Copyright © 1995 Alan S. Chartock.All rights reserved.
EXCERPTS FROM THE LAST SHOW
It remains one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. It was Wednesday,November 16, 1994. On November the eighth, MarioCuomo had lost his bid for a fourth term as governor. It wasnot an easy time for him and he had pretty much remained behindthe walls of the mansion.
Two days before, our member-supported public radio station,WAMC, had started its fund drive Our goal was $250,000. Cuomohad always been willing to help out during fund drives and listenerswell remembered his reading poetry and telling stories of his parentsand of his childhood.
The sixteen volunteers who were answering phones in thepledge room were hoping against hope that the governor wouldshow up in person to record what was to be his last Capitol Connectionprogram. My wife, Roselle, drove over having had a premonitionthat he might, but until the very end I was told that hedidn't want to leave the mansion and he'd talk to us on the phone.I repeatedly called his staff, imploring them to intercede, and withabout fifteen minutes to go, I received a call that the governorwould indeed come to the station.
I stood on the street in front of the WAMC offices and waitedfor him. Within seconds, I saw "Major Marty," (Martin Burke)the head of the governor's security detail, strolling up the street.I asked The Major where the governor was and he told me thatfor the first time in years, the gov was driving himself. I was curious."What kind of a driver is the governor," I asked, and inresponse, the Major put his hands over his eyes. The governor'scar pulled in across the street, he got out, came into the studio,and was greeted by cheers and applause from the assembled staffand volunteers. I can tell you, there were more than a few tearsin the house.
After asking the applauding volunteers in the big roomwhether they weren't confusing him with Al D'Amato, "becausewe all look alike," we were off.
For the next thirty minutes, the governor held us all spell-boundas he reflected on the recent elections, what they meantfor the country and what they meant for him. He spoke of disappointmentand of the frustration of losing. He spoke of defeatand of pain. But he also spoke of hope, and of faith, and of turningthings around.
The aftermath was really astounding. As soon as this incrediblypoignant program concluded, the governor stood up andwalked over to me, hugged me for the first time in twelve years,and asked, "Is this our last show?"
"I hope not," I responded.
"Well, it is," he said, and with a kiss to the lovely Roselle, hewas off.
I walked him to the door, then returned to the microphoneand the volunteers. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon, traditionallya low point in our radio listening day, and I told the listenersthat they had just heard the "Valedictory" of Mario Cuomo. Itwould be available to anyone who wanted it for a pledge of .... andthen I looked up at my colleague, David Galletly, and held up threefingers - meaning thirty dollars. Galletly vehemently shook hishead and held up five fingers and I waved him off, believing thatwe'd never get it. He shrugged, indicating that it was my decision.In the end, I went with his suggestion and finished my sentence,"... for a fifty dollar membership in WAMC." I really didn't expectmuch at that hour of the afternoon.
There and then, fund raising history was made at WAMC.It may have been the fact that a lot of people were still grievingover the governor's recent loss or the election of Newt Gingrich,but all hell broke loose. There are sixteen phones in the pledgeroom and just as a great forest fire consumes everything in itspath, that's how the phones rang. First one, then a second, thenevery phone in the room, then every phone in the building.Twenty-four phones were ringing all at once. As a result, no onecould call in or out of the building. The phones rang for morethan seven hours and I don't mind telling you that in all my yearsof doing this kind of fund raising, I've never seen anything likeit. I was an emotional wreck. The tears were streaming down myface. When I couldn't go on, David would step in and pick it up.Nobody can remember anything like it. I couldn't help myself - Ipicked up the phone, dialed the mansion and said, "Listen tothis!" to the out-going governor.
We were asking for two hundred fifty thousand dollars in thedrive and we needed a little less than a hundred thousand moreto make our goal. We expected to be there for several more daysbut it was soon clear that the drive would be over on the strengthof this one tape.
People called in and lamented how stupid the electorate was.They called from Massachusetts and Connecticut, New Jersey,Vermont and New Hampshire to say how much they would misslistening to this great man. Many of the callers were crying. Lotsof Republicans called in to say that while they hadn't voted for him,they were making a contribution to salute this premier politician.
Sitting at the computer, tallying it all up, was our diminutiveengineer, Jim "Sparks" Scholefield. I noticed as he feverishlyentered the pledges that every so often he would hold up a fingerand go "bing." With a shock I realized that each of the "bings"indicated a thousand dollars over and beyond our two hundred fiftythousand dollar goal.
When the smoke cleared, we had exceeded our goal by$50,000. We were up to three hundred thousand dollars! Not onlythat, the entire drive was over in three days. We never saw the likesof it in all our years of fund raising and we probably never will again.
In the past twelve years, I've spent many hours across themicrophone from Mario Cuomo. I've read his books and listenedto his speeches. But as time passes, this valedictory, in all its spontaneity,will probably be the thing I remember most clearly.
These are his words, exactly as we heard them on that final show:
AC: Are you ready?
MC: No, I'm not.
