The Luncheon Society/Gov. Mario Cuomo/Blue Fin (Dinner) /February 19, 2010

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We started the evening where we began lunch; The Blue Fin Restaurant in Manhattan’s Times Square.  Unlike lunch, our private room was no match for the dinner rush outside, but things quieted as people left for Broadway plays and musicals, which began promptly at 8 PM.

Regardless, the exterior din was well worth the wonderful crowd we had inside that room that evening; a number of folks came from Los Angeles to see both Cavett and Cuomo. As for me, I found myself sitting between one of my favorite writers, Gay Talese, and former supermodel Carmen Dell’Orefice, who could (and should) run a finishing school on how people are supposed to behave. It just does not get any better than that.

I think we will put something together in New York so we can gather for a nightcap (or two) after experiences like these.

Rather than describe the dinner in great detail, I will let Governor Cuomo’s gracious words speak for themselves. 


We were invited by Bob McBarton to respond to the question: “Has political bi-partisanship completely broken down in the nation’s Capitol because ideological purity too often replaces intelligent collaboration?”

It is a vital question that every day becomes more serious.  Most recently it was focused upon by Evan Bayh. I believe I have had some experience with that kind of troublesome rigidity ─ Bayh ─ and many others are talking about.

In my early years as a lawyer I enjoyed the struggle called “litigation” immensely. Don’t give an inch!  The competitiveness, the court as coliseum… “The thrill of victory; the agony of defeat”. 

That muscular intellectual kind of combat had a primal attraction for me.  I thought things like mediation and arbitration that displaced litigation were a concession of weakness that should be carefully avoided.

Over time however, I’ve been able to overcome a number of different primal instincts… an obsession with the virtues of rigidity and litigation is one of them. 

After years of experience I concluded that relentless insistence on vigorous litigation reflects a human failure to be able to arrive at a wiser consensus, compromise, and peaceful coexistence.

The battle in the courtroom is, in a way, really nothing more than a refined substitute for the rock, the club, the spear, the gun ─ and even the bomb ─ all concessions to our inability to resolve our differences by civilized discussion, negotiation and… collaboration.

After living for a long time in two separate worlds ─ the world of business and the world of politics ─ it’s clear to me that collaboration is valuable in a much more significant way, one that goes far beyond it’s usefulness in practicing law. 

Our political system badly needs collaboration and cooperation more than ever.  Even at this moment of extraordinary social and economic exigencies when all parts of the political spectrum are begging for political coalescence, many of our elected representatives aren’t able to achieve it.

Whatever our deficiencies, we are still the greatest nation in world history: With the strongest military, the largest economy and a history of providing unique opportunity to ten generations of immigrants, like my parents and perhaps yours. 

But our nation is not nearly as strong or as useful to our people and the rest of the world as we would be if we could come together to manage better our opportunities and addressed more intelligently our problems… and it’s apparent we have an abundance of both. 

It’s just as clear that we can achieve the collaboration we need if we try hard enough.  Just think back to the year 2000 when we experienced great post-millennial progress.  Technology was booming.  We had just completed eight years of economic growth and the creation of twenty-two million new jobs.  We had an ascending middle-class, fewer poor Americans, the best four years in our stock market’s history, a balanced federal budget and a projected surplus of ─ hold your breath ─ 5.4 trillion dollars!

Although Bill Clinton had been the President from 1993 through 2000, his record was by no means an exclusively Democratic achievement:  It required a good deal of “collaboration” with the Republicans in Congress, including with the ultra-conservative Newt Gingrich.

Then, in the early days of the new millennium we were beset by a stunning series of calamities and blunders that our fragmented political system has been unable to prevent or correct.

The list is depressingly long.  It started with 9/11 and Afghanistan, then the tragically unnecessary, misguided preemptive war against Iraq.

Then came Katrina, huge improvident tax cuts mostly for the already wealthy, the squandering of the budget surplus and huge deficits financed by dangerously large loans from other countries, the falling dollar, the revelation of the dark side of global so-called “free trade”, unemployment increases, healthcare’s manifest inadequacies ─ and education’s as well ─ energy costs escalating dramatically, a sinking middle-class and a growing poor population. 

All exacerbated by the collapse of our economy into a recession… threatening to become a depression.

There is, of course, more than one explanation for how all of these failures were allowed to occur, and more than one thing that needs to be done to correct them.  Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can escape responsibility for starting the war in Iraq, or for the sorry condition of the federal budget. 

Indeed, it is fair to say that our failures were ─ at least in part ─ the result of a failure of our elected officials to work together productively.  Consider: The tragic decision to go to war against Iraq was not made by the American people in a referendum, nor by their representatives in Congress after a careful deliberation and an unambiguous declaration of war by both houses.  Instead, Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, agreed to attempt to authorize the President to make the decision by himself instead of through the Congress as prescribed in the Constitution’s Article I, Section 8.  They had done the same thing years earlier for a Democratic President in the war in Vietnam.

Ironically, the principal reason given by the Founding Fathers for not giving the power to declare war to the President was that the most important of decisions─whether or not to start a war ─ needed the collaborative wisdom of the entire Congress.

