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Hugh Carey's conscience

They buried former Gov. Hugh L. Carey from St. Patrick's Cathedral on Thursday in a grand funeral befitting a man of such stature. They recalled Carey as a combat infantry officer in World War II, how his Timberwolf Division liberated the concentration camp at Nordhausen, the 14 years he served in Congress, and the eight years as governor now regarded as crucial in saving New York City and New York State from bankruptcy.

It's a sure bet, however, that the eulogists never mentioned the remarkable interview I conducted with him on March 8, 1990, in his W.R. Grace Co. office in midtown Manhattan. Amid old campaign buttons, Newspaper Guild key chains and the other clutter of my top drawer, I found and replayed the tape of that conversation following the governor's death on Sunday at 92.

In the interview that resulted in a front-page story for The Buffalo News, Carey explained in greater detail than ever before his public mea culpa for supporting abortion rights as governor. He had been wrong as a Catholic to abhor abortion but to support it as a public official, he said, and wrong not to do more as governor to prevent it.

Before we go further, today's Politics Column is not about abortion and does not reflect any personal views. Rather, it focuses on politicians and their conscience -- much like the 1985 Sunday magazine story I wrote about George Michaels, the Democratic assemblyman from Auburn who in 1970 tearfully changed his vote to allow legalized abortion. At the time, Michaels said he knew the vote meant the end of his political career.

He was right. But Michaels was forever able to live with his conscience.

For Carey, it was easy to soothe his conscience eight years after leaving the Executive Mansion. But there was no question of his sincerity.

"When I was in power, I felt that I should have done more to address what I consider to be the sanctity of human life," Carey said that day. "I had the opportunity to do it."

The governor, like so many politicians then and now, always justified an essentially pro-choice position by claiming that while "personally opposed" to abortion, those views should not affect his public duties.

"I eschew the term pro-choice," he said in 1990. "You don't have the choice as a human being to end the life of another. There is no choice.

"I don't buy this notion that, when you become a Catholic, if you want to exist in politics, you have to discard your Catholic beliefs," Carey added. "Those Catholic beliefs are not just Catholic beliefs. Those are sound beliefs that have been, frankly, the bedrock upon which this country has been founded."

Critics said Carey was making amends with the church in his later years. Maybe. But as he discarded any political inhibition during that long and intense interview, the idea of conscience -- how it plays in politics and in one's life -- dominated his thoughts.

He said he began to heed the example and advice of several "heroines." Sister Maurice, a Sister of St. Joseph and his former teacher, was one.

"I used to go and visit her regularly when she was in her 90s, and we'd have some talks," he recalled. " 'You'd better straighten out yourself,' she said. 'You've lost your way on this question of abortion.'

" 'Sister, you're right,' I said. 'I'd better straighten myself out,' " is how Carey recalled one of his moments of truth.

Ironically, Carey declared that more politicians should emulate George Michaels. Conscience and core beliefs, he said, should dictate the way politicians lead both their private and personal lives.

To his "eternal regret," he said, he hadn't.

But on that day he indeed expressed his regret, in one of the most remarkable interviews I have ever conducted.


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