Washington • It’s no wonder that watching Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings can make some people crave Chianti and meatballs.
Besides coolly explaining the facts in this terrifying and stultifying plague season, the governor of New York evokes the feeling of a big Italian family dinner table.
And that is the intended effect.
“Call it psychological,” Gov. Cuomo, phoning from Albany, tells me. “Call it feelings. Call it emotions. But this is as much a social crisis as a health crisis.”
Often in the past, when people called Cuomo patriarchal, it was not meant as a compliment. It was a way to describe his maniacally controlling behavior, his dark zeal to muscle past people and obstacles to get his way. The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney dubbed him the “human bulldozer,” and a former adviser once put it this way: “The governor thinks he’s a hammer. So everyone looks like a nail.”
But now, the darker the zeal, the better, if it secures you a mask or ventilator. Given the White House’s deathly delays and the president’s childish rants, America is yearning for a trustworthy parental figure — and a hammer.
The warm, fuzzy feeling for the cold, calculating pol that developed among many Democrats in the past week was summed up by Bill Maher, who told me: “I see Cuomo as the Democratic nominee this year. If we could switch Biden out for him, that’s the winner.” He added, “He’s unlikable, which I really like.”
Progressives still have problems with Cuomo’s stances on Medicaid and the criminal justice system. And some people thought that he waited too long to totally button up New York, although the governor maintains that his systematic rolling closure was designed to prevent panic in the streets.
But even Jezebel blew him a kiss with a post by Rebecca Fishbein headlined, “Help, I Think I’m in Love With Andrew Cuomo???,” chronicling how, solo in her Brooklyn apartment, she has become addicted to Cuomo’s briefings and morphed from intense distaste for him to admiration for his “measured bullying.”
Then the governor actually called her to check in. On his own, after his 2005 divorce from Kerry Kennedy and his split last year from TV chef/author Sandra Lee, he’d been thinking about the isolation of singles.
“You know, it was sad, the piece,” he tells me. “Being alone in your apartment for virtually 24 hours a day for days and days in this fearful situation and there’s no one to lay on the couch with and watch TV with, and no one to hold. That’s terrible.”
To the surprise of many who did not associate the name “Andrew Cuomo” with the word “empathy,” the governor has become a sort of national shrink, talking us through our fear, our loss and our growing stir-craziness.
“This is going be a long day, and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day,” he told officers from the New York National Guard on Friday, charging them to fight this “invisible” and “insidious” beast and “kick coronavirus’s ass.”
Because New York is at the epicenter of the epidemic in the United States, with 519 deaths and 44,635 confirmed cases as of noon Friday, Americans have their eyes on the state. Cuomo knows this.
“New York is the canary in the coal mine,” he said during one of his passionate televised pleas for the president to provide more ventilators.
It is more than passing strange that in this horror-movie moment, with 13 people dying Tuesday at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and a refrigerated truck parked outside to collect the bodies, the nation’s two most prominent leaders are both Queens scions. Both men grew up in the shadows of their fathers, the hard-working sons of European immigrants.
The Trump family is a model of bad nepotism — noblesse oblige in reverse. Such is their reputation as scammers that congressional Democrats felt the need to put a provision in the coronavirus rescue bill to try to prevent Trump-and-Kushner Inc. from carving out a treat of their own.
Cuomo-style nepotism at least has better values. Donald Trump got his start with his father discriminating against black tenants in their housing complexes; Andrew Cuomo left his job as a political enforcer for his father, Mario Cuomo, also a three-term governor of New York, and created a national program to provide housing for the homeless.
Cuomo has brought two of his adult daughters onstage with him at briefings. He warned the 22-year-old Michaela to forsake parties celebrating her graduation — in absentia — from Brown. “Risk, reward,” he lectured her in front of millions.
And Cuomo gave his 25-year-old daughter Cara a dollar-a-year job on the virus task force, echoing the time his father gave him a dollar-a-year job as an adviser when he was about her age.
His brother, Chris, hosts a CNN show. The 62-year-old governor goes on it to bicker and banter with his 49-year-old baby brother about everything from the women swooning over Andrew’s machismo style on Twitter — “You know that what people are saying about how you look really can’t be accurate,” Chris teased — to their relative prowess at basketball.
In his briefings, Andrew Cuomo talks about how cabin fever is causing him to get annoyed with his dog, a Northern Inuit named Captain. He talks about stopping his sisters from bringing their kids to see his 88-year-old mother, Matilda, who is “pure sugar” but vulnerable to the virus. He says his mother was a little annoyed when he named a social distancing guideline for the most vulnerable “Matilda’s Law” in her honor.
After Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, suggested that older Americans might be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their grandchildren’s economy and President Trump buoyantly called for America to reopen as soon as Easter, Cuomo said flatly, “My mother’s not expendable.” He also tweeted: “You cannot put a value on human life. You do the right thing. That’s what Pop taught us.”
