It is human nature to imagine mortals as heroes, to worship false idols and glorify stars. Donald Trump supercharged an unwelcome trend of politicians acting, and being treated, like celebrities. But this phenomenon preceded him and will outlast his presidency.
The arc of Cuomo’s ascent made his consequent, perhaps inevitable, fall all the harder. On Wednesday, the once omnipresent governor was again back on television, this time subdued and, for Cuomo, apologetic. He expressed regret “for whatever pain I have caused” to women who complained of his behavior and beseeched New Yorkers to await the results of a sexual harassment investigation before condemning him.
How different from the Cuomo of a year ago, his daily briefings carried live on cable networks in what many viewers seized on as a reassuring contrast to Trump. Ellen DeGeneres called herself a “Cuomosexual.” Chelsea Handler penned a “love letter” to Cuomo for Vogue. He was, literally, on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Cuomo’s performances were so mesmerizing, with such a rich ensemble — his mother, his daughters, their boyfriends — that they earned the governor an Emmy Award in November. “The governor’s 111 daily briefings worked so well because he effectively created television shows, with characters, plot lines, and stories of success and failure,” said International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences President Bruce Paisner.
Like Trump’s pressers, these were often stream of consciousness, self-absorbed and self-indulgent, but Cuomo inspired by also exuding compassion and cautious optimism. CNN’s Chris Cuomo boosted his big brother by offering a platform on his “Prime Time” show for humanizing, rarely substantive, banter.
We are only now beginning to grasp how much the performance was akin to “The Apprentice,” a reality show that depicted a manufactured reality. As Andrew Cuomo preached the importance of transparency, his administration was in fact minimizing the staggering number of deaths in nursing homes — after ordering the facilities to take in patients recovering from the contagion.
Many Democrats wanted to believe. So they did.
Not that there weren’t warning signs. The 63-year-old has always been a notorious bully and machine politician. He set up a commission to root out corruption in the state and then precipitously shut it down, prompting a federal investigation. His former top adviser and confidant was sentenced to six years in prison in 2018 for soliciting and accepting bribes from companies with state business. But in the grip of the pandemic Democrats needed a hero who seemed to combine the caring and competence that Trump was incapable of providing.
Cuomo was not their first false god. In a quest for anti-Trump heroes over the past four years, liberals embraced an array of other characters, vastly different in nature but none ideally suited to the task of serving as national savior from Trump. For a while, they pinned their hopes on the buttoned-up special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Stormy Daniels’s attorney Michael Avenatti, Mueller’s high-flying antithesis, was, incredibly, talked about seriously as a potential presidential candidate for a few months. They were searching for someone to fill the void.
Then came the pandemic, and with it, Cuomo. The governor, of course, loved and encouraged the adulation, which included talk that Joe Biden should jettison his pledge to pick a female vice president and select Cuomo instead. Cuomo wrote a self-congratulatory, embarrassingly premature book called “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic.” The 320-page bestseller published on the eve of a fresh wave of cases in October.
All along, the Democrat behaved in a far more Trumpian manner than his fans allowed themselves to see. At least nine top New York public health officials quit after clashing with the governor, who had scorned and often ignored them. “When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts,” Cuomo said at a January news conference. “Because I don’t.” Sound familiar?
A long-standing paradox of politics has been that many voters hate Congress generally but love their individual representative. Republicans who recognized Trump’s flaws nonetheless voted for him; many still lionize him. Democrats fell for Cuomo because they craved a leader. Too many people across the ideological spectrum suspended disbelief.
Too often, politicians find themselves cast as heroes or villains when they are neither. Often the truth is somewhere in between. The best leaders have flaws. The worst usually have a redeeming quality or two.
This era of toppled statues and self-toppled leaders is full of reminders that people who are popular today might become toxic tomorrow. Even as we understand that these tragedies are common, we will continue to pine for heroic narratives.