An Interview with Mario Cuomo
Mario Cuomo was governor of New York from 1983 to 1995 and set records for popularity. Considered one of America's great orators -- eloquent, inspirational, and passionate -- he lectures nationwide, practices law, writes articles and books, and hosts a weekly national radio talk show.
Lese Dunton: You have said that our mission is to repair the universe, and God will measure us by our effort. Could you talk a bit about that?
Mario Cuomo: I guess the older you get the more urgent the question gets, and that is: why was I put here in the first place? I think most of us escape that question for most of our lives, and some of us for all of our life because we're so occupied with dealing with survival.
I guess that's true in most of the planet now; the urgency of keeping yourself alive and doing the things that human nature compels you to do. Like feeding and sheltering yourself, and feeding your family, if you have one. That busies us for most of our existence. There are moments in between, little times of rest, where you pause and put down the hammer or stop typing and say to yourself, "Yeah, I wonder what it is all about?" But then the urgency, the fight for survival, pushes that out of your mind and you say to yourself, "What's the difference? I have to do such and so." We go all through life that way, I think, for most of us.
For some of us you get past that stage at one point -- some earlier than others, some never of course -- because you've provided pretty much for the things you need. Maybe not abundantly, maybe not in a luxurious way, but you've provided. So now you do have time to consider and to reflect. And it's very difficult.
Some people go up on the mountain, like Summerset Maugham in The Razor's Edge, some people pray, some people talk to people wiser than they, or explore religions of all kinds -- and never come up with an answer. On the other hand, some people find the answer. It's the answer I recommend to children, and wrote a about in a letter to children, that was published in Newsday just before the new millennium in November '99.
It was a letter to my grandchildren, actually, my nine granddaughters. What it said is: you may not find it in your search, so let me suggest to you a place to look. And that is the Jewish people of 5,000 years ago. A lot of people say that's where the idea of one God started, as distinguished from a lot of idols, etc. The Jews said there's one God, one explanation basically, for the Universe that they call God.
One force is responsible, in some inexplicable way, for all of this.
It's one force that shares at least what we have because it is the source. This has to come from somewhere. Even if it takes 10 billion years. And even if it took a million years of apes standing on two legs and shedding hair gradually to get to where we are. And so they concluded that was the single source and that the source wanted two things of us.
One was, roughly, the Hebrew word "Sadaka," which says and implies that we are all brothers and sisters. All of we human creatures are brothers and sisters inasmuch as we have this single parent: the Source. We share that parent which means we're equal to one another in dignity and responsibility. Sadaka. We should treat each other as brothers and sisters which is loosely thought of now as generosity, compassion, etc., but it's really more than that. It's actually a matter of justice to the Jew.
So the first principle: you're all equal and you treat each other that way. Second principal: what do you do with this relationship? What is the mission of the relationship? The mission is "Tikun Olam"; repair the Universe. (Olam is the world, Tikun is repair it.)
God created the world, but he didn't complete it.
The interesting thing is that the Christians borrowed it whole. Of course, we were founded by a Jew. The day after he had been at the temple, he's confronted by a mocker, a disdainer, a scoffer, a cynic, a skeptic who says to him:
"I understand you had a big night in the temple last night."
He said, "Not bad. It went well."
"What is it that you said to these people that so astonished them? What makes you so smart? And if you are so smart why can't you tell me, in say a 15 or 20 second commercial, what the whole law is?"
And so he says, I guess with half a smile, "Okay, try this: you are to love one another as you love yourself, for the love of me, and I am Truth. And the Truth is that God made the world but didn't complete it and you ought to be collaborators in the completion of the world." End of commercial.
"But that's Sadaka and Tikun Olam!" the guy says.
And the founder of the Christian religion says, "What do you want from me? I'm a Jew!"
Christianity is essentially, in those two major propositions, the same as Judaism, without the bureaucracy. The Muslims, Islam, had at its core pretty much the same principles. What does Allah want? He wants you to treat one another well. Sometimes they forget about the infidel and the unfaithful. The Jews had that problem too in the beginning, some of them. They said, "Hey look, he said Sadaka, but he only meant us, the Jews. He didn't mean the people who were chasing us through the desert." That got back to the rabbis who said, "No, no, no, that's not what he meant. He meant everybody. Believe me. Color, enemy, friend, all those distinctions -- gone. You're all brothers and sisters."
