that`s always a correct analysis all throughout -- when it got to Roosevelt and poor people were dying because nobody was there to help them and old people who were sick had no help, Roosevelt said, Look, we have to make a change in this democracy. There are a lot of things the market is not doing for us beyond public schools, and that`s health care and work for people -- or help for people who are out of work and retirement benefits. So you do Social Security, unemployment insurance, workers` benefits of all kinds. And then later, Johnson does Medicare and Medicaid.
And this is Lincoln. And if you had paid attention to Lincoln in the early stages and didn`t make these simplistic arguments about government is bad, government is good -- it`s neither. It`s necessary. And when it`s necessary, you use it, and when it`s not, you don`t. We could use that talk today from Lincoln.
LAMB: I don`t want to bore you, but you`ve gone over this territory so many times, but I want to go back to your beginning, your very beginning, because you point out in here that Abraham Lincoln was poor, came from poverty, didn`t have anything, didn`t have any education. Where -- what was the neighborhood like, what was your life like when you were born? Where was it?
CUOMO: Well, it wasn`t a little creek in the middle of a woods, and it wasn`t a log cabin in Kentucky. But where was I born? Was born on a table behind Harry and Ruby Kessler`s (ph) grocery store, delivered by a midwife. All the children, four children my parents had -- there are two of us left, my older sister and myself -- were delivered by midwifes.
LAMB: In 1932?
CUOMO: In 1932. And we, at that point, spent all day in one room with a black tub in which we washed with a cloth and we washed clothes, et cetera., a blackstone tub, and a toilet and cots and curtains. Gypsies lived in the middle of the block at that time. That was not unusual in neighborhoods, you know, gypsies that lived in empty stores and they put curtains up and they would read your palm and stuff like that.
So my mother and father were helping the Kesslers by doing physical work in the grocery store. Neither of them could read or write English. My father had been a ditch digger in Jersey City, New Jersey, but the Depression came, he was out of work. By a miracle -- a miracle, a miracle -- somebody in South Jamaica, Queens, who was from the same neighborhood as my father, was a customer of Mr. Kessler, who had a heart attack and couldn`t do the work, he said, Look, there`s a couple in Jersey City going to starve to death -- because there was no unemployment insurance, there was no workers` compensation, there was no welfare, et cetera, et cetera. And they`ll work like horses for you. Just give them a place to live. Give them a little something to eat and a few bucks now and then, and they`ll help out.
Seven years later, the Kesslers turned the store over to my father, and they stayed for a long time helping him because he needed a lot of help. But they...
LAMB: But you were all in one room.
CUOMO: ... stayed there for 27 years.
LAMB: But you...
CUOMO: Well, you know, then...
LAMB: But you -- how long did the family live in one room?
CUOMO: In the one room in the daytime, we lived for, I guess, five or six years. And then -- but after two years, he found a bedroom for the kids upstairs, and my mother and father stayed in the one room. And then after that, we found an apartment. Wasn`t much of an apartment.
Let me make this clear before I -- that sounds like a very, you know, tough, spare existence, and it wasn`t. You have to keep it in context. South Jamaica, Queens, was all tenements, no houses, no low-income housing projects, no high-rises. Across the street from the store were three gin mills, an Italian, black and Portuguese, all side by side. There was a junkyard two blocks away. It was a very poor neighborhood. There was a synagogue on the corner. Everybody was poor. The Jewish people, the Portuguese, the black, struggling to get into the middle class. And compared to everybody in that neighborhood and the kids that went to PS 50, where there was no library and there was no bilingual education, and so they didn`t understand me when I first went there because there was nobody who spoke Italian and could interpret -- you know, we lived well because we had food. We had our two parents home all the time because they were working in the store, and we lived there. It was really a very secure, comfortable and good life for me.
And the fact that, yeah, they were poor and that I got to know them and meet them because they all came into the store, you know, the really poor woman, the woman with the scar on her face who happened to be working in a house of assignation, we would call it now, that`s not what they called in the old neighborhood. You know, you saw all these people, you met them, and after a while what you concluded is they were all the same, they were all like my mother and father, they`re all poor, they`re struggling, they`re working. They`re just like me. And that`s something I never forgot, and I wish everybody had had that experience.
LAMB: Parents weren`t educated?
LAMB: How far did they go in school?
CUOMO: Never. Didn`t go to school, not in Italy or here.
