The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The last act in Cuomo’s father-son tragedy

Mario Cuomo is shown holding up his son Christopher as his wife Matilda and son Andrew look on during his run for mayor of New York City in 1977. (AP)

This column about New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who announced his resignation Aug. 10, was published Aug. 5.

Who knows what Andrew M. Cuomo’s been thinking about in his Nixonian moment, isolated in his Albany mansion as a grandfather clock somewhere chimes away the dwindling hours of his political career. You can bet, though, that one voice haunts him above all others.

With New York’s governor, the story always comes back to father and son, the legacy he can never outrun.

Politicians loathe when we “put them on the couch,” and in most cases I don’t blame them. It’s too easy to play amateur psychologist with people in the public eye, whose motives and flaws are entangled in ways too obscure for us to grasp.

But in Cuomo’s case, the interplay with his late and legendary father, Mario, has always been front and center, inseparable from the drive and the recklessness. It is the defining relationship of his life.

I knew one Cuomo as a younger man, and the other in old age. Andrew I met when he was an irrepressible housing secretary in the nineties, always pushing boundaries, holding forth, calculating his next move.

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Mario I got to know later, in his seventies, long after his three terms as governor. He was statesmanlike, cerebral, more inclined to win you over with the obvious rightness of his cause.

They enabled each other — maybe that’s the best way to understand it. Because Andrew was Andrew — the political tough guy, even in his teens, who would happily wade into the nasty business of New York politics — Mario got to go on being Mario, the high-minded priest of public morality.

And because Mario was Mario — a sanctified hero in liberal America — Andrew got to go on being Andrew, which basically entailed wielding power he hadn’t earned, saying and doing whatever he pleased.

The dynamic between them, as far as anyone on the outside can understand the dynamic between a father and son, was both close and competitive. When Mario granted me a long interview in 2011, Andrew was in his first year as governor and was consciously pursuing a more centrist course than his father.

Mario refused to say he was proud of his son. He felt lucky, he said — not proud. For his part, Andrew declined to talk to me at all about his father’s life and career.

Both men were supremely self-confident to the point of being imperious, and yet both struggled with obvious insecurities.

Mario, whose story of immigrant poverty had once transfixed a national audience, told me he had ultimately abandoned his presidential ambition because he couldn’t accept his own worthiness — a sentiment that seemed self-serving but also painfully reflective.

Andrew has always known that nothing he achieves can be his alone. He is forever Mario’s son, with the same accent and the same baggy eyes, walking in the fossilized footsteps of a politician from the time when politