I live in Albany; most of those briefings took place just a few miles from my house. But his voice carried far beyond the city and the state. By the end of March last year, not only did 87 percent of New Yorkers approve of his handling of the pandemic, but his newfound popularity spurred talk of federal office. He appeared on CNN nine times between March 19 and June 24, with anchor/brother Chris Cuomo in the comedy series “Mom Loves Me Better.” Fans around the country declared themselves “Cuomosexuals,” and magazines ran pieces like, “Why We Are Crushing on Andrew M. Cuomo Right Now.”
We are no longer crushing. In late January, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D)reported that the state had undercounted nursing home deaths by as much as 50 percent, giving teeth to the accusation that the state’s initial policy allowing covid patients to return to nursing homes before they recovered had put other residents at risk. Then the undercount began to look like a coverup. Soon after that, a former aide published an essay accusing Cuomo of sexual harassment; another state employee came forward with allegations; another woman detailed an unwanted advance. Once the subject of late-night TV fawning, Cuomo has become the butt of its jokes.
Those of us who’ve been following New York politics for years are not surprised to learn Cuomo may have a darker side. But the truth is, you don’t have to know about his feud with Bill de Blasio or his fight with the teachers unions to recognize Cuomo as a line-crosser, an egoist, a man who can never be wrong. All you have to do is listen to those news conferences.
After introducing the other government officials at the table with him and then reading out the facts of the day — hospitalizations, positivity rates, deaths — Cuomo talked and talked and talked. He asked his own questions and then answered them, like a demented kindergarten teacher or the mansplainer who’s got you cornered at an office party. In October: “The fall is here. What happens in the fall? Leaves come down … What else happens in the fall? The virus goes up. The leaves come down, the virus goes up.”
He dispensed parenting advice on meeting your children’s boyfriends and used his daughter as a prop on the topic of spring break. He created a self-aggrandizing poster featuring a mountain standing in for the covid crisis and a personal threat in the form of a tiny figure depicted dangling from “boyfriend cliff.” Hilarious!
He took both sides of arguments, the better to win them. He never admitted wrongdoing. On April 23, 2020, he began addressing the nursing home issue with a patronizing lesson (“Remember how the nursing home system works …”) and then told us no less than three times that they get paid to provide the service to the state; in other words: not our fault, not our fault, not our fault. “What went wrong?” asked a reporter, when Cuomo finally took questions. “What went wrong?” Cuomo repeated, because I guess the question sounded better coming from his mouth. “Nothing.”
Whenever I complained about the smell of my government-issued hand sanitizer — or about how much my governor liked to hear himself talk — friends in other states expressed envy. At least New York was doing something, they said, unlike the federal government.
Then-President Donald Trump’s covid news briefings featured not just a man glorying in his own power and importance but also inaccurate claims, flat-out lies and the casual undercutting of health officials. At his April 23 news conference, Trump speculated about whether injecting disinfectant could kill the virus in a patient (“almost a cleaning”), after which the Maryland Emergency Management Agency had to issue a reminder “that under no circumstances should any disinfectant product be administered into the body through injection, ingestion or any other route.”
No wonder Cuomo smelled pretty good at the time.
Now, with Trump replaced by an effective and apparently ego-free president, our willingness to overlook our governor’s noxious qualities has waned. The FBI is investigating the nursing home issue and the state is investigating the sexual harassment claims. Cuomo has lost his emergency powers, both politically and metaphorically.
What does all this mean (as the governor would ask before answering himself)? I’ll tell you what it means: If we are complaining about Cuomo again, then maybe things really are getting back to normal.