Who is that tall, spectral figure haunting the gloomy halls of the state capitol building today? Who is that silver-haired, patrician wraith with the lines of a shattered past engraved on his face?
Could it be—yes—it’s John Lindsay.
Once the Great White Hope of American liberalism, the shining paladin of urban progressivism—what’s he doing here in the lobby of Mario Cuomo’s statehouse office?
What Lindsay’s doing in the lobby is, in fact, lobbying. The former mayor is here today as a lobbyist for Drexel Burnham Lambert. The high-flying “junk-bond” financiers have hired Lindsay to importune the governor to veto the antitakeover (some say anti-Ted Turner) legislation now on his desk.
Some might relish the ironic appropriateness of this apparition, this Ghost of the Fiscal Crisis Past. After all, here’s Lindsay, whom many blame for turning New York City’s credit obligations into junk bonds, now a paid hireling for the junk bond kings of the private sector.
Some might relish it, but I don’t. Coming upon Lindsay on my way to sit down with Cuomo was like seeing a sad, cautionary specter. Once, in college, from a distance, I’d believed in the shining promise of the Lindsay crusade, believed that he might be the one to translate the ideals of the civil rights movement into workable realities on the streets of the cities of the North. And then, as a reporter during the dying days of the second Lindsay administration, I’d seen at close hand exactly why Lindsay came to be called the Man Who Gave Good Intentions a Bad Name.
Would it be different with Mario Cuomo? After his electrifying, impassioned keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention—the one he’d called “A Tale of Two Cities”—Cuomo succeeded to that place in the hearts of the hopeful that Lindsay once had. Only the thought was, the hope was, that Cuomo’s different: He’s not another Lindsay. He’s got the passion for the old ideals, but he knows how to make them work. He’s got a kind of passion for perfecting the mechanical details of governing that make the difference between mere good intention and successful results. Unlike Lindsay, he’s got a way with people that turns them on rather than off to his ideals.
And there was something else about Cuomo that encouraged the hope he wouldn’t end up like Lindsay: his reputation as a killer debater and a go-for-the jugular politician. This was the Cuomo who took apart first Ed Koch and then Lew Lehrman in the ’82 campaign debates, the Cuomo who’s not afraid to trade head shots with Reagan’s designated hit man, Pat Buchanan. The guy who took on his own archbishop on theological grounds at Notre Dame.
If Reagan has adopted Rambo as his role model, Cuomo makes you think of the Clint Eastwood character in Pale Rider, the mysterious stranger in the clerical collar folk call the Preacher. He speaks in parables of love, but when he runs into resistance from the greedy, land-raping federals, the Preacher’s eyes gleam and he takes great pleasure in blowing the feds full of holes.
Has the phrase “linebacker’s eyes” ever been applied to Mario Cuomo? It’s used to describe the gleam of passionate intensity that certain souls on fire, like Jack Lambert and Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, evince in the anticipation of cutting halfbacks in half.
All I knew about Cuomo’s brief career as a minor-league baseball prospect was something I read about a fistfight he’d had with a catcher in the Class B league. But I have the feeling he might have chosen the wrong sport: He could have been a linebacker.
This afternoon as he barrels into the conference room in which I’ve been waiting, he manifests the burly, aggressive physical presence of a crack linebacker. When he sits himself down, he doesn’t really sit. He crouches over the table, shoulders hunched forward, elbows advanced, looking like a roverback hanging over the gap at scrimmage, eager to nail an errant ballcarrier behind the line.
And when he senses intellectual error Cuomo shows you those linebacker’s eyes. They gleam with pleasure as he blows holes in arguments and demolishes confused lines of thought. I found Cuomo thoughtful, introspective, compassionate, all those things, and he’s got a great stern-but-kind-teacher side to him. But when he spots a mistake he’s more like Hacksaw Reynolds than Mr. Chips.
In fact the first thing he wanted to do in our conversation was correct a mistake I’d made about him some months ago. Actually it was a mistake Roy Cohn made.
“Cuomo’s tough,” Roy had told me during my lunch with him. “I saw one thing he did that scared me.”
What was it that scared Roy, a guy who prides himself on not scaring easily? It was a devastating debating move Cuomo pulled on his hapless gubernatorial opponent, Lew Lehrman, in the climactic debate of the ’82 campaign—a one-line remark that shocked Lehrman out of his red suspenders and left him for dead in the debate.
But, Cuomo tells me, Roy Cohn’s account of that particular Cuomo moment got it wrong.
