The first time I met Mario Cuomo, the first words out of his mouth were “Teilhard de Chardin.” It was early September 1984 and Newsweek’s editors had invited the governor of New York over for an off-the-record lunch. Cuomo’s rousing keynote address to that year’s Democratic National Convention (though he was out-roused that night by Jesse Jackson) had vaulted him onto the party’s list of future presidential candidates. Newsweek was preparing a cover package on religion and the presidential race for which I was to write the concluding essay. We were waiting at the elevator on the fortieth floor for Cuomo, and when the doors opened the name of his favorite Catholic theologian were the first words we heard from his lips.
It appeared as though the governor had been having a deep discussion with his two aides on the ride up from the lobby. But my own surmise was that Cuomo had timed his opening words to impress his Newsweek hosts. Teilhard’s daring theological interpretation of evolution had been the rage when Cuomo and I were both undergraduates, and the governor had every reason to believe that Newsweek’s editors knew nothing of the long-deceased Jesuit’s work. Quite likely the governor, who relished his reputation as an intellectual Catholic, wanted to throw the editors off their game and begin our noontime conversation with the ball firmly in his own court.
Sure enough, the lunch began with Cuomo going on about Teilhard for five minutes before editor-in-chief Rick Smith could turn the discussion toward politics. I waited until the main course was served before telling Cuomo, as politely as I could, “Governor, I think you’ve got Teilhard’s theory wrong.” Cuomo shot me a quick glower, the kind reporters in Albany who criticized him often saw, and the conversation moved on. At the end, the governor announced that he would be giving a major lecture at Notre Dame in a few days and invited me to ride with him in his official plane. With a piece of the cover package to write, I had to decline, but I promised to read his every word.
In the presidential election of 1984, religion clung like kudzu to the candidates. The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s run for the Democratic nomination was launched, funded, and sustained by black churches“Big Church,” he called itwith nary an eyebrow raised by the IRS. Jackson finished third behind former divinity student Gary Hart and nominee Walter Mondale, who was the son of a Methodist minister and married to the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. The Republican National Convention featured a benediction by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who blessed President Ronald Reagan and his running mate George H. W. Bush as “God’s instruments for rebuilding America.” A great many American Jews felt so perplexed by all the God talk that the first audience Mondale and Reagan jointly addressed was a convention of B’nai B’rith, whose members wanted to hear the candidates’ views on the proper role of religion in public life. As it turned out, neither candidate’s views mattered as much as those of Mario Cuomo, whose stance on abortionpersonally opposed but publicly in favorjustified a new way to be a Catholic Democrat.
Going into the convention, Mondale made it clear that he wanted to make history by having a “minority”meaning a woman, an African American, or a Hispanicas a running mate. The National Organization for Women got behind New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, and Mondale chose her with the hope of attracting women’s votes and winning back some of the white ethnic and Catholic voters who had flocked to Reagan in 1980. Ferraro was the first woman and the first Italian-American to run for the vice presidency on a major party ticket. She was also the first Catholic on either party’s ticket since Roe v. Wade and thus occasioned the first national test of Cuomo’s abortion position.
Shortly before the convention, Pope John Paul II selected John J. O’Connor to be the new archbishop of New York. An admiral in the Navy and former head of military chaplains, the garrulous O’Connor noted on arrival in New York that unlike politicians, he had been appointed to his post, not elected. His political naivete soon became evident during a locally televised Sunday morning press conference not long after Governor Cuomo had signed a bill providing state Medicaid funding for elective abortions. Cuomo’s rationale was fairness: The poor should not be denied a service that the rich can afford. Asked for his own views, O’Connor replied, “I don’t see how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for a politician who explicitly favors abortion.” Asked whether such a politician ought to be excommunicated, the archbishop demurred: “I’d have to think about that,” he said.
O’Connor’s comments were quickly forgotten until, two months later, Governor Cuomo summoned a New York Times reporter to his office and accused the archbishop of telling Catholics how they should vote. The way Cuomo inflated the importance of O’Connor’s words, one might have supposed the archbishop had issued a pastoral letter ordering Catholics not to vote for any pro-choice candidate. Cuomo’s rebuttal prompted the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a statement saying that the hierarchy does not take positions on political candidates, and O’Connor himself put out a press release saying that at no time had he said Catholics could not vote for any candidate. Even so, the verbal jousting between Cuomo and O’Connor continued to percolate in the New York media.