What does that mean? That means that you are to find ways to improve the situation. Well, I don't understand that and I'm so small! Well, God knows how small you are and how grand the problem is, so He's not, She's not, It's not going to expect a lot of you, except measured by your own abilities.
If all you can do is take care of yourself, well then that's the obligation you have. If all you can do is yourself and the people that depend on you, that's the obligation you have. After that, if you can find resources and energy enough to help the situation beyond your own family, then you should do that. If you get to be the mayor, you should do the city, and if you get to be the king, you should do the kingdom. It's simply a matter of using the abilities that you have in any way that you wish to use them.
This doesn't satisfy me totally, I'll grant you that. But then I ask you, what is your alternative proposition? That there is no God. That you are a basket of appetites. The first to survive, the second to delight; the appetite to join with somebody, to make love, to laugh, to dance, to see a movie, to be loved -- all these appetites. Wonderful. And what are you supposed to do? You're supposed to fill your basket of appetites as furiously as you can with little goodies.
What happens when you get older and your ability to put the goodies in the basket is deteriorating? And the basket is deteriorating! Then what? Then you die, and there was nothing. Okay, that's your alternative. If you don't mind, I prefer mine.
That's where my justification comes in -- whatever I was able to do to make the place better.
That all of meaningfulness is trying to improve our condition.
LD: In whatever way each person...
MC: Exactly. It's not an intellectually compelling case, I'll grant you that. Can you find one that's more intellectually compelling? Not really. Or can you dispute mine intellectually? And if you thought you could, and if you think you can, then ask yourself: how much of an intellect could I have after a million years, after still being so close to the ape? After a world that has taken 10 billion years to get where it is now and it's only just beginning.
LD: Are these messages and thoughts intertwined into your children's book, The Blue Spruce, as well?
MC: First of all, it's a true story. The original Blue Spruce story is in a book called The Diaries of Mario Cuomo published by Random House in 1984. It was a diary entry in my first campaign for governor in 1982 on a day when I thought I was going to lose for sure. I was feeling sorry for myself because I had no money and they were unfair, and Lew Lehrman was running a campaign commercial on the death penalty.
I reflected upon my father, who was an immigrant who always had to deal with hard circumstances, and what he would have said to me. The story of the Blue Spruce came to mind.
He finally made it out of the tenement area of South Jamaica, Queens, (NY) which was his lifelong dream; his aspiration. He bought us a little house that was all our own, with a door in the front that you came in and door in the back that you went out. Unlike the places where we lived, which were behind the grocery store and then above a grocery store with six or seven other families in a tenement. It was like living in a little village; one big family just coming and going.
The Blue Spruce was an actual tree on the property. It was just magnificent. It was perfect. It was a very small piece of property in a place called Hollis Wood. My father, being an old fashioned Italian, bought the house without telling us. It was a surprise for my mother and for us, after years and years and years. The Blue Spruce was kind of his favorite thing because it reminded him of Italy that he left behind and also because it symbolizes achievement.
One day we came home from the store in Jamaica and a storm had uprooted the tree. My brother and I thought that it was gone forever. We knew all about climbing telephone poles or barbed wire fences. In South Jamaica we didn't have any trees; we didn't know anything about trees. We had a junkyard across the street, three gin mills, factories, and stores. You'd have to go to King's Park for a tree and that was a whole different neighborhood, a whole different world.
My brother made the mistake of saying, "It's dead. It's gone." The roots were up out of the ground.
My father looked at him, furious, he was a little guy, and said, "Shad-upa, we gonna push 'im uppa." You couldn't argue with him.
This story is all told there and eventually we get the tree righted, thanks to his efforts, all through the rain. We staked it down and when it was all over he looked at and said, "See? He's a-gonna grow again!"
This little diary entry ended with, "If you go back to the house in Hollis Wood, and you look for that blue tree which stands at the front of the property, you'll see it's still there, its nose pointing straight up toward heaven, pretending it was never bent in the asphalt of the street."
The Sleeping Bear Press found that the Reader's Digest had pulled that story and made an inspirational story out of it some years ago. I don't know how they found that. They called me and said we think it will make a good children's book, and that's how the children's book came to be.
I insisted I would write it myself and they said "No, no, no, it's not like writing it for an adult and then squeezing it down by 15 years. It's a special knowledge that's required." I discovered they were right. One of the things that the child psychologist -- that they had on staff or sent to me -- told me was that you have to reduce it to just one child. The child that reads it will relate to the one child. They'll have more difficulty relating to two, and they won't know who the central figure is, so my brother fell out of the story, regrettably. But otherwise, it's a true story.