“Roy is saying ‘Cuomo is one guy I’m afraid of because he went charging over to Lehrman, grabbed his wrist—some bellicose gesture like that—and said to Lehrman, ‘My, isn’t that an expensive watch.’ Well that didn’t occur at all.”
What then did happen?
“What occurred was, we were standing side by side debating and Lew was trying to interrupt my answers. Apparently he had some kind of strategy in mind,” says Cuomo, barely suppressing his evident contempt for the strategic genius behind this tactic, “and at one point he leaned right over in front of me while I was speaking and jammed his watch in my face. He said ‘Look at the time.’ And I never even touched him. I looked at the watch and I said, ‘My, that’s an expensive watch.’ And the place broke up.
“So it wasn’t me going over to Lehrman,” says Cuomo, intent on setting the record straight. “It was Lehrman coming over to me. It wasn’t me grabbing his wrist. It was Lehrman thrusting his watch in my face.”
He pauses and smiles with satisfaction. “It was, however, I who said, ‘My, that’s an expensive watch.’ ”
The distinction seems important to Cuomo: He didn’t hit Lehrman with a low blow—it was a counterpunch.
Not that Cuomo takes the whole thing that seriously. It was, after all, Mario Cuomo, he reminds me, who sent Roy Cohn a Mickey Mouse watch after reading Cohn’s “Cuomo scares me” comments.
“I said I’m planning to run for governor. They think I’m planning to run for president.”
“Can you get the note to Roy Cohn about the Mickey Mouse watch?” the governor calls out to his secretary.
The note that Cuomo sent to Cohn along with the Mickey Mouse gift reads: “I would never be unwise enough to debate you as a politician. But when finally the public drives me back to the practice of the law and I find myself head to head against you, wearing this will protect you from the kind of attack I made on Lew.”
Setting aside the exact circumstances of the expensive-watch attack, what is it with these tough-guy Republicans like Roy Cohn and Pat Buchanan, the most recent victim of a Cuomo counterpunch? Why, I ask the governor, are these GOP street fighters frightened of Mario Cuomo?
“Because they’re making a mistake,” he says. “Because they misperceive me. Because they don’t know me. I’m the easiest opponent they could have, I’m sure. They just don’t know me.”
“And what is the misperception they have?”
“They’re confused. They think because I stood up and spoke about family and speak about law and order without surrendering to the death penalty, because I can balance a budget and still give more money to people in wheelchairs—they’re confused into thinking that because I can do all of these things, which is exactly what they say Republicans are supposed to do, that means I’m going to run for president and then for sure they’d lose.”
“And why are they wrong in—”
“Because I’m not running for president,” he says. “If they knew the truth, which is, all I’m planning is to run for governor, they could all be relieved. They wouldn’t bother with me—they’d go beat up Gary Hart.”
“Why have you decided not to run for president?”
“I haven’t decided not to run for president,” he says, correcting me. “I said I’m planning to run for governor. They think I’m planning to run for president.”
And of course an answer like that will not do much to change their minds, if you ask me.
But rather than get into that game, there’s someone I’d like to introduce you to now. Someone you’ll undoubtedly be hearing more about if Cuomo does run for president. Someone you probably need to know to understand Cuomo as a person and a politician.
Maybe you know about this guy already: the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest whose attempts to speak of spirituality in Darwinian and Einsteinian terms were suppressed by the church until after his death in 1955.
I’m speaking, of course, of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Mario Cuomo’s spiritual mentor.
I’d been surprised to find that nothing I’d read about Cuomo had focused attention on the importance of Teilhard to him. There had been no mention of Teilhard’s inspirational work The Divine Milieu, which, Cuomo told me, he’d read “a hundred times.”
Cuomo’s Diaries hint strongly at the centrality of Teilhard to him. In one typical passage from 1981 he finds himself worrying about money: His wife’s unhappy with him for not having gotten bigger bucks out of his law practice, and he’s unhappy that the political career he sacrificed the big bucks for isn’t really doing much to make the world better.
“I wonder what Teilhard would say about this kind of thinking,” Cuomo writes. “Is it a form of weakness? How do I deal with what he would call the diminishments of my own spirit and the diminishments imposed by the world?”