LAMB: And how long did you speak Italian?
CUOMO: The very -- I consider it a compliment if you had heard me and you called it Italian, it would have been a compliment, because it was a bastardized Italian. Because here Italians from a very rural part of America, maybe the most rural part of West Virginia would be the counterpart here, speaking the way they speak in the hills compared to English. So they spoke a terrible dialect to begin with, they weren`t educated. Then they come here and it gets mixed with the language of the street.
For example, the word for toilet is cabinetto, that`s Italian. The word for toilet in our house was backouse (ph), which was a corruption of back house. That was the Italian word for it.
So I spoke Italian, and I speak that kind of Italian, still, but then until I was about 6, 7 years old. Because I was mostly in the store and didn`t have a lot of experience outside the store. I was locked behind the store. My brother had been nearly killed in a car accident in the street in front of the store, so they didn`t want me running around. But I caught up after a while.
LAMB: One of the reasons I ask you, because you go back to the Lincoln upbringing, and no education, and lots of kids around, all that, and you had four kids in the family. At some point you have to get interested in education, because you talk about education here, the need to spend lots of money on education. But it is clear that neither you nor Abraham Lincoln had a lot of money spent on you for education. Somehow you figured it out.
CUOMO: But I have a mother and father -- Lincoln`s father apparently was not so prone to encouraging his son. His stepmother was, and his stepmother pushed Lincoln very hard to read and to learn. I had two parents who did nothing but push us on education. I had two parents, my father particularly, he was a very smart man, he really was, and it`s hard to think of him now, even at my advanced stage and not -- you get choked up thinking about what it must be like to be as smart as he and my mother were and know that you can`t communicate, you can`t write, you can`t read, et cetera, et cetera.
LAMB: So they were smart?
CUOMO: They were very smart. And he would say to me always and always the same thing. "I`m working for one reason -- so that you people get the education we didn`t have, so that you can be more than I have been able to be. Now, if I can get you educated, I will have done my job. You`re going to have to do much more, because you`re going to have an education."
And so everything they did -- he had four bank books: Andrea Cuomo in trust for Franco, my brother; Andrea Cuomo in trust for Maria, et cetera. And there were two Marios, the one who died, one of the child -- the children who died was Mario. So I was the second Mario.
Those were little bank accounts, put $5 in, $2, $3. They were for one purpose -- never to be used for anything, not to buy a house, not -- they were for school. So that someday you would be able to go to school. Now, he had no notion how much more school would cost than he was able to save, but that was his whole life. And my sister, and my brother, my older sister and brother -- they -- they both did very well in school. Unfortunately, they never were able to go to college because they had to help out in the store, and so neither of them went to college, although their IQ`s much higher than mine in both cases, and they were terrific students in high school and in elementary school.
But they weren`t -- but they -- they invested a whole lot of time giving me books, giving me advice. They would bring books, and my brother would bring books home from the junkyard. I`d read Radclyffe Hall, "The Well of Loneliness," which was -- I had not been introduced fully to heterosexuality yet, and this was a book basically on lesbianism, it was the first book. And I remember struggling as a very young person with -- you know -- holding it up to like to try to figure out what this was all about, and had nobody to interpret it for me, because nobody dared.
But that`s an example of how they -- they just saturated me in every opportunity. I mean, I just -- they saved me from work where they could, if it meant a difference between being able to take a course in school, and then I got another lucky break from the Vincentian fathers. Because I went from South Jamaica to a high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, run by the Vincentian priests who had been chased from the missions years before and turned to education and created St. John`s University. They had a high school, St. John`s prep, where I eventually went four years, got a scholarship to the college which was across the street, then got a scholarship to the law school, and eventually wound up teaching and representing the Vincentian priests.
So I had a lot of people helping me. Lincoln had nobody. Lincoln had nobody in his family, except his stepmother encouraging him. He didn`t have any books being delivered to him by his sister that he couldn`t read. I mean, I had -- I had a world of facilities made available to me from the people around me.
LAMB: Have you passed on Abraham Lincoln to your five kids in any way?