Why had Cuomo decided to create a public controversy where none had existed? The explanations ranged from the purely political to the patently psychological to the traditional ethnic conflict between Irish and Italian Catholics, and all of them were probably true. Tim Russert, at the time a counselor to Cuomo, thought the governor felt snubbed at O’Connor’s inaugural Mass when he gave a pulpit shoutout to Cuomo’s party rival, Mayor Ed Koch“How’m I doin’ Mr. Mayor?”but not to Cuomo. The major reason, I believe, was that invitation to speak at Notre Dame. For an Italian grocer’s son from Queens, this was an opportunity as big in its own way as his invitation to keynote the Democratic Convention. And what better way to ensure the attention of the national press than to pick a fight with the archbishop (and soon to be cardinal) of New York? Hence his invitation to me to come fly with him to Notre Dame.
Cuomo’s speech was by turns humble and self-assured, professorial and prosecutorial, with enough caveats about the relationship between personal and public morality to make even a medieval casuist wince. At the core of his argument was the right of any politician to exercise his own prudential judgment on issues of public morality. On the issue of abortion, his own conscience told him that there was no way to reverse or even limit the effects of Roe that would be both reasonable and fair given the country’s moral pluralism. Nor should Catholic politicians try. “We know,” he warned his Catholic audience, “that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.”
Then, as now, I found Cuomo’s line of argument fraught with pious dissembling. First, he mischaracterized the Church’s teaching on abortion as simply one “belief” among others that loyal Catholics like himself accept on faithin other words, a plank in a sectarian belief system imposed by the bishops in their role as official church teachers. The clear implication was that if Cuomo belonged to some other church that found no evil in aborting the life of an unborn child, his personal belief as a loyal member would be just the opposite. Nowhere did the governor argue that he, Mario Cuomo, like millions of other Americans who are not Catholic or even religious, had through any kind of moral intuition or reasoning of his own concluded that abortion was morally abhorrent in and of itself. Instead, his argument inadvertently resurrected the hoariest of anti-Catholic slurs, namely, that “loyal” Catholics do not think for themselves.
But of course the governor did regard himself as a man who thinks for himself on matters of right and wrong; otherwise he would not have been invited to speak at Notre Dame. Well before the American hierarchy did, Cuomo had come to the personal conclusion that the death penalty is immoral and that the state had no business inflicting such a penalty even for the most heinous of crimes. This personal moral conviction was one of the reasons why Cuomo lost his bid to become mayor of New York City in 1977, a time when street crime made even an evening out in Manhattan dangerous. Even so, as governor he continuedas a matter of personal conscienceto push for a state ban on the death penalty, despite the opposition of the majority of New York legislators and, according to the polls, a majority of its citizens.
On abortion, however, Cuomo argued precisely the opposite. Because there was no public consensus on the morality of abortionindeed, as he pointed out, polls showed that Catholics barely differed from the rest of Americans in their opposition to a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion altogetherit would be both politically futile and morally wrong for any Catholic politician to work to limit the reach of Roe v. Wade.
This, the second of his faulty assumptions, clearly begged the question. Those same opinion polls also showed that throughout the 70s and 80s, a majority of adult Americans supported limiting abortion rights to the “hard” casesrape, incest, and immediate physical harm to the motherand rejected the right to abortion upon demand as enshrined in Roe v. Wade. In short, most Americans rejected the reasons why nine out of ten women sought abortions in the first place. This was clearly a consensus that a master politician like Cuomo could nurture to legislative effectif he so chose. Indeed, the governor allowed that he could “if so inclined, demand some kind of law against abortion not because my bishops say it is wrong but because I think that the whole community, regardless of its religious beliefs, should agree on the importance of protecting lifeincluding life in the womb, which is at the very least potentially human and should not be extinguished casually.”
This wink and nod in the pro-life direction led many of those in the audience to assume he meant that down the line, and if the political conditions were right, he would do as he said he could. I took him to mean that the choice was his to make and that bishops like O’Connor should get off the backs of pro-choice Catholics like Geraldine Ferraro and himself.