Nor was the President’s decision supported by a consensus of our allies.  And as a result we wound up losing the respect and active support of many of them.

Frankly, although I have been a registered Democrat for most of my adult life, I believe our strong political party system contributes significantly to that failure of collaboration because by its nature it divides the people and their public officials into competing camps.  As a result, the party system has from time-to-time produced less collaboration and more stagnation than progress.

That’s what we are seeing today.

Theoretically, our parties are distinguished from one another by their ideologies ─ which are supposed to be neat collections of principles and rules which, if followed as political recipes, would serve the common good and produce a better America.

It hasn’t worked out that way.  Their so-called ideologies frequently serve more to define the special interests of party members than the common good. 

So a party of the “poor and struggling” argues there should be more welfare-type programs, whatever that means to incentives, or to the struggling middle-class, and a party of the rich is against all tax increases no matter how badly the rest of America needs relief.

The principal practical political purpose for parties appears to be to give individuals a way to compete in electoral contests.  Mayor Bloomberg, for example, has consistently practiced a kind of moderate-liberal politics but he has registered at various times as a Democrat, then a Republican and now an Independent… without ever having changed any of his positions.

Actually, there may be a place in today’s politics for what the parties call their “ideologies,” if by ideology they mean very broad inclinations in one direction or another.  But none of the pretentious ideologies ─ Liberalism, Conservatism or the so-called “Third Way” of Clinton and Blair ─ deserve “first place: “First place should go to common sense and a benign pragmatism that works to advance the common good of the entire community.” 

As a matter of fact, I suspect that most Americans believe that should be the case. 

Surveys say that about forty percent of the voters formally reject the major parties and choose to register as Independents.  An unknown but I’m sure a considerable number of the sixty percent nominal Democrats and Republicans actually vote independently once they draw the curtain behind them, especially when it comes to picking a President.

That having been said, I believe that before we vote Americans need a clearer idea of what we want America to be as a nation than is produced by the predictably dubious promises of political platforms at conventions.

In the end, I believe the choice should come down to whether we want to be 310 million disassociated individuals whose liberty is protected by the Bill of Rights but who must as individuals struggle in a dog-eat-dog society, or a nation governed by a combination of strong individual rights and personal accountability, together with an intelligent and vibrant sense of community, led by people who decide things on the merits ─ collaboratively, and ─pragmatically ─ with the common good in mind.

Ten generations of American people before us have had to make that decision because the Constitution didn’t make it for them.  The Constitution made us free and protected our liberties with the Bill of Rights, but our Founding Fathers did not explicitly require us to make ourselves strong as a nation by becoming a collaborating, sharing community:  That was left to be done by us… if we chose to do it.

And for two hundred years the American people have come together from time-to-time to make ourselves stronger through collaboration, convincing the government to take down walls that divide us ─ be they cultural, racial, religious or chronological ─ and developing new synergisms to benefit the larger community.

That’s the way our system is supposed to work.

Abraham Lincoln and Adam Smith before him noted that individualism, private charity and the market system are indispensable to our success as a nation… but they are not sufficient to provide all we need to thrive as a society:  That requires interventions by government. 

Lincoln, who called himself a “Whig” and then a “Republican” but spoke and acted as an “Independent”, defined our government as “the coming together of people to do for one another collectively what they could not do as well or at all through the market and philanthropies”, and he called upon people to come together, not arguing about “big” government or “little” government but by insisting on all the government we need but only the government we need, in order to provide the things that were necessary for peace and prosperity for the whole community, but would not be adequately supplied by the private sector. 

Despite shifting rhetoric about so-called “political ideologies” that is what our government has managed to do when it is operating as it should, coming together from time-to-time to create public education, Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, the Marshal Plan, the highway program, the space program and other essential interventions in the market system… like occasional bail-outs. All these things made sense.  And because they did, for more than half-a-century no president, Democrat or Republican, has worked against any of these collaborations.

That’s how we should be making our decisions today.

Collaborating ─ for the common good.

Clearly, we are not doing it as well as we should.

President Obama talked a great deal bout bi-partisan government as a candidate and has continued to discuss it as the preferred modus operandi.  But Republicans have resisted for the most part… while trying to create bits of evidence that suggest they are willing, if not eager, to cooperate.

An attempt to bring the two parties together on healthcare and regulations foundered in the past week, as did an initiative by Senators Baucus and Grassley.

Perhaps the most significant attempt at bi-partisanship by President Obama was his attempt to establish a new “Greenspan-type” commission.  The original was successful in helping to improve the condition of the Social Security system by increasing the tax and reducing the degree of entitlements.  It did its work in the early years of the Reagan administration.  Despite that, the Republicans have blocked the use of a similar vehicle to deal with current problems.

That having been said ─ let’s get on with the discussion.

Next up–Lunch with Michael Dukakis in San Francisco

One response to “The Luncheon Society/Gov. Mario Cuomo/Blue Fin (Dinner) /February 19, 2010

  1. Pingback: The Luncheon Society/First Half 2010 recap/What’s coming up in the Second Half « The Luncheon Society

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