It’s Down to Cuomo vs Cuomo in the Debates

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, October 28, 1986

Why does Mario Cuomo, as he campaigns for re-election as governor and for national recognition as a potential president, insist on continuing to shoot himself in both feet?

In his machinations to keep his Republican opponent from getting access to the public’s attention, he has turned stubbornness into a high art. He talks about traveling on the high road, but the path he has chosen lies somewhere else and makes him sound sore and sour.

He is angry at the Republican, Andrew O’Rourke, for having floated irresponsible accusations and innuendos about him — suggestions that he was linked to the New York City corruption scandal and to mob campaign contributions. He has every right to be annoyed at the mud-slinging by the desperate O’Rourke, a limited politician who is the Westchester County executive, but the answer to a display of smallness is not to make oneself small, too.

Now Cuomo has got people saying he’s arrogant, imperious, bully-like. Now he has got himself twisting and turning on the barb of his own contradictory statements.

Now he says that all along he wanted debates with O’Rourke, that he set conditions for the debates only for the public’s sake, to get O’Rourke to open up his tax returns and produce a list of the clients he has represented as an attorney while holding public office.

But all along he didn’t quite convince us of the purity of his motives, because we knew it was a maxim of modern politics that if you’re running way ahead in the opinion polls, you don’t give your opponent free television time if you don’t have to. And because the governor knew that people are suspicious of claimed purity unless they hear it from established saints, none of whom have appeared to us recently, even he acknowledged that his lofty position had an earthly underpinning.

Back in August, for example, he said of O’Rourke: “Why should I give him [free television] time?” He also said back then: “I haven’t heard anything I would like to engage the Republicans on.”

But he kept getting sorer and sorer as O’Rourke kept refusing to make the demanded tax and client disclosures, and he let his pique turn into adamancy bordering on blockheadedness.

In a conversation with this reporter two months ago, he said, referring to the Republican blockage of disclosure bills in the State Legislature:

“The Republicans aren’t looking for a debate; they’re trying to end the debate. You in the press want debates. I understand that. So there’ll be 17 columns and editorials saying Mario, forget about disclosure, debate him. And I’m going to say no. It’s the only way I can make them [the Republicans] face the corruption issue. I don’t want to knock him about in debates; I want disclosure.”

By this time, Cuomo may have recited this litany often enough to have persuaded himself that it is the whole truth. But in the real world, as distinct from the realm of self-delusion, there is little evidence that the governor — though he has publicly supported strong laws against conflict of interest — has put the full force of his office behind passage of such laws in the Legislature. It is not the priority for him that he has made it out to be in his maneuvering against O’Rourke over campaign debates.

He got himself so tangled up in that maneuvering that sometimes he even forgot how important such debates were in his underdog race for governor in 1982. “Debates are a waste,” he said to me in his ire. “Television debates are a joke. You don’t have time to really explain an issue. The public doesn’t learn anything from them. You’ve got five minutes, for example, to cover the whole range of the economy.”

But finally O’Rourke has made public his tax returns (though not his client list), and Cuomo — battered by editorial salvos — has yielded (“Debates are good for the people”) and agreed to debates, but only two of them, which is unworthy of him.  Yet still he sets conditions, denying O’Rourke full exposure by insisting that the candidates of even minor parties be included.

This means, in particular, the New Alliance Party, whose platform and statements carry anti-Semitic overtones. The black-led part is linked to Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has called Judaism “a gutter religion.” Cuomo, after stonewalling the idea of debates for months, now delivers to us the civics-book lecture that “all legally certified candidates should have the right to be heard.” So now he has shot himself not only in both feet but in his backside, too.

It is not Mario’s finest hour.

While none of this may have any appreciable effect on either the Nov. 4 election results or Cuomo’s national aspirations, it has temporarily tarnished his image as a proponent of fair play and personal dignity. One hopes he finds his way soon out of this personal maze.

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