Notre Dame, of course, was pleased to be the site of the only memorable speech given during the 1984 campaign. But one person in the audience with more political experience than even Cuomo could claim was not impressed by his arguments. Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s longtime president, had served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission under four presidents, two Democrat and two Republican, among many other presidential appointments. He had seen John Kennedy pushed into proposing civil rights legislation when there was no consensus to support it, and he had seen Lyndon Johnson twist arms in order to pass his landmark civil rights legislation knowing it would cost his party the South. Still, Hesburgh was willing to cut Cuomo some slack. “His position on abortion is part of a whole climate of opinion in New York State, New York City, and the New York Times,” he said. “If he were from a Prairie state he could take a different line.”
In fact, Cuomo rarely traveled outside his home state and never stayed long when he did. He had not come to South Bend to address the locals but looked immediately to see how his speech played back east and in the national media housed there. It played very well, especially among secular intellectuals who could read it for themselves in the New York Review of Books. But neither Cuomo nor Ferarro was of help to Mondale in the November election. President Reagan won the women’s vote, the Italian-American vote, and a record 55 percent of the Catholic vote. Mondale nearly set a record, too: He garnered the second fewest electoral college votes in the history of presidential elections.
In 1986 Cuomo was reelected governor in a landslide, and there was talk among New Yorkers that he could be the first president from their state since Franklin Roosevelt. There was a biography in the works, with publication slated to coincide with the 1988 election. Seeing this, Newsweek put Cuomo on its cover in March 1986 with a package that examined him from four angles: as governor, as potential presidential candidate, as an Italian-American, and (my contribution) as a Catholic. He was the only major politician of his era whose ethnicity and religion were considered integral to his public persona.
When I arrived at his Manhattan office to interview him, the governor reminded me of what I had missed by not flying with him to Notre Dame. A storm had rocked the plane so severely that one of his aidesprobably Russertpulled out his rosary beads and the governor himself was moved to nervous prayer. “You should’ve come,” he said. With that opening, I recited poll data, mentioned above, and asked him why he couldn’t build on that consensus of limitation to create public policies that would reduce the number of abortions, which had reached more than a million a year. “I don’t believe in polls,” he saidwhich was an odd statement since he maintained a full-time pollster on his staff. “There is no consensus. You can’t describe it. Cardinal O’Connor can’t describe it, even the Jesuits with all their subtleness can’t.”
The fundamental issue, he went on to say, was personal “liberty,” and reading from another speech he’d given, he said that “only when liberty intrudes on another’s right, only when it does damage to another human being, only when it takes or hurts or deprives or invades may it be limited.”
“But surely abortion damages another human being,” I interjected.
“Not everyone agrees on when human life begins,” he replied. “Even theologians can’t say when the soul enters the body.”
“Come on, Mario,” I said, “all they have to do is wait 266 days and see what they get. A human embryo does not turn out to be a cat or dog.” And so it went.
It was obvious we had reached an impasse. The governor was not about to waste any of his political capital on aligning his public with his private conscience. But then neither was any other Catholic running for the Democratic nomination. Cuomo eventually opted not to run in 1988, but another Catholic who did, former Governor Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, praised Cuomo for providing moral cover on abortion. “Geraldine [Ferraro] got in trouble on the issue because she didn’t have her facts straight,” he told a press conference. “Mario got it right.”
The last time I heard Mario Cuomo speak in person was at the 1992 Democratic Convention at Madison Square Garden. Bill Clinton chose him “as our best orator” to give the first nomination speech. A major convention theme was the party’s inclusivenesswhat the Democratic National Committee called “The Big Tent” that in contrast to the Republicans welcomed Americans, as Cuomo put it, “of whatever color, of whatever creed, of whatever sex, of whatever sexual orientation. . . .” Down on the convention floor, where I spent my time, there were waves of placards identifying Native Americans, Hispanics of assorted Latin-American backgrounds, African Americans, at least a dozen feminist groups, lesbians, transsexuals, bisexuals plus a conga line of dancing gays. I bought a selection of campaign buttons for my children and noticed that in every delegation I passed there was a clutch of women wearing a button for the National Abortion Rights League. But hands down the most provocative button was the one that featured Pennsylvania’s two-time Governor Robert Casey Sr., dressed as the pope.