Before going up to Albany to sit down with Cuomo, I brushed up on Teilhard, having been impressed by his speculative evolutionary theory in The Phenomenon of Man in college, but being kind of rusty on the details. The Divine Milieu is far more explicitly devotional and Catholic: It’s an impassioned, inspirational work that takes off from the thesis that the universe of matter and energy revealed by contemporary subatomic physics and astrophysics is not a challenge to faith, but rather further revelation of the glory of Created Being. Yes, we are living in a material world, Teilhard says, anticipating you know who. But the material world (including human nature) is interpenetrated with divine potential—it’s a “divine milieu,” the way energy is the “milieu” of matter in relativistic physics.
I was curious to find out just how important this vision was to the governor. And surprised at just how passionate he was about it.
Our conversation about Teilhard, which somewhat incongruously followed the one about Roy Cohn and the Mickey Mouse watch, began, nonetheless much like that one, with Cuomo correcting another mistake I made.
This time it was my misreading of a passage in The Divine Milieu that I had been certain was a key to Cuomo’s character development.
The passage I got wrong comes from Teilhard’s introduction, in which he’s describing the particular kind of person The Divine Milieu will have the most meaning for: “A certain kind of human spirit known to every spiritual director.”
What is it about this certain kind of spirit? He’s the kind of person who has a taste for the life of this world but a “higher Will” to withdraw from what he sees as the sinful confusion of the fallen world in search for the purity of loving God alone. Someone, in other words, who might be drawn to the priesthood or the monastic life for reasons of self-sanctification but who would be better off, Teilhard wants him to know, embracing rather than rejecting the world.
Is that you? I asked Cuomo.
Right doctrine, wrong guy, he replied—in essence. But before refuting my conjecture about his character he reproved my obvious quick-study job on The Divine Milieu.
“If you read it only once, then you are missing all the joy of reading it a hundred times as I have,” he told me, “because as you know, it’s poetry, a kind of intelligent emoting.”
“The world is good, involvement is good, pain is good, sorrow is good—Being is good.”
Then he got down to the task of setting me straight on the nature of its importance to his personal development.
“First, let me tell you what I think Teilhard is saying,” Cuomo begins. “He devotes the book ‘to those who love the world.’ What he really says is, God so loved the world that he made man. Now it’s very important to remember the context. He was banned. The reason he was banned is that before Vatican II it was common to interpret the Catholic theology in this country as saying this world is an evil place. A series of moral obstacles. The best you can do is repair to the monastery and weave baskets. Monks weave baskets to give their hands something to do in the grim interval between birth and eternity. Teilhard was a reaction to all that. Teilhard was saying that debases God. That demeans God. God didn’t make us to get ready for the next world. He made us to be involved in this world. What he is saying to people like me is: The world is good, involvement is good, pain is good, sorrow is good—Being is good. It’s very important to somebody raised in the Jimmy Breslin era, when if girls wore patent-leather shoes the nuns got upset because boys would look under their skirts by the reflection. So what kind of spirit am I?” Cuomo asks, coming back, now that he has defined my terms more precisely, to my original question.
“I’m not a spirit, I’m a straggler, a confused human who knows way down deep that there’s something immensely beautiful about this world and who, when he comes across a Teilhard, says, ‘Hallelujah! Prayers have been answered,’ because Teilhard is one who as a scientist, a paleontologist, was able to say to you with perfect theological probity, ‘You’re right, Mario. I don’t understand it either and I’m smarter than you, but I know that it’s beautiful and I know you ought to stay with it and I know the more deeply you get involved in it, the more deeply you become a part of it, the more beautiful it gets and we are building up.’ We diminish physically to build up spiritually, and when it’s all over it just begins, so it’s—”
“So it wasn’t that you were tempted by renunciation,” I say, interrupting Cuomo as the distinction he is making finally dawns on me. “It’s the opposite: You found in him a vindication for a temperamental preference for this world.”
“This world has a significance better than the significance taught by the old—” He searches for a word for the antiworld Catholic thinkers. “They weren’t theologians because they didn’t understand the theology. They were good religious people,” he says, finally coming up with a charitable formulation for the error he sees in their ways. “Good religious people who concentrated on sin instead of opportunity.”
I hadn’t planned to get as deeply into theological questions as we did, but I think you get a sense of Cuomo’s thought process at its most unmediated—in every sense of the word—when he’s talking about such questions as the nature of hell and the continuing mystery of the origin of evil.
We got into hell and evil when I once again strayed into error—this time in my interpretation of a particularly cryptic reference to Teilhard in Cuomo’s Diaries. Amidst the chaos of his primary campaign against Ed Koch, Cuomo found himself “thinking through the Apostles’ Creed in my mind, the old creed that said, ‘He descended into hell.’ Matching it up to Teilhard.” I had a theory about what that passage was really about, which I tried out on the governor:
“I wondered whether you were comparing your entering New York State politics to Christ descending into hell?”