At Wednesday’s briefing, he displayed a picture of Mario Cuomo, who died in 2015, amid all the graphs on infections.
“He’s not here anymore for you,” he said, but, “He’s still here for me.”
He offered a quote from his dad about what government should be: “The idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings — reasonably, honestly, fairly, without respect to race or sex or geography or political affiliation.”
The quote was obviously meant to draw an odious comparison with the Republican in the White House who seems immune to feeling others’ pain.
The two men go back. According to the Trump biographer Tim O’Brien, Fred Trump was a regular customer at Andrea Cuomo’s grocery store in Queens. Andrew and Donald knew each other as they rose in Gotham. They were never friends, but Donald Trump donated to Mario Cuomo’s campaigns and made a tape for Andrew’s bachelor party, warning him, “Whatever you do, Andrew, don’t ever, ever fool around.”
Both men have often had the twin designation of charming and ruthless. The president is pure id, and when the governor was his father’s consigliere, he was known as “Mario Cuomo’s id.” Over the years, both have been called manipulative, expedient, bullying, vindictive, arrogant wheeler-dealers. They have both been described as obsessed with their press, thin-skinned and quick to belittle or intimidate critics.
But, as Lis Smith, the Democratic strategist who rumbled in New York politics before becoming Mayor Pete’s Pygmalion, said, “Trump is selfishly ruthless for his own personal gain while Cuomo is more benevolently ruthless.”
She continued: “It also helps that Cuomo knows intimately how to bend the different levers of government to his will. It’s where you see having been at HUD, having been an attorney general of New York, having been a governor for 10 years — all that pays off. Ruthlessness is good, if it’s for a good purpose. FDR was ruthless.”
I wrote admiringly about Cuomo’s LBJ-style blend of the velvet glove and the brass knuckles when he did what Barack Obama did not deign to do in 2009 and clawed back millions from the rapacious financiers scarfing up bonuses while they were taking federal bailout money; when he pushed to legalize same-sex marriage in New York in 2011; and when he rammed through a gun control bill after the Sandy Hook children were slaughtered, surpassing Obama’s efforts again.
“It took a terrible political toll on me, but it’s still the best gun law in the nation,” Cuomo says now.
He learned how to be a mechanic when he was a teenage gas station attendant in Queens and a tow-truck driver for the AAA with the call signal “Queens-15.” And he still likes to get under the hood with a wrench and fix things, from the state budget to the engines of his light blue ’75 Corvette and dark blue ’68 GTO.
It is jarring to watch officials like Gov. Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who have worked their way up through the system, gaining valuable wisdom, have to delicately deal with Donald Trump, the barbarian who crashed through the gates and who is ignorant about — and disdains — the bureaucracy he leads.
Trump is now using the ego arithmetic he once used to brag about the ratings he got on Larry King’s show or the number of TV cameras he saw at rallies to falsely claim that his administration has done more tests than anyone and that everyone who wants a test can get one. He boasts about having the best tests on earth the same way he used to brag about having the best rolls in the city in the restaurant at Trump Tower.
The governor got heated Tuesday about the elusive ventilators that Trump kept promising. But in this crisis, Cuomo has put his own enormous ego aside to tend to the president’s, lacing his briefings with whatever praise for Trump is justified, willing to do what it takes to get what New York needs.
The subtext is on vivid display, though, when Cuomo tweets: “Facts are empowering. Even when the facts are discouraging, not knowing the facts is worse. I promise that I will continue to give New Yorkers all the facts, not selective facts.”
The governor also makes a point of praising Fauci, whose honesty has irritated a president who is intent on obscuring science with spin. Cuomo said that through their constant calls, including in the middle of the night, they have become friends and that Fauci is “so personally kind.”
Itching to get his crackling economy back, recklessly urging Americans to gather for Easter Mass, the president sent a letter to the nation’s governors Thursday saying that his administration is working on changing its social distancing guidelines, classifying counties as high risk, medium risk and low risk.
But this is asinine because we don’t have universal testing so we don’t know who is carrying the virus and because people travel with it. Unlike Trump the fabulist, Cuomo the realist doesn’t shoot from the hip.
Trump, who is always alert to great performances by people who look perfectly cast, is well aware of the potency of Cuomo’s briefings. He veers between acting like Cuomo is ungrateful and should “do more” and acting like they are working together very well, depending on how thankful the governor seems for the president’s efforts.
It was clear that Trump did not appreciate Cuomo pushing aggressively and publicly for the president to utilize the Defense Production Act so that New York could get 30,000 ventilators. On Thursday night Trump told Sean Hannity that he had “a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be. I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.” But then he added, “I’m getting along very well with Gov. Cuomo.”
On Friday, the governor hit back.
“Well, look, I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. But I don’t operate here on opinion. I operate on facts and on data and on numbers and on projections.”
He implicitly mocked Trump’s tendency to rely on his feelings rather than data.
