An Interview with Mario Cuomo

Article excerpt

Mario Cuomo was governor of New York from 1983 to 1994. His speech articulating the progressive ideal electrified the 1984 Democratic convention. He wrote that speech himself, without the aid of ghostwriters. Cuomo, 65, remains an active political force, speaking frequently around the country. He has authored two books, "The Diaries of Mario Cuomo," and "Forest Hills Diary." Cuomo's liberalism has always had a theological and spiritual root. In this interview, he talks about his experiences as both a shabbos goy and a Catholic altar boy, as he grew up in Queens, New York, the son of a ditch digger who spoke little English.

NEWFIELD: Governor, you have often invoked the phrase tikkun olam in your writings and in your speeches. What does it mean to you and what is its relevance to both politics and government?

CUOMO: Tikkun olam, translated roughly, means to repair or cure the universe. What it means to me as a Christianbecause it was a truth adopted by Christianity as a cardinal principle-is that God made the world but did not finish it, and our mission as individuals is to use all of our strength to finish the world, to complete it, making it as good a place as we can. That is the mission that gives our life significance. We are perceived, as Christians, as an army trying to win the battle against imperfection. We know it's not going to be won during our term of service. But we hope to make some progress. That is the essential principle.

NEWFIELD: When did you first adopt it as part of your philosophy?

CUOMO: That's difficult to say. I got involved in Judaism and Catholicism very early in my life, by accident, in the neighborhood. I became an altar boy, although I was in public school, because the nun in Sunday school thought I should be an altar boy. Because I was an altar boy serving mass every weekend, I read Latin prose, I became fascinated by it, and I started reading about religion. At about the same time, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, Mr. Kessler, who put my mother and father into business in a grocery store in the Depression and who lived upstairs in a building that he owned, a tenement, encouraged me to become a shabbas goy [a non-Jew who works for Jews on the Sabbath], which Pete Hamill was, and a lot of people have been....

NEWFIELD: Colin Powell ...

CUOMo: And Colin Powell. And being a shabbos goy was particularly convenient for me because the synagogue was on the corner. The grocery store was on one corner and the synagogue on the other. And I was struck by the similarity of the rituals. A language I didn't understand on Sundays and a language I didn't understand on the Sabbath: the Hebrew and the Latin. The mystique: incense, brocaded vestments, an aura of mystery. I eventually became a member of the Second Vatican Council's Catholic-Jewish relations committee that came out of the Catholic church's apology to the Jewish people for 1900 years of insensitivity. I traveled to synagogues, then to Israel, got involved with Israel politically ... and so these two things have blended.

Now, very early in my life, I concluded, in a very rough way and without knowing much about philosophy or God, that there must be some justification for this curious existence we lead. And the justification given by the Hebrew tikkun olam and the Catholic collaborators in creation made all the sense in the world to me. At least it gave me something to do. It means: I don't understand this life. I don't understand why good people get hurt, even after reading the rabbi's [Harold Kushner's] book. I just don't understand it: why children should have the eyes blown out of their heads by bombs in Vietnam or anywhere else when they're two years old and they never did anything wrong. This notion that, well, it's an imperfect place and you're supposed to make it as good as possible, that appealed to me. It still does. It also is the only thing that makes sense to me politically. …