CUOMO: Yes. But well -- it`s kind of inevitable, because, you know, you talk about it a lot in the house, et cetera. I think children -- I`m no expert on them, although we now have five children and 11 granddaughters. I`m beginning to get to be an expert on granddaughters, because 11 in a row, you know, you`ve got to learn something, but -- but today, the children aren`t -- their state of mind is not one of let me be like my old man, or my mother. They are more likely to be like Matilda than me. But I think -- I think the children see, well, OK, my father did that, now I should do something more. Because I don`t want to do exactly what he did, because then there is no accretion to the family accomplishments. So let`s go off and do something else.
So while I encouraged three of them to become lawyers, none of them wound up practicing, you know. Andrew is now -- he is working as a lawyer now, but he`s basically interested in public service and he`ll be running for office, I`m sure. My daughter -- my daughter Margaret -- Madeline quit altogether the law and just raising her children, and Christopher, my son, quit, and quit a big law firm to go on ABC and do electronic journalism.
LAMB: But you have the other two kids, what are they doing?
CUOMO: Well, my daughter -- my first child is Margaret, my daughter is a doctor, she is a radiologist, and she`s -- she`s now doing all kinds of things, including raising a second child who came as a great blessing to her after 15 years from the first childbirth. And -- and Maria, my daughter Maria did not become a lawyer, but is now running the largest homeless housing project in America, which means in the world. Help for the homeless, which was started by my son Andrew, and is now run by Maria and has been for the last eight or nine years.
LAMB: You practice law, you live in Manhattan. Do you speak much?
CUOMO: Yeah, I debate and I speak, yes, I do speak and I debate. I debate Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp and Dan Quayle, and people -- you know, Republicans, basically.
LAMB: Around the country?
CUOMO: Around the country, yes.
LAMB: People hire you to come in and do this for their meetings.
CUOMO: Yes. Everywhere but New York -- New York -- New York I do the 92nd Street Y free, and I love it, but in New York, they`re not going to pay any politicians to talk. I mean, they don`t think enough of politicians to give them money.
LAMB: Let me go back to the book -- and because time flies, ask you to be brief on this ...
LAMB: ... so we can give the audience some sense of what you write. You have a whole series of what would Lincoln say, and I`ll go through them, and you can just give us a minute or so, so we can find out roughly what he was thinking. What would Lincoln say about war?
CUOMO: I don`t like it. I`m against it the way I was against the Mexican war. I may be cute about it sometimes and do a bill for appropriations because -- to play the political game, but I`m against it. Don`t do it unless you absolutely have to, don`t ever do it preemptively, and if you do it preemptively, as you did it here in Iraq, then don`t make a double mistake of having ended a previous war or evacuating Afghanistan, because you should never do two wars at once.
LAMB: What would he have said about civil liberties?
CUOMO: Civil liberties, sometimes you have to play the game with the Constitution. If there`s something really at risk, then in this balancing of liberties in the Constitution against protecting the nation and protecting the individuals, you lean toward protecting them, even if they have to give up some liberties. I did it with habeas corpus, I did it with a lot of things. As to you, President Bush, you took me a little bit more seriously than you should have, because you didn`t have as big a problem as I did. The country was at stake when I did it, but terrorism is a very important problem, but it`s not big enough to justify what you`re doing to the Constitution. That`s what I think he would say.
LAMB: Because you talked about the role of government earlier, I`ll skip over that and go to opportunity. What would Lincoln have said about opportunity? And I`m not sure I know what you mean by that.
CUOMO: Opportunity -- chance to work. The opportunity to work. The opportunity to rise, what Borritt (ph) in his books on Lincoln talks about the opportunity, the chance to rise up. The opportunity to work your way up to a higher level. And he would have said, you do it through a free market system, we have to insist that you work as hard as you can yourself the way I did, Abraham Lincoln, but then having worked as hard as you could, if you need some help, then the rest of us should chip in, to educate you, to give you the skills you need, et cetera, et cetera.
And in our economy, there are two things that are important -- capital and labor. But labor comes before capital. He said that over and over, and you should remember that. And in talking about opportunity now, remember those distinctions. And that tax cut you gave that some people say will come to as much as $1 trillion for the top 2 percent of the taxpayers, that`s two million, $1 trillion for two million too much. Kill that, give some of that back to the middle class, put some of it in education. Help people enhance their productivity. Only one out of four or five Americans is high-skilled in this high-skilled world. You want to give them real opportunity, give them more education.
LAMB: On global interdependence.