“Oh no. No, not really. No,” Cuomo says, “because that’s inconsistent with believing as I do that almost all of involvement is good. So all the pain of politics and all the disappointment of politics, all the imperfections of politics, that’s part of living and experiencing.”
What was it then that he was speculating about in that passage when he talked about matching up the old Apostles’ Creed with Teilhard?
The theology of hell is “still kind of bothersome” to him. Cuomo says. “If you look at the old Apostles’ Creed and you compare it to what’s said as a creed now—one of the principal differences is that they leave out of the present creed the portion that says Christ descended into hell.”
“I concluded from much analysis while jogging that what they’re really saying in the new creed is, hell is the void. But the old creed suggested there was a place, an existence beneath us the way the world is a place. The new creed suggests that the real hell is a nothingness and a vacuum. And that’s a colossal step forward. What Teilhard, I guess, would have said is there is a heaven but there is no hell in the sense of punishment.”
Questions of hell and punishment lead him to leap to the theological controversy over the nature of evil.
“There is no explanation for evil, obviously, and Teilhard is very clear on that, too, but—”
“No explanation for evil in Teilhard?”
“I don’t think anywhere really. There isn’t sufficient understanding allowed us to be able to explain evil—I mean not shj but unexplained pain to children sitting in Vietnamese villages who got their eyes blown out of their heads by explosions they didn’t know were coming and that they had nothing to do with. The mother losing four children in a row, the apparently senseless tragedy. My brother’s son freezing to death. In the backyard at age five out in Copiague. How do you explain that? The apparent injustice. You can’t. You read McBrien’s two volumes on Catholicism, which is now all the rage theologically for Catholics—he says there’s no point in giving a lot of pages to the subject of evil because we don’t have an explanation.”
Returning to Teilhard, I wondered if there might be something more about him that Cuomo identified with. Perhaps the way his heretical tendencies got him in trouble with his religious superiors might have fortified Cuomo in his outspoken disagreement with Archbishop O’Connor over abortion rights.
“Teilhard was a heretic, right?” I began. “He was condemned for—”
“No, no, he was not,” Cuomo corrects me heatedly. “No, sir, there was nothing heretical about Teilhard.”
“What about pantheism?” I suggest. “Pelagianism?” (The translator’s footnotes to my edition of The Divine Milieu are replete with cautionary explanations of certain passages of Teilhard that, he says protectively, might sound pantheist, or hint at Pelagian tendencies, but are really okay in context. Pelagianism is the early church heresy that suggests that Adam’s original sin does not necessarily taint all succeeding generations of mankind—that human endeavor has a potential for good in this world.)
Cuomo is particularly sensitive to my imputation that his spiritual mentor was a Pelagian heretic.
“Oh no, no, no, no,” he says, quadruply negative. “He wasn’t a Pelagianist either.”
If he seems particularly upset about the imputation of Pelagianism, it may be because it’s a particularly intriguing heresy to Cuomo. And one he will soon accuse Ed Koch, of all people, of adhering to.
But meanwhile he wants to correct my misuse of the word “heretic” in its application to Teilhard:
“The harshest criticism he got from the church was not that he should stop believing what he believed—he was just told that he was to stop publishing. It was John XXIII, that magnificent contribution to our humanity, who freed him from that and allowed him to publish, but just to seminarians where they could control it with guidance and understanding. And then eventually to the world at large. But he was never declared a heretic. He was to be read with caution.”
“I guess what I was getting at is, you’ve had this public battle with your bishop. Do you feel at all like a heretic?”
“If you don’t mind, my cardinal,” he says.
“Your cardinal now. Do you feel at all like a heretic?”
“No. I will be precise on this subject, and it’s a great relief to be able to be. I wrote the Notre Dame speech only because the archbishop in one of his early appearances was asked on a television show whether I should be excommunicated, and my wife and son were together with me watching the show at the time, and I have never had a more painful moment than the moment of the archbishop’s hesitation in answer to that question.”
