“most Americans Don’t Know What Lincoln Really Represents”


Those who see Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York for the first time are likely to be surprised. Led to expect a short man with baggy eyes (someone, in his own words, with the appearance of a “tired frog”), they are startled to meet a goodlooking six-footer with the physique of a linebacker. He emanates the tightly coiled kinetic energy of a football player a few seconds before kickoff. Yet at the same time, he’s a comfortable man to be with. Indeed, he carries self-effacement and self-scrutiny almost to a fault. His office is unexpectedly modest too. He has shunned the huge, ornate “Red Room” his predecessors had inhabited for an inconsiderable, though pleasant, adjacent retreat.

Cuomo takes a lot of pride, though, in what he has done to refurbish the larger office, now used only for official occasions, and before we sat down to talk he led me on a tour. “Dewey desecrated this place,” he told me, as he pointed to before-and-after pictures of the carpets and furnishings. He called attention, too, to the concealed box on which Governor Dewey stood to make himself appear taller at press conferences.

He had, he said, a number of my books in his library, and since I had written on Franklin D. Roosevelt, he thought I might like to ride in a concealed elevator to see where FDR had gone to get massaged, and the ramp where he could be wheeled in and out of the building, an escape route Cuomo himself still sometimes employs.

Our interview took place back in his office.

Do you recall your earliest experiences with learning about the history of this country?

I didn’t speak English until I was about eight years of age, and there was a kind of traumatic entry into public school. It made an immense impression on me. I still recall the teachers: I remember the scent of Mrs. Milligan’s perfume; I remember Mrs. Cooper and Mr. Harter. I can still sing the school song of both public schools I went to. 1 think of textbooks with beautiful pictures in them and frightening moments of having to answer the questions at the back of the chapter about the Indians.

So I first learned about the country the way most firstgeneration children do. Not from my parents, because my parents didn’t know anything about the country; they barely knew anything about their own country—they hadn’t been educated there or here. And my neighborhood wasn’t educated. I learned about the country not from my parents, not from the priests, but from the schools.

My junior high teacher nearly destroyed any interest I had in history by converting it all into dates.

There was no television. Because my brother had nearly been killed in an accident, I wasn’t allowed out of the house. So I became an expert on all the radio serials. I knew them all. And I read everything. I have learned everything from reading. Even now I prefer a commissioner’s sending me a memorandum to coming in and talking to me. I’ll let him or her come in, but first I want to read. It gives me time to contemplate, to go back.

Is there any single book that stands out for you?

I liked religious books—not the Bible so much, because, as you recall, the Bible in those days was very tough to read the Douai-Reims Catholic Bible, beautiful as it is. If I wanted enlightenment, the Bible wasn’t the place to go. Still, there were all kinds of good books given to me by priests about good young men going on to be priests. The morality that was taught to us then was very exclusive and elitist: the world was a terrible place to live in, there would be a series of moral obstacles, and the best thing to do was to retreat from them. God forbid you should want to be a politician. Or rich. Schoolteacher? Not bad—as long as you stayed poor. So the books that meant the most to me were those like Dan , a little book about a good boy who resisted all sorts of temptation and went on to become a great priest. And the lives of the saints were exciting; they gave you a lot of history because they covered a wide period. Childish, unrealistic, some of it surrealistic, but those are the things that made the first impressions on me.

Was history part of your curriculum at St. John’s?

In those days history was part of P.S. 142, junior high school, and St. John’s Prep. You had to take four years of history—American history, modern European history. You had to take history until you were sick of it. My teacher nearly destroyed any interest I had in history by converting it all into dates. He hurt me in arithmetic, this guy, just with what he did with numbers in history.

Yes, we studied an awful lot of history. But not intelligently. Most things were memory courses in Catholic school at that point. That’s the way they taught religion—the Baltimore Catechism, memorized. It was easier than trying to figure it out. And history was a very, very big part of our curriculum in St. John’s College as well.

You’re known to be a voracious reader. To what extent over the last few years have history books been part of your diet?