AC: You're on the radio, you know that? See that red light over there? That means you're on the radio.
MC: Listen, you told me that we were going to talk to the public. You didn't tell me I'd have to listen to you for a half hour. The truth is, I don't need this aggravation. I've had a very tough week. So, can't we just talk to them? You have nothing to say to me. I've been listening to you for so long, but go ahead, we may as well. I'll just offer this up with the rest of the other seven days of the week.
AC: One second.
MC: Do I get coffee?
AC: Yeah, will someone get the governor a cup of black coffee? Is that right? Here we go.
AC: It's The Capitol Connection! With Governor Mario M. Cuomo!
AC: Governor, you are a guy who has waxed philosophical over the years about all of this. You've just gone through a tough time. Is it tough? Is it - how do you handle disappointment? What does one do with disappointment? I ask you that because we've been getting a lot of telephone calls here at Public Radio from people who are disappointed, and I want to know what you do when you're disappointed. How do you make it all right?
MC: Well, I think first, you have to know what it is that disappoints you. If people are disappointed because what they believed, or what they thought they believed has been rejected, then that's one thing. I think no one ought to be disappointed because Mario Cuomo is not going to be the governor, because that really isn't the important thing. The important thing is, what is it that we believed, what is it that we were trying to do and if you believed the same thing and you're disappointed because you think that's been rejected, then the appropriate response is to fight a little bit harder to make sure that it gets restored even in the new administration. I would not give up on the possibility that the next governor will come to see things a little bit differently in the course of being governor. For example, I don't think it's realistic to believe that he can do the tax cut he said he would do in the campaign. That's just not in the cards. So I think if the disappointment is "gee whilikers, all those things that I felt so deeply now have been rejected, and I feel rejected," therefore, I think your response is let me get out there and tell the story again. That's what I'm going to try to do, nationally, and in New York State. I believe that a lot of the things that I feel and have stood for personally have been rejected around the country. I'm very disappointed at that, so I'm going to fight a little bit harder to make the case.
AC: How are you going to do that?
MC: Just seize whatever opportunity is given you to talk about things. What is it that the country needs? Are we being offered by the radical right in the House, are we being offered real solutions or are these parodies. Everybody knows that crime is a problem. Is the death penalty anything more than a travesty or a parody? I mean, does the death penalty make you safe? Why is Thomas Grasso, even in The New York Post, pleading this week "Let me die" and "If I were free I would never kill another person, not because I've changed, but because I would hate the idea of coming back to face life in prison." Well, that's what we've been saying over and over. Are you really going to tell us now that the death penalty will make us safe, when in five of the seven states that have brought it back the homicide rate is growing faster than here, when in Texas where they're killing them casually almost, forty-six percent increase in violence, where all the evidence is that it has become an instruction in brutality? You offer this solution to our economic problems, a tax cut that can't occur all over the United States of America; and now the Republican Contract saying we're going to cut everybody's taxes, we're going to balance your budget in five years, but they won't tell you how. Is that anything but a parody or a travesty? Isn't this really Reaganism with a harsh face? Reaganism without the benefit of the lovely non-menacing, beguiling, charming Reagan? Isn't that what this is all about? Aren't they trying to con you? Go deliver the message. Make the case. That's what I'm going to do. Also, I have to make a living which - I have a problem here - we ought to talk about this.
AC: Do you think there will be a doctoral dissertation written on the works of Parkinson at some point?
MC: I may do one myself. I may do the works of A.J. Parkinson. He's one of the pithiest of all my favorite authors.
AC: Pithy was he?
MC: Indeed he was.