He pauses, a pained expression on his brow. “The archbishop has since many times, not once or twice but many times, made clear that that wasn’t his intent, et cetera. But too late. The damage was done and I felt it was time therefore to write my own apologia, which I did with the help of a number of theologians. When I say the help, I wrote it and then distributed it to theologians whom I trusted. I was absolutely certain that I was right theologically, and since then in America magazine a couple of the leading theologians, or at least one in the country, have written that my position, whether they agreed with it or not as a matter of prudential judgment, was perfectly sound theologically, so I have no doubt that my position is sound theologically. My difference with my archbishop, now cardinal, is on a political judgment, agreeing that in my own personal life I would instruct those who wished my instruction that abortion was undesirable. What do you do about that politically? Do you try to pass a constitutional amendment which won’t pass and which wouldn’t do any good if it passed, or do you try to work affirmatively to convince people that there’s a better way than abortion? I chose the latter. That’s purely a matter of politics and I said so in the speech, and I’m right and I’m sure I’m right.”
An admittedly irreverent thought strikes me at this point. How does a guy so concerned with theological correctness react to being named by Playgirl as one of its “Ten Sexiest Men”? A bit later I ask him what he thought of the accolade.
“Thank God John Candy made the list too,” he says laughing. “That way I won’t take myself too seriously.”
“What is your attitude toward sexual revolution or whatever you want to call what’s gone on for the last twenty years? How traditional are you? Do you disapprove of permissiveness or—?”
“It’s not for me to approve or disapprove,” he says, criticizing my question before giving a surprisingly impassioned answer. “I don’t judge people’s conduct that way. I think from society’s point of view it would be better if we were less open about sex. I believe we have profaned it. I believe sex is a beautiful gift of God, or whatever, fate, nature. It is a magnificent opportunity to express real feeling. It is God’s device for regeneration. It is a lot of beautiful things. It is not improved by the way in which we as a society are dealing with it publicly. I think we fail to teach the reverence for it that we should. I think we have debased it and that’s unfortunate. I think we’re all losers as a result of that. It means less to this generation than it might have.
“It’s a very personal thing. Some people are married and are frequently involved in sexual encounters, some people very infrequently. It’s a personal thing. I do think from society’s point of view it would have been better if we had not profaned it the way we have. But aside from that, I think as a people it would be better for us if we were more consistent in keeping violence out of our public exhibitions than sex, for all that I’ve said about the profaning of sex. Even worse is what we’ve done with violence, and popularizing violence is one of the great social sins of our time.
I think those societies, I guess like Scandinavian societies where they allowed people vast freedom when it came to sexual preferences but were assiduous about trying to keep violence out of movies and publications, et cetera, where they can—that was probably a more intelligent judgment than the one we’ve made as a society.”
Moral seriousness of this sort can be a bit of a problem with some. Recently I had dinner with a college friend and his wife who confessed their Cuomo Problem to me. They weren’t the first. I’d found a number of Big Chill types who’d opted for the fast lane a bit resentful, hostile to Cuomo for reminding them of ideals—or, they’d say, illusions—they’d left behind.
Whatever was behind it, the way my friend’s wife expressed her Cuomo Problem to me was: “I’d be more comfortable with Cuomo if I knew he had some really human faults, you know, even if it was that he binged on cookies at three in the morning without transforming it into a spiritual lesson.”
I ask Cuomo if he would help her out by confessing to me some cookie-binge-type faults. He isn’t very forthcoming.
“I have all the faults that everybody has,” he insists, “all the appetites that other people have. We control them, each of us, in various ways, but we each sin seven times a day.”
Somehow I don’t think that was the kind of answer she had in mind, so I try to approach the virtuousness problem from another direction.
“There was something Murray Kempton said—did you read his review of your book?”
“I never understand what he’s saying but I love everything he writes,” Cuomo avers.
“Well he was very admiring of you in the review, but he also seemed to suggest that in your diary entries you were putting forward your humility in a somewhat prideful way.”
Cuomo laughs. “See. I told you I had faults.”
“Would you say it’s true though?”
“If Murray said it, I’ll accept it.”
I begin to shift the subject when Cuomo interrupts, not content to let Kempton have the last word on his pride/humility quotient.
“I’ll say this about Murray; He has a little bit of pridefulness about the way he writes about my pridefulness.”
Do I seem a bit captious about Cuomo here? Perhaps because we’re coming to a subject upon which I find his views genuinely admirable, and I don’t want to seem like an uncritical sensibility when discussing them. The subject is racial justice, and I admire Cuomo because I think he’s one of the few powerful politicians in America who still takes the unfulfilled goals of the civil rights movement seriously. Not only takes them seriously but takes seriously the task of making them work in a society that wants to ignore the past by calling itself “postracist,” as the fashionable neoconservative phrase goes.
