For a quarter-century or so, anyone who hung around New York politics, or knew people who did, had a file full of anecdotes and impressions of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. To summarize the file: He was a talented and ambitious guy who was often a jerk.
He was a smart, shrewd, and persevering figure who could be short-tempered to the point of abusive, was vain about publicity in ways that stood out even by the standards of politicians, and where he went, drama and personal conflict inevitably followed.
A year ago, as New York was an early pandemic hot spot, the national conversation shifted and everyone started a new file on Cuomo: Oh, my goodness, isn’t he charismatic? Empathetic, spontaneous, engaged, responsible, commanding. Just what the moment required, and just what was lacking from Donald Trump.
Now, Trump is out of the White House and as for Cuomo … Damn it, where is that jerk file? Please tell me I wasn’t so dumb to just throw it away.
There aren’t many cases that more vividly capture perceptions of a public figure swerving so abruptly over such a short time. Far from being a masterful coronavirus crisis manager, Cuomo’s administration is under investigation for alleged manipulation of statistics on nursing home deaths. Far from being rough-edged but benevolent Uncle Andrew, he stands accused of sexually harassing much younger women who worked for him.
There is a fuzzy philosophical point in the Cuomo story about the vagaries of fame and vicissitudes of reputation. The ball does indeed take funny bounces.
But maybe don’t let yourself off the hook so easily. The sharper and more specific point is that both phases of the Cuomo psychodrama — and especially the OMG-I’m-crushing-on-Andrew phase — reflect the fatuousness of modern political culture.
Were you one of those who, like Ellen DeGeneres last spring, declared yourself “a Cuomosexual”? Do you now presumably join her in cringing at his reply, saying of the infatuation with him: “Yeah, I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
“It’s not a bad thing,” she agreed. “People are in love with you.”
An emphasis on the stylistic dimensions of leadership, combined with a tendency to view politics as a nonstop morality tale, is hardly a new phenomenon. But it has become an exaggerated one in the media-saturated Trump era. And few people demonstrate the hazards of this brand of politics better than Cuomo.
On narrowly political grounds, it is risky for a Democrat to encourage, as Cuomo did last spring, a cult of personality. Despite occasional swoons, progressives just aren’t inclined to support this in a sustained way, in marked contrast to Trump partisans. Some commentators have cried hypocrisy because there are not more immediate widespread calls for Cuomo to resign in the face of allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women. In fact, Cuomo is hanging on tenuously, at best. He spoke deferentially of the women who accused him, and few Democrats are defending him; Trump responds contemptuously toward harassment allegations against him (and all other allegations) and faces no penalty from his zealous supporters.
More importantly, personality-based politics of the sort that buoyed Cuomo and now threatens to sink him are increasingly out of step with the problems of the age.
Cuomo’s father, fellow Gov. Mario Cuomo, famously said that leaders campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Inspiration and public persuasion, of course, always have an indispensable role in effective leadership. But coronavirus has some similar characteristics with many of the issues facing the current and next generation of public officials, in that credible remedies are more compellingly described in prosaic rather than lyrical terms.
The pandemic is like the problem of climate change or enlightened regulation of technology in that all involve intelligent reconciling of legitimate yet competing values in a rational way. Being a photogenic, volatile, publicity-loving egotist who quarrels constantly with other politicians and berates them on the phone isn’t incompatible with this approach. But it doesn’t much help the cause.
Even the up phase of Cuomo’s celebrity cycle was only tangentially connected to the central question: Was he actually an effective administrator in responding to an unexpected health crisis? Cuomo aggressively used his formal power and public platform in Albany to try to stop the spread of the disease. At the same time, in the early days of the pandemic, he dismissed calls for lockdowns and warned against unnecessary panic. New York is second, after New Jersey, in deaths per capita, which highlights the fact that these densely populated states were hit early in ways that governors likely could only affect at the margins.
All this was evident last spring.
But a fragmentary, mixed record was enough for people like actress Mia Farrow, who tweeted, “If only Gov Andrew Cuomo were the president now. #LeadershipMatters.” Comedian Chelsea Handler added, “I’m officially attracted to Andrew Cuomo. Can we just let him take over for the country? Wouldn’t that be bipartisan? Let’s do that!”
Ben Smith at the New York Times wrote a column headlined, “Andrew Cuomo Is the Control Freak We Need Right Now.”
Right now didn’t last for long. It turned out the Cuomo was not so much in control as he or others assumed — not of the pandemic, nor of the giddy peaks and sudden plummets of his own public image.