CUOMO: Yeah. He would say -- you started, President Bush, by being diffident, by saying before -- in your campaign, you said, well, you know, we shouldn`t mess around with the rest of the world, we`re a hegemon, we`ll take care of ourselves, we don`t need those protocols, we don`t have to get involved in environmental deals, we don`t have to get involved in a criminal justice deal, we don`t have to rush off to Israel to bail out. Let`s be strong, or let`s be more modest about it. No nation building, none of that, OK.
You were wrong. The world is interconnected and interdependent. It was when I was president. I could see it then, and I never had what you have. You know, the mobility, the total reliance on one another. You need -- you`re a hegemon, but you`re not big enough to do without the rest of the world. And the rest of the world needs you, so you should be more leaning toward the interconnectedness and interdependence of this world than you have. Now belatedly, you`ve been forced into it, good, stay on that path. Wake -- work very hard to get the support of as many people in this world as possible and help as many people as you can.
LAMB: Supreme Court?
CUOMO: Supreme Court I think he and Bush and Franklin Roosevelt and most of the presidents would agree, regrettably, because I disagree with all of them, and that is -- look, when it comes to the Supreme Court, you can talk all you want about the niceties of the difference between judges and politicians. But you make sure first you get your political wishes done. If you want to end Roe against Wade, get somebody who guarantees you he or she will do it. Now, I don`t know how you do that within the technical rules, but I took care of myself politically, by putting people on the Supreme Court who I thought would protect me in the judgments I made on the war, the political judgments.
That`s what you`re doing, obviously, because you say you want somebody like Scalia and somebody like Thomas, and that`s what Roosevelt did. Clinton -- Clinton was not. Clinton, because he himself was a constitutional lawyer, I think had a more refined and sincere sense that, hey, look, there`s a big difference between judges and politicians. The same person as a politician could arrive at a different conclusion as a judge, because the judge uses different criteria, and so to make them politicians is to demean them. But everybody does it. Lincoln did it; Bush is doing it. They would probably agree on that.
LAMB: Were you offered a Supreme Court seat?
LAMB: Why didn`t you take it?
CUOMO: Well, first of all, I was hoping I`d never have to explain it, and so I never said anything about it, but then somebody -- Stephanopoulos put it in the book and then the president said it a couple of times in public.
I -- I thought -- and my family doesn`t understand this either and it`s very difficult to explain, but, you know, if you look at the problems of this country, politically -- now I`m a lawyer, the thing I do best is as a lawyer, not as a politician, but I did spend 20 years and I was governor for 12 years, and it`s why I wrote the book. And there are all kinds of problems. Some of them have to do with the Constitution, but you get 75 cases a year, maybe two or three or four of them would be really big. I would be a dissenter probably, and every once if a while, maybe I would write a good dissent and maybe it would change somebody`s mind, but if you leave me off the bench, then for the rest of my life, I`ll be able to bring to bear everything I know about politics, everything I learned in New York State for 12 years as governor, and eight years before that. Everything I learned about poverty, about the role of government, everything I am learning from -- from Lincoln, I can go and participate in arguments, I can help. And I feel myself that I`m more valuable doing that.
Now, nobody hears my speeches, because I`m not in the public eye and probably not as many people as I like will read the book, but -- but from my own point of view, the feeling I have is I`m giving everything that I got by way of my experience back every day that they give me a chance to do it, and I just feel better doing that.
LAMB: Did you ever come close to saying yes?
LAMB: As long as we`re on this topic, why didn`t you go for the presidency?
CUOMO: Oh, well, you know, there are two -- two possibilities there. I suspect, and I -- believe it or not, and it`s hard to believe, although I was in polls a couple of times, I never, never once discussed it with Matilda or the kids. It never came up.
LAMB: Never talked?
CUOMO: It never came up.
LAMB: Did they ever bring it up?
CUOMO: They never brought it up, never said. They still don`t. They never talk about it.
LAMB: You mean, they`ve never asked these kind of questions.
CUOMO: What you just asked me, no child and Matilda, to whom I`m married 50 years, have ever asked that question.
LAMB: Doesn`t that seem a little strange?
CUOMO: No. Because other people did. And, you know ....
LAMB: Then they`ll watch this show, find out.
CUOMO: The -- the -- the -- first of all, this intrigues me. An editor of the "New York Times" once said to me, I don`t think you have a fire in the belly to be president. I said well, look, if that means I don`t have the courage, I said, then I`m going to be offended, because, you know, running for mayor wasn`t -- for governor wasn`t easy, and -- and I had Roger Ailes against me twice running campaigns, and they were very, very tough campaigns, and I survived those and a campaign with Koch, and I`ve taken a lot of hits as governor. So I`m not afraid of that.