“I hope some natural weather change happens overnight and kills the virus globally,” he said. “That’s what I hope. But that’s my hope. That’s my emotion. That’s my thought.”
Bizarrely, Trump tweeted Friday that the governor had simply misplaced the ventilators: “Thousand of Federal Government (delivered) Ventilators found in New York storage. N.Y. must distribute NOW!” To which Cuomo responded that the president was wrong and “grossly uninformed.”
The back-to-back daily press conferences of the governor and the president showcase some primal differences about how they see the role of government and the identity of the country.
Cuomo thinks what defines America is its humanity and its welcome mat for the globe. Trump’s view seems to be the economy über alles, even if we have to leave some stragglers on the field.
After risibly saying he never does anything rash, Trump insisted: “But the country wants to get back to work, our country was built to get back to work. We don’t have a country where they say, ‘Hey, let’s close it down for two years.’”
He seems to be following the George W. Bush playbook from Hurricane Katrina: Instead of going all in to save lives, he shrugs and says it’s the states’ responsibility: We’re at war with nature; the enemy is overwhelming us, but it’s really the local government that’s in charge, not the feds. “We’re not a shipping clerk,” Trump said, when that’s exactly what the federal government should be when nurses are on TV all day begging for face masks.
Unlike Trump, who tries to blame Obama when he’s the one who diluted the pandemic response force, and literally says, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Cuomo regularly says “Blame me” if anything goes wrong.
When I covered Gov. Mario Cuomo, he expressed his disdain for a political Darwinism that was overshadowing the nation’s religious principles.
Once, in an interview in his office in 1991, he got down a copy of Teilhard de Chardin from the bookcase and gave it to me, wanting to make sure I absorbed the lessons of the Jesuit scientist and theologian who wrote: “Accept the burgeoning plant of humanity, and tend it, since without your sun, it will disperse itself wildly and die away.”
He worried that government had strayed too far away from Franklin Roosevelt, another governor of New York who felt a strong economy and compassion for the poor went hand in hand. He worried that America was spending “more money for bombs, less for babies,” as he said in the sonorous baritone that his son inherited. “More help for the rich, more poor than ever.”
With President Trump on a Darwinian tear, I ask Andrew Cuomo how this crisis will change the way people look at government and how it will affect the 2020 election.
He says that, in this era where personalities and celebrities rule politics, the pandemic “changes the lens on government and you’re going to now inquire about experience and capacity and your past performance, almost like the normal hiring process. We got to a place in government where credentials didn’t matter and performance didn’t matter.” This, he said, would never happen “if you were interviewing a lawyer or a doctor or a nanny.”
I ask the governor if all this has revived his dreams of a presidential run.
After a long pause, he answers: “No. I know presidential politics. I was there in the White House with Clinton. I was there with Gore. No, I’m at peace with who I am and what I’m doing.”
His friends say that he will be loyal to Joe Biden. But if Trump is reelected, they speculate, Cuomo could jump in in 2024, following his 2022 fourth-term reelection in New York. Or if Biden is elected and steps down after one term, Cuomo might get in. But that would mean he’d be up against whichever woman Biden chooses as his veep.
“He’ll get criticized with the same B.S. about ‘ambition’ for going against ‘the woman candidate,’ much in the same way he did going against Carl McCall in New York, but so what?” said one Cuomo ally, referring to his unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2002. “It’s hardly a clean, wholesome game. And someday soon, don’t we really need to return to what leadership actually is, as opposed to symbolism?”
Cuomo has been through valleys — his divorce amid a cheating scandal; his father’s political disappointments; his own. He talks about character so much that he can sound like a televangelist at times.
“You can tell the strong from the weak, the selfish from the gracious,” he tells me. “I mean, these nurses who are willing to go take blood at these drive-through centers? What courageous, beautiful people. I have other people who won’t show up for work. I have legislators who say, ‘Well, we’re not coming to the capital.’”
Before the governor gets back to his horrific night shift and a dawn wake-up call, I ask him how this Armageddon, which we know will last for months and months, will affect our identity.
“We’ll have a different country — better or worse, I don’t know,” Cuomo says. “It will have a different personality. It will be more fearful. Less trusting. But maybe there will be a greater need for intimacy.”
Mario Cuomo was known as Hamlet on the Hudson. He analyzed his worthiness so much, he left the field to the privileged, pampered preppies who never analyzed their worthiness — George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle.
When Mario was doing a Socratic striptease about whether to challenge Bill Clinton for the presidency in 1991, one woman got so impatient with his dithering, she mailed him a needlepoint pillow with the message “Carpe Diem.”
Now Andrew Cuomo is trying to wrest the lifesaving materials he needs from another privileged, pampered guy in the White House who never worries about his worthiness.
But this Cuomo doesn’t need a pillow. Carpe diem is in his bones.
Maureen Dowd is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.