Now, what is the message of the story? Dreams. My father's dream. You never give up on a dream. He wasn't about to give up on the Blue Spruce any more than he gave up on his dream that, although he was never educated, he would get us all educated. Although he never had any money, he would see to it that we were able to do better than the battle for survival that he did; to have more to do more, to enjoy more. He got that all done. He got the house and he got that Blue Spruce and he brought it back to life when the rest of us thought it was dead. He did it all by perseverance. So you never give up on a dream.
LD: Faith and perseverance.
MC: That's right. There's another message, though, and this one appeals more to adults, who seem to like the book more than the children do. And that is that you're never too old to dream. When you run out of aspiration, you may as well give up respiration. What is the point of living unless you have some objective, some desire, something you want to do or see or witness or experience?
Unless you have aspiration, there's no point in having respiration.
We're never too old to dream. Dreaming is just having something you desire. If it's a beautiful dream, then it's something beautiful that you desire. You're never too young and you're never to old to dream. That's what keeps me going.
The money from this book goes to my wife for a charity for children at risk who need mentors, or to my daughter who has homeless housing. (See: www.mentoringusa.org and www.helpusa.org.) The truth is they will survive very nicely, both those charities, without the money paid for this book. So that's not truly the reason for being here. This is part of my dream. Part of my dream is that you can make things a little bit better. And this book helps make it a little bit better because it gets a few dollars and you're contributing and I'm doing something worthwhile with my time.
If I say something now, in the course of this discussion with you, that you like, that's helpful to you -- or even say something that's so stupid and inaccurate that it forces you to reconsider the truth -- then I've made a contribution. And that's my dream. You know,
"Serve" is too big a word. Serve sounds noble, like I'm going to serve. I'm not serving, I'm functioning. Frankly, life is motion, not joy. Even if you're sweating, even if you're in pain, you're living. You're enduring, you're surviving, you're persevering. That's part of life too. So life is motion, not joy.
LD: You've taught children and adults so many great things. What have children taught you?
MC: That's a really nice question. What I think they do is remind you of things that you've forgotten. They often remind you of sweetness. They often remind you of cruelty too because children at some ages can do things that at least appear very cruel. They can try to hurt one another and that frightens you, and so you're reminded that we're very much underdeveloped as creatures in this society. We have propensities that are not good and that need to be put down.
Children are constantly asking why, which is very important to me. I like to be reminded of that.
LD: They ask good questions.
MC: I taught in law school for a long time and people were always troubled about the bar exam and how do you prepare for the bar exam. I said, look, you prepare for the bar exam the way you prepare for any law school class, the way you study the law. And the way you study the law is: remember IBM? Remember they used to say, "Think"? Well, I say, "Why?" It's the same thing. Just make a whole lot of index cards. Put it on the mirror when you shave in the morning. Use it as a bookmark. Put it in the bathroom. Put it everywhere. Certainly, keep it when you're studying.
When you hear a rule you have to be 18 years old to make a contract in real estate, you ask yourself: why? Then they tell you, well, because somebody adopted a statute. Why? Because they didn't want you to be too young to give away real estate. Really? Well then why don't you have to be 18 to do personal property? And so on and so forth.
LD: Just like a kid would do. That's great. What does further success look like for you? What would make you even happier?
MC: Success is a luxury. Success is a great luxury. And success is an unnecessary luxury. It is not necessary for me to succeed in the mission as I see it to be successful as you probably see it, as implied in the question. For me, trying my best is really success. And all the trite talk about, you know, Vince Lombardi is great, but winning is not everything. Winning really is doing everything you can to win. That's the only thing that makes sense. There is no way that you can assure success. There is no way that you can guarantee that you will achieve the things you wish to achieve.
The only thing you can guarantee is that you will make maximum effort. That you can deal with.
It relates to the biggest question in life: what is love? Because love is really everything.
Love is Sadaka and love is Tikun Olam. The reason you do these things is because you are projecting yourself to the things around you benignly and better. That's love. Now, nobody, nobody, can force someone to love them. But nobody can stop you from loving them. It's the one thing you can do.
LD: It's the one thing that all people understand.
MC: And it's the one thing they cannot stop you from doing. Just ask any mother.