You can hear how impassioned Cuomo is on the subject of race when I ask him how he would have handled racial relations in New York City differently from Ed Koch.
“There is a difference, I think, between the mayor and me,” Cuomo says. “I think he uses the notion of evenhandedness where I would use the notion of equity. I have heard him say, ‘I treat blacks and whites the same way.’ That can be misunderstood at a time when disproportionate numbers of blacks are vulnerable. Then people might mishear you and think that what you’re really saying is ‘I don’t care if you’re in trouble, I’m going to treat you like the people who are not in trouble.’ Now that doesn’t make any sense. That’s what Marie Antoinette said: Let them all eat cake. So he puts a greater stress on pure equality. I think more about trying to even up the competition. There are some who are left behind through no fault of their own, who need extra help, and I think we should give them the extra help. The analogy I have used is a family with two children, one in a wheelchair, one wins medals for track. That creates a whole series of situations where the one in the wheelchair should get a little more help than the one who can win medals at track. That’s not evenhandedness. So there is that difference. And I think when the mayor talks about equality a lot of blacks like it, the ones who are making it, et cetera. But the ones who are at the bottom, who are vulnerable, who are out of work, who are dropouts, think, ‘You oppressed us for a couple of hundred years, you enslaved us, you debased us, you tried to dehumanize us, and then you release us and say, “Now you’re like everybody else. I’m going to treat you evenhandedly.” But that’s not right because for two hundred years you created a negative. Now you’re going to have to do at least two hundred years of positive to make up for it.’ I think that’s the attitude that some have that the mayor doesn’t successfully respond to.”
Did you catch the shift Cuomo makes in the midst of this response? I could hear it in his voice, but you can see it on the printed page, too. He begins with semantic distinctions and argumentative analogies (Marie Antoinette, the family with the kid in the wheelchair) to make his point intellectually.
Then something happens to his voice. He stops speaking in his own first-person voice and begins speaking in the voice of the victims of racism (“You oppressed us for a couple of hundred years, you enslaved us, you debased us … ”), a voice that takes on tones of genuine pain and anger, not just abstract empathy.
In that astonishing keynote address, Cuomo called on Americans not to cease “to feel one another’s pain.” That can be an empty rhetorical formulation. But in Cuomo’s case, I get a feeling it’s a description of a kind of spiritual discipline he practices in his approach to political problems.
There’s a fascinating, characteristically Cuomo-esque postscript to our discussion of Koch and race, one that provides another revealing glimpse into the governor’s thought process. And one that gives me an opportunity—at last—to correct an error Cuomo made, in theological reasoning no less.
I don’t know whether or not it was prompted by my mention of Pelagianism in connection with his spiritual mentor, or whether Cuomo just has Pelagianism on his mind these days, but a week after our conversation in Albany a quote from Cuomo appeared in print that accused Ed Koch of “Pelagianism.”
When I say “a quote from Cuomo” accused Koch of Pelagianism, I may be on shaky ground, because the quote wasn’t directly attributed to the governor. The quote appeared in a Ken Auletta Daily News column on Koch and race; Auletta attributes the quote to “a thoughtful public official.” Judge for yourself if you think I’m rash in concluding it’s Cuomo speaking here:
“The core difference between Koch and, say, Governor Cuomo,” the “thoughtful public official” says, “is that Koch is a Pelagian. If a kid from the ghetto can’t make it, the Pelagian says it’s their responsibility. The fact that God placed that kid in the ghetto, gave him no father, and that he was raised poor, that’s of no concern.”
While I agree with Cuomo on the merits of the equality argument (if somebody can prove to me it wasn’t Cuomo speaking, I promise to enter a Trappist monastery and take a vote of silence), nonetheless I think the “thoughtful public official” has made an error in the logic of his heresiology.
His comparison of Koch to the Pelagians does a disservice to the Pelagians, who were far more generous in their view of human nature than Cuomo’s analogy would imply. After all, the heresy of the Pelagians was their rather optimistic belief that natural man was not inevitably corrupted by original sin and was capable, in fact, of moral good and spiritual improvement. It is the gloomy predestinarian Augustine (who believed natural man, as such, was beyond hope and who in fact was chief scourge of Pelagianism in the church) to whom Koch is more aptly compared.