Bob Casey was probably the most progressive governor in the country and programmatically far more successful than either Cuomo or Clinton. He created a model school-based child-care program that offered infants and preschoolersincluding poor childrenfull-day services so that teenage parents could stay in school and impoverished adults could work with the assurance that their children were safe. He pushed for universal health care for Pennsylvania residents, and when that failed, he secured the passage of a bill that provided health insurance for children whose parents could not afford it but whose incomes were too high to be eligible for public assistance. Casey also appointed the first black woman ever to a state supreme court and more female cabinet members than any other Democratic governor. In his first five years in office, state contracts to female- and minority-owned firms increased by more than 1,500 percent. In short, he was a model liberal Democrat.
But unlike governors Clinton and Cuomo, Casey was also a pro-life politician who found ways to limit the sweep of Roe, a stand that made him a target of NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and other pillars of the party’s pro-choice base. In 1989 he helped push through the Pennsylvania legislature a law that limited access to abortion in four ways. It required doctors to inform women about the health risks of the procedure; it required minors to receive consent from a parent or guardian prior to abortion; it imposed a twenty-four-hour waiting period before obtaining an abortion; and it required married women planning to get an abortion to give their husbands prior notice. In response, the Republicans ran a pro-choice woman against Casey, which indicated that on the abortion issue, at least, the GOP had the bigger tent. Casey won by a million votes, thereby provingcontra Cuomothat being pro-choice was not a political necessity for every Democratic politician.
That was the message Casey took to the party platform hearings, where his views were summarily dismissed. In the run-up to the convention, Casey asked to present the delegates with a minority report on abortion. The DNC did not bother to reply. Instead, the committee invited six women to speak on abortion rights. Among them was Kathy Taylor, a pro-choice Pennsylvania Republicanwho had helped thwart Casey’s progressive tax reforms. At that point I began to search out Casey for a comment. It wasn’t easy since the DNC had seated the Pennsylvania delegation in the Garden’s equivalent of the bleachers. I arrived there just before Kathy Taylor did, trailed by a camera crew sent by the DNC to film the expected confrontation. But the governor had been tipped to the vindictive ploy and had left the convention before either Taylor or I could speak to him. Thus was an honorable man dishonored by his fellow liberals. Clearly the party’s inclusiveness excluded pro-life Democrats.
The last conversation I had with Mario Cuomo was over the phone in June 2004. At the time, Senator John Kerry was the presumptive Democratic nominee, a vigorously pro-choice Catholic from a state where most Catholics were born into the Democratic party and then baptized into the Church. Abortion was not expected to be a major issue beyond its usual function as a rallying point for each party’s core constituencies, and Kerry’s campaign proceeded on the assumption that Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech had provided a rock-solid rationale for Democratic candidates who were personally opposed to but publicly supportive of abortion on demand. (In Kerry’s case, he had a perfect record of opposing every measure that would have mitigated the effect of Roe v. Wade, including six votes against bills outlawing partial-birth abortions.) A number of Catholic bishops disagreed, and a handful of the most conservative went so far as to ask Kerry not to present himself for Holy Communion in churches under their jurisdiction.
At that time, I wrote an op-ed piece about the politics of Communion for the New York Times in which I dismissed Cuomo’s Notre Dame apologia as “ancient sophistry: having claimed that there was no public consensus opposing abortion, he [Cuomo] worked to see that none developed.” Cuomo immediately defended his speech in a letter to the Times printed five days later. Then came a phone call to me at home, during which the governor proposed that he and I convoke a meeting of theologians to determine “when life begins.” I don’t really think he was serious about the convoking. His real point was that until the Church decided when soul and body were joined, you couldn’t really say when abortion became the taking of a human life. At first I thought he was being lawyerly againClarence Darrow asking William Jennings Bryan to explain Old Testament miracles. But after I hung up, it occurred to me that theologically he was still sitting in a classroom at St. John’s University in the early 1950s.
The governor and I had a final joust over his Notre Dame speech in print in the September 24, 2004 issue of Commonweal. I think I got the better of him in that debate. No matter: Cuomo enjoyed verbal warfare, and unlike Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and a host of other pro-choice Catholic politicians, he did not let someone else carry his water for him. And for the record, it should be noted that on the matter of abortion he never once invoked Teilhard de Chardin.
Kenneth L. Woodward is a former religion editor of Newsweek. This article is excerpted from Getting Religion, a book he is completing on American religion, culture, and politics since 1950.