If you are saying I don`t have that desire that`s driving me, that says I must be the president, you`re absolutely right. And the reason is, to do it right I think you would have to look around at all the other potential candidates and say none of them is as good as I am. I mean, to be morally correct, and I don`t want to sound sanctimonious, but to be decent about it, you have to say I`m the best person to lead this country and therefore much of the world.
Well, that`s -- that`s a heck of a conclusion to reach about yourself. I know myself very well. It`s very hard for me to believe that about myself, to be candid. Now, when you showed me a group of people on the governorship in 1982 and I looked around, they were good people, but I said I`m better than they are, for whatever reason. I ran with all my heart and won as an underdog, against the money, against everything.
LAMB: Don`t you think -- you -- this is not a fair question. Don`t you think you`re better than John Kerry and George Bush?
CUOMO: Today? Absolutely not. Oh, George Bush I`m not -- leaving -- John Kerry, absolutely not. No. Today, I mean, my age, my background, no.
LAMB: Better than Bill Clinton?
CUOMO: No. No. No. Clinton was in the field in 1991. I finally did look at it in 1991, because it was -- they made a big thing of it, I said let me take a look at it. I did. People came back and said there`s plenty of money, you`re first in the polls, et cetera, et cetera.
LAMB: How close did you come?
CUOMO: I announced I will look at it seriously, and if the Republicans will make a budget -- they have controlled the House, the Senate in New York for 70 years -- if they make a budget, I will run. But I can`t leave this state without a budget, because that will -- they`ll destroy me in the campaign, and it would hurt the state badly. And the Republicans for reasons I will never understand refused to make the budget until the primaries were over.
LAMB: Was the plane really on the runway, and ready to go?
CUOMO: It was, but I didn`t know it. And I mean, I`ve had to defend myself, for, you know, why did you let that happen? I didn`t let it happen. They were a group of people who wanted me very badly to run and were pushing me to run. And I told them, I will make the decision. I didn`t tell -- and Ron Brown, may he rest in peace, who I taught -- he called me professor until he died, much too early in his life. And he called me from Paris two days before he died.
But -- but Ron Brown had said, make the New Hampshire -- please make that a deadline, Governor, because people are going to be -- Professor -- because people are going to be asking, et cetera. So somebody put a plane out there, they raised money, they had it going. I didn`t find that out until later.
LAMB: How in touch are you with today`s nominee?
CUOMO: Well, I talk to people. I talk to Bob Shrum and I talk to people in the campaign just about every day.
LAMB: What would Abraham Lincoln do if he were president today, based on what you know about terrorism?
CUOMO: He would say it is -- he would say, first of all, don`t call it the war on terrorism. You did that because it allowed you to run up the flag and allows you to take a vote, et cetera. It`s not a war like the war in Iraq, where you`re taking a specific piece of land against a specific government and it will have a conclusion. This war is not going to have a conclusion, anymore than the war against crime will have a conclusion, or the war against poverty will have a conclusion, or the war against illness will have a conclusion. So get that clear in your mind. It is not the same kind of war.
Number two, it will take military force, real force, and where you find the nation that is hosting -- truly hosting terrorists, and nothing else works but military force, you will have to use it. And when you find groups of them, like al Qaeda, you will have to use it. And to get Osama, you will have to use it, you must find them, so you`ll need military force.
But to think that military force is going to end terrorism is ridiculous. Why? Because the terrorists are willing to give their life to take yours. And so, you can`t frighten them with force. You`ll need other things. You`ll need propaganda to stop the madrassas from teaching young jihadists to -- to kill all infidels, that there is no answer but the slaughter of the infidels. You have to stop that. You have to stop the Saudi Arabians from feeding it. Maybe now that the terrorists are attacking them, you have an opening there.
In addition to that, you have to do what Colin Powell has a program to do, but nobody has allowed him to run it by giving him money, and that is the partnership program with other Arab nations, to work on the economic problem of the Arab lands. There are 90 million young Muslims between 15 and 24. A lot of them are out of work, a lot of them are desperate. They`re easy to teach in a school to hate somebody.
