- Historic Sites
“most Americans Don’t Know What Lincoln Really Represents”
For a good part of his life, the governor of New York has used history as a guide—and a solace
December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
Your party has lost five of the last six presidential elections. People are talking about its needing a greater vision, a new sense of direction. Is there anything to be learned from the past with respect to the kinds of things the Democratic party ought to be saying and doing in the years to come?
I’m not good at this. I really am not. I’m out of step on all of this. I don’t see these five defeats as so much the defeats of a philosophy. Maybe this is my lawyer’s instinct, but what I do is go to each campaign.
Start with Carter. Why does Carter lose in 1980? Well, he loses because he appeared to be ineffectual, because the OPEC price rise tilts inflation against us, interest rates go crazy, the hostages get grabbed. He makes a calculated risk and tells people the truth about sacrifices, and they don’t want to hear that because they want a leader who solves problems for them, not a minister or a teacher who points to problems. And he is facing an absolutely charming person who is reckless about his promises, which are all terribly seductive—the biggest army (“we’ll be the toughest we’ve ever been”), the lowest taxes, and the budget will be balanced in three years. How can you beat that? “And I can do it, because I was a cowboy, a football player, I was a lover, I got my hair, and I’m seventy years old, and it’s all black.” And with all of that, if the hostages had come back, Carter would have won. So Carter’s loss is not difficult to explain.
Mondale, four years later, never escaped Carter, plus the tax rise he pledged. And he runs against the same opponent, only stronger because the biggest defect Reagan had people weren’t on to. That was the deficit. He had ruined the economy, but it hadn’t gotten to anybody’s plate.
Then what happened? You got Bush. Bush is behind seventeen points to Dukakis. And then he beats him with Boston Harbor, Willie Horton, and a general impression that Dukakis is a wimp. I felt that was terribly unfair. Dukakis is one of the strongest people I have ever met; witness how he has handled all of his tragedy. But that’s explicable too.
I don’t think that the things Dukakis was talking about lost. Bush is now talking about most of them. Dukakis said, “You need day care.” Today: day care. Dukakis said, “Take care of the environment.” Today: environment. Dukakis said, “You might need revenues.” Now Bush is saying that. It wasn’t the ideas that lost. So I have difficulty saying, “Gee, we had a philosophy that’s now down the tubes.” The philosophy didn’t lose. I like Robb, and Bill Clinton is an old friend, but this Democratic Leadership Council is a joke to me. Why? The proposition that you must move away from what we’re saying because the other side is beating us is wrong. Who’s right, them or us? Winning is not the measure. These guys won and screwed up the economy; how can you say they were right? They were wrong, notwithstanding they won.
So yes, I’m all for positive government. All the government you need, but only the government you need to do those things you can’t do for yourselves.
It’s clear there’s a long step from the situation you first described, when you were a reticent boy in school, to that evening in San Francisco, and I wonder whether there were any historic models for you as you developed as a speaker.
Lincoln. When it comes to communication—Lincoln. Once every five years you’ll be asked a question, “If you were on a desert island, and you only had two books, or three books, what books would you have?” And I almost always say “Douai-Reims.” I’d bring it not for enlightenment but for the words, the old language. And I would bring Teilhard, The Divine Milieu , which I read every month and hold up to the light to see something different each time. [The French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who advocated embracing the world in order to improve it, has been Cuomo’s spiritual guide.]
But in terms of communicators, Lincoln is about the best I’ve read. I wish I could have seen him and heard him. You hear so much about his voice. I would like to hear what it was really like. I made a mistake watching all of the Lincoln movies. It’s one thing to see Raymond Massey. I’ll settle for him. But then you see Fonda, then you see these other guys, and you get all confused.
Christ—Christ the man. Christ the god can’t be a model, because God can’t be an exemplar for you, really, but Christ the man is interesting, and Thomas More is interesting. I had a big argument with—who wrote the book? Marius, from Harvard, wrote about Thomas More, and I didn’t like it. I’ll tell you why. I like Thomas More as a model, not because he was a saint but because he wasn’t. Because he whipped heretics. Because he had trouble with his wife. Because he overdid his affection for his daughter. You couldn’t call him a great theologian and moralist. This guy did everything he could to avoid being courageous, and I like that, because he was a human being. And we are human beings. And if I want a model for my existence, I would rather take him than Joan of Arc.
Lincoln I like the same way. I like the idea that he was a politician. And that he could get even with you if he didn’t like you. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good trait. But I like to think he could be as great as he has come to be regarded and still have the imperfections that we all suffer from.