AC: Governor, what is it that progressive pragmatism means, which you share with Parkinson? This is the philosophy of progressive pragmatism. What does that mean?MC: If you look closely at the new so called contract with America that the Republican House has advanced, it really is a kind of top ten or top twenty from focus groups and polls. What it is, is going around to the people of the country and saying, "What concerns you most?" and they say crime, and then you ask them "What would you do about the death penalty?" and they put that down, death penalty very big, and then - well, taxes, and then they put down tax cuts, very big; "Politicians are all at fault" and then they put reform government, so these are down by polls and that's why it produces parodies and travesties. Can you imagine Moses coming down the mountain? Can you imagine him with the tablet saying "Okay, now before we try to make this policy, we're going to take a poll. How many people here in favor of banning adultery?" You know, this notion of having the talk show hosts in - did you hear this? I think the speaker-to-be-
AC: Yes, Mr. Gingrich -
MC: Yes, that he's going to call in Rush Limbaugh and the Bob Grants and the other talk show people and ask them what they're hearing from the population. And presumably they will report the predictable. Well, they hate this, they hate that, they curse this, the heck with the immigrants, the heck with this, and then you make policy. Why don't you just call Blockbuster? Why don't you say, what cassettes are you selling, and then push pornography. Why don't you go to a book store and say, what are the people asking for? And when they tell you this is what they are asking for, well, that's what we're going to give them back, even if it's wrong. What happened to leadership? What is this? Get the people angry, bottle their anger and then dispense it? Is that what you're offering me? Is that what you're telling me your rationale is? But this is, this is part of the polarizing politics that we've gotten accustomed to. You're two hundred years old. The strongest nation the world has ever seen. You're also one of the youngest. And in that youth comes immaturity. We're not mature yet as a people. We haven't developed our own culture yet. You know we don't have the stability that comes with homogeneity for a thousand years. We're made up of parts from everywhere; we're still assembling parts - 178 ethnicities in this state alone. We have this teaming diversity constantly jolting itself, you know, by rubbing against one another. We're still finding out, wait, what is your music? What is your philosophy? Write me on a card, the American character. What is it, after two hundred years? And we have this habit of lurching the way children do from one polar extreme to another. We take the country over, we blow away the native Americans, we are the most violent people in history, we treat blacks like property, we go through a period of macho individualism. Why, we do indeed leave people by the side of the trail as we're moving west. Why, we're tough, we're individuals. Then comes the Depression, and a hero steps forward and changes everything and moves you to a paternalism that nobody ever imagined possible for this band of rugged individualists. And now you have a government that takes you under its wing and says we'll do everything for you. And then you go through a stage of excessive bureaucracy because that leads to a - you know - the Johnson years, etc. So you go from one extreme to the other. Now you are at one extreme. Death penalty, cut the taxes, the heck with the immigrants. You put together a series of parodies and travesties - death penalty is surely one - we'll cut the taxes in New York 7 billion dollars. Forget about it. Incidentally, they're not even talking about that tax cut anymore. Now they're calling it a 25 percent income tax cut. That was only part of it. What the Republicans offered you in this state was a 7 billion dollar tax cut. Don't forget it. No way that's going to happen and everybody knows it. strongest nation the world has ever seen. You're also one of the youngest. And in that youth comes immaturity. We're not mature yet as a people. We haven't developed our own culture yet. You know we don't have the stability that comes with homogeneity for a thousand years. We're made up of parts from everywhere; we're still assembling parts - 178 ethnicities in this state alone. We have this teaming diversity constantly jolting itself, you know, by rubbing against one another. We're still finding out, wait, what is your music? What is your philosophy? Write me on a card, the American character. What is it, after two hundred years? And we have this habit of lurching the way children do from one polar extreme to another. We take the country over, we blow away the native Americans, we are the most violent people in history, we treat blacks like property, we go through a period of macho individualism. Why, we do indeed leave people by the side of the trail as we're moving west. Why, we're tough, we're individuals. Then comes the Depression, and a hero steps forward and changes everything and moves you to a paternalism that nobody ever imagined possible for this band of rugged individualists. And now you have a government that takes you under its wing and says we'll do everything for you. And then you go through a stage of excessive bureaucracy because that leads to a - you know - the Johnson years, etc. So you go from one extreme to the other. Now you are at one extreme. Death penalty, cut the taxes, the heck with the immigrants. You put together a series of parodies and travesties - death penalty is surely one - we'll cut the taxes in New York 7 billion dollars. Forget about it. Incidentally, they're not even talking about that tax cut anymore. Now they're calling it a 25 percent income tax cut. That was only part of it. What the Republicans offered you in this state was a 7 billion dollar tax cut. Don't forget it. No way that's going to happen and everybody knows it. Another parody. Take the money away from the children on welfare, punish their mothers. This way they'll stop making babies. Foolish. The bishops were right and I applaud the bishops of my church. They don't always agree with me but they were right when they called on the Republicans and said this is monstrous; this is stupid.
AC: The idea of taking the children away and putting them in an orphanage?
MC: Oh, my God! And who is going to build the orphanages? I thought you wanted less government. Now you're going to have government orphanages? Or will the thousand points of light build the orphanages for you, and who will watch the children with AIDS? Travesty! Parody! Exaggeration! Lurching to the right, a kind of pandering. What we need is a more mature, more intelligent consensus that brings people together, people like your audience. Frankly, they're the core, the most intelligent people, not all geniuses, but the most intelligent people, the most thoughtful people, people who say, hey, look, let me think about this a little bit more. It must be more complicated than that. People who have an impulse that says there must be more subtlety to this thing than we're being told. There is. We need a politics that is reasonable, a politics of common sense. That's where progressive pragmatism came from. In 1985 I did the Fellowship at Yale and it was after 1984 and all that had happened in the Reagan years and I said, look, forget all about Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Liberal; you people are choking on labels. You know, you're developing a myopia here. You are assuming that Conservatives stand for the - throw away all of the labels, take every issue, apply reason and common sense to every issue. And what would I call myself? A progressive pragmatist. What does that mean? That means I want to learn, I want to grow the way the whole Universe is growing, upward toward the light. And I want it to make sense, practical common sense. That's pragmatism, progressivism, that's intelligence and practicality, that's compassion and common sense. Put it all together; that's the politics that you need. That's going to be the Clinton politics. That's what will make him president again.