Take it from a governor who knows, you can`t stop crime. You can`t stop killing with prisons and police and judges and all of that. It takes much more. You have to figure out what the source of this is. But you people won`t talk about the source of it, because you think that`s mushy-headed liberalism. No, no, that`s stupidity of you people not to consider the other causes here and deal with them as well.
I think the analogy I use in the book he would like. And that terrorism is a cancer. And you have malignant growths, and you must extirpate those growths. But terrorism is a perverse kind of cancer that when you pull one out, an Osama bin Laden, for example, it`s going to produce others. So you have to get at the cancer that creates the growths, and that`s different than the force that extirpates the malignant growth.
LAMB: If these figures are right, and you never can be sure of the vote that people use, the House vote for the resolution to go -- to allow George Bush to go into war, was 296 to 193. Eighty-one out of the 296 were Democrats. In the Senate, it was 77 to 23; 29 of the Democrats voted for it. If the Democrats had stuck together and had not voted in either house for it, he wouldn`t have gotten this resolution.
CUOMO: That`s right.
LAMB: Can you blame just the Republicans for what happened in Iraq if you don`t like it?
CUOMO: No, no. You can`t. You can blame President Bush for -- in a nutshell.
LAMB: Before you just say anything, let me just also say in your book. I got the distinct impression -- and you may not like this language, that you really don`t like George Bush.
CUOMO: No, no. I don`t like his policies.
LAMB: Well, I ...
LAMB: You`re very strong. I mean, this is, I would say a book about you, a book about Abraham Lincoln and a book about George Bush.
CUOMO: Well, I would say his policies. I liked his father a lot. I don`t know this George Bush. I know Fred Wilpon (ph), who was an owner with him, who told me, look, he is a terrific guy if you ever get to know him. I`ll take his word for it.
I like the fact that he`s a man of faith. I don`t like the fact that he uses it the way he does. Religion is to me maybe the most interesting piece in that book, how Lincoln`s religion would be and Bush`s religion is.
No. So I do -- I do not like his policies at all. I don`t like them on the war. Here -- here`s why not on the war. You say there were three rationales -- weapons of mass destruction, complicity and imminence of the threat. You admit that you were wrong about all three, you admit that. But you say the war is justified anyway. Why? Because you wanted to take down Saddam who was a bad man. So you`re saying you`re going to justify the loss of 850 Americans, thousands of innocent Iraqis, the loss of $150 billion, the loss of the respect of much of the world, and you`re saying that would justify your doing it again. If you had a similar situation, a dictator who was a tyrant, there are plenty of them. In Africa, in Syria, in Korea, God forbid, North Korea you ever get it in your head, but that same rationale you gave me.
I say this, Mr. President. If you didn`t lie and I`m not going to call you a liar, I`m not God, so I will assume that you were fooled. But if you allowed yourself to be fooled so badly now, why should I put us in a position where you might do it again? And that`s my argument.
And on the economy, it is an outrage, Mr. President, that you could give $1 trillion in tax cuts and leave us with the biggest deficit we ever had and education that is faulty and health care that`s faulty and a middle class that`s sliding downward. So yes, I can`t stand his policies, but that has nothing to do with him as a person.
LAMB: Did you know that on your bio sheet, on Harry Walker Agency that advertises your speaking, that they credit you 20 percent reduction in taxes in the state of New York?
CUOMO: Oh, well, I -- I reduced the largest tax in New York, which is the income tax, more than any -- more than Governor Carey, more than Governor Pataki.
LAMB: So there is nothing wrong with reducing taxes?
CUOMO: Oh, no, no. Absolutely. No, no. And as a matter of fact, with his tax cuts, what I would do is take the money from the $2 million at the top and redistribute a large portion of it to the workers, and to the people who are making $100,000 and $70,000 and $60,000, and the national wage is $42,000. Take -- no, I`m not against the tax cuts. I cut taxes in my state when I had to.
LAMB: Last question. Your favorite thing about Abraham Lincoln?
CUOMO: Oh, gosh. I -- I don`t know. There are so many wonderful things about him. My favorite -- my favorite thought about Abraham Lincoln is he believed in two things -- loving one another and working together to make this world better. I think that`s good enough to start a religion with, and that`s what he did. He started a civic religion, and we need it now.
LAMB: Mario M. Cuomo, our guest. This is the cover of the book: "Why Lincoln Matters Today More Than Ever." Thank you very much.
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