And, in fact, I’d say that both Cuomo and his mentor, Teilhard, are closer in spirit—on the doctrinal spectrum that runs from Pelagius to Augustine—to the Pelagians, in their love of this world and belief in the possibility of spiritual evolution, than they are to Augustine. Indeed, there’s a technical term Protestant theologian Paul Tillich uses that, although Cuomo would probably deny it, fits both Teilhard and Cuomo: “semi-crypto-Pelagians.” (Here’s an issue the newly Catholicized Lew Lehman could really run with next time he debates Cuomo: Okay, it’s an expensive watch, but my opponent is a semi-crypto-Pelagian.)
At this point I decided to see what Cuomo’s views were on a different kind of heresy. A political heresy. About the lesson of the New York fiscal crisis. The orthodox establishment theology on this point, even among “responsible” New Yorkers, is that New York sinned, that New York and New Yorkers deserve the blame for our plight because our profligate bleeding-heart compassion was blind to hard- headed reality—and the rest of the country shouldn’t be taxed to support our immorality.
The first hint I had that Cuomo didn’t buy the self-hating logic of the Blame New York First crowd was that stinging “share the derelicts” wisecrack he had delivered down in Washington a week earlier.
The governor was testifying before a House committee on his opposition to the Reagan tax plan’s elimination of state-and local-tax deductibility—a complex, eye-glazing issue no Democrat wanted to touch, but which Cuomo seized on and turned into a moral crusade. One he seems to be winning.
Anyway, an earnest Republican House member from New Hampshire somewhat patronizingly suggested to Cuomo that the committee might deign to offer New York and other high-tax states with large social-service budgets “a portion” of the deductibility they wanted.
“There may even be a little jealousy in it because of the spectacular quality of New York City, the bigness of it and the largeness; there may be a resentment about that.”
Fine, said Cuomo, and we’ll send New Hampshire “a portion of our derelicts, our homeless, our illegal aliens, and drug addicts.”
I thought that raised an important question the Blame New York First crowd has ignored. “Isn’t it true,” I ask Cuomo, “that the plight of the northern cities is not due to their immorality but to the costs they incur caring for the victims of southern racism, the vast migration of southern blacks who have sought refuge here?”
“I put it a little differently,” Cuomo says, “but I made the same point and that is, we bear burdens that are basically national in their genesis and in present responsibility. Welfare, everybody knows, is a national problem. It’s not ours. Not all the welfare cases are indigenous. They can travel here from any part of the country. That’s the Constitution.”
“Don’t you think that in the way the fiscal crisis has been written about, New Yorkers have been unfairly portrayed as immoral and wasteful … ?”
“There is a regrettably prevalent view of us,” Cuomo says, “as not just wasteful but as loud, even debauched, unpleasant, crude, indifferent to other people. I mean, it’s a terribly harsh judgment. And again, it’s not everybody of course, but too many people feel that way about New York. There may even be a little jealousy in it because of the spectacular quality of New York City, the bigness of it and the largeness; there may be a resentment about that. There is an intimidation factor as well. People are intimidated by the speed that they see here, the pace that they equate with frenzy. The president was aware of it, and the Republicans were aware of it and played to it by starting their whole campaign for this [tax plan] running against New York. In the president’s first speech, he took the opportunity to refer to New York specifically. We’re the only state he mentioned.”
The talk turns to Forest Hills—and John Lindsay.
Cuomo says he met with Lindsay earlier today about the takeover bill, but sitting across the table from him, he couldn’t help but think of Forest Hills.
“We didn’t talk about Forest Hills,” Cuomo says, “but I can’t look at John without thinking of it.”
Forest Hills was the beginning of the end for John Lindsay and the beginning of the beginning for Mario Cuomo.
Forest Hills—the revolt of the middle-class Queens community against the Lindsay administration plan to stick high-rise, low-income projects for ghetto dwellers in their midst—was, of course, what brought Cuomo into public life. His ability to “feel the pain” and fears of the angry white residents of Forest Hills enabled him to gain community acquiescence to a scaled-down integrated project that salvaged a workable reality from the blundering, self-destructive good intentions of the Lindsay administration.
“What’s the Forest Hills project like now?” I ask Cuomo.
“It’s beautiful,” he says. “I went back there with Harry Reasoner a little bit ago to do 60 Minutes. We walked the grounds. Every time I go home to Queens I go past it. I stopped by there the other day with somebody in the car just to show it to them.”
“You wrote in the Forest Hills diary,” I say, “that toward the end you thought it might be a turning point away from the attempt to integrate housing or, on the other hand, it might be a turning point for the better where communities are consulted, et cetera. Which do you think it has been?”
“It helped end housing programs,” says Cuomo. “The Nixon impoundment was in ’72, and we never had another large public-housing program. Forest Hills helped produce a political environment that allowed the federal government to walk away from its obligation for low-income housing, and they have ever since.”
“Would you favor a return to some kind of attempt to … ?”
“I certainly would, but I’m not going to wait for it That’s why Mayor Koch and I have put together the biggest housing program in the history of the state. It would mean seventy-five thousand units if we could get the legislature to adopt the legislation we need to spend the Battery Park and Port Authority monies.”
“You’ve been spending the day listening to lobbyists like Lindsay for and against the takeover bill. What’s your thinking on it?” I ask Cuomo.
“I have not arrived at a conclusion yet. It’s complex. I would like to protect my native businesses here, but I’m concerned that we shouldn’t do it in such a way as to be out-and-out protectionist about it. I don’t think that would be wise. I’m concerned, too, about what appears to be an unfairness to Ted Turner. Not because Ted Turner would be good for me personally if he took CBS, because I don’t suspect he would be, and not because he would be good for New York, because I suspect he would take jobs out of New York if he took CBS, but because he got caught midstream, and we oughtn’t, I don’t think, to play the game that way. That’s my present thinking. I may change my mind.”
“You know Democrats have a reputation for being anti-business. Are you anti-business?”
“I couldn’t be if I cared about those people in wheelchairs and the people out of work, because the place they’re going to get a job is in the private sector. You can’t make it with the public payroll. You just can’t put enough people to work. It costs you too much. So if there’s any hope for those eight hundred thousand or so AFDC [Aid for Dependent Children] people, it’s in the private sector. That means business. So I’m not only not anti-business, I am pro-business. Not so that they can all drive Rolls-Royces and wear pinky rings but so that we can create the base we need to do the things we need for people who aren’t given the chance to work because they’re too old or too weak or because there simply is no job. So yes, I’m very much pro-private sector strength.”
By now time was running out, and so I tried to ask the governor one last question that had been on my mind. But first I had to go through one last corrective struggle: “Last question,” I begin.
“You said that already,” Cuomo snaps.
“No, I said two more questions.”
“No, you didn’t, you said two more questions two questions ago.”
“No, no, no.”
“Yes, you did.”
“We’ll go back to the tape.”
“When you play the tape you’ll see what a good lawyer I am.”
Okay, it turns out he was right. But I’m still right about his semi-crypto-Pelagianism. And he let me ask my final question anyway:
“I was struck as I arrived today,” I begin, “seeing John Lindsay down there with some other lobbyists waiting in line. Here was the guy who was the great hope of American liberalism and now he’s a high-paid lobbyist for Drexel Burnham. Do you think you’ll ever end up as a high-paid lobbyist for corporations?”
“Hmm. I don’t know. I kind of doubt it. The only reason I could possibly do that would be for the money, and I hate to say this, but money has never meant everything to me that it should have. If I were a little more careful about money, I would have had a lot more of it, and I would have had a lot more freedom and probably could have done a lot more things than I have. But now I have a son who I am sure is going to get rich if he keeps his health, and I’ve told him to go into the law practice. He wants public life. He never said that. He won’t say it to me but I know it. He’s my blood and he wants public life. But first, I told him, go and make money so they can’t commandeer you. You see, if you come to this business needing the job then there is the temptation to do things you otherwise might not if you were secure. So I said, build yourself a secure niche. He’ll be rich in no time. Honestly. My daughter, my first, is a doctor. My two girls after Andrea are so beautiful and so bright that they’re going to make it.
“Money now means something because it keeps you free to be a public servant. I can settle for one hundred thousand dollars. I don’t need two hundred fifty thousand. So I doubt very much that I would wind up that way. I’d like to wind up as a judge, a teacher maybe. Not with a lot of classes. That’s too hard. I would like to wind up being free to read, being free to listen to music. So anyway, no, I don’t want to be a lobbyist. No. I don’t want to finish that way.”
He pauses. Suddenly a new notion strikes him: “I want to die sliding into third base.” Then his eyes light up: “No, throwing a hook shot. I think ideally I’d like to die with the ball just hitting the net, probably a left-hand hook shot off the back wall.”
Cuomo gets up and demonstrates his form for that Final Shot.
“It just hits the net,” he says with a smile of triumph. “The bell goes off. That’s it.”
[Photo Credit: Kenneth C. Kirkel via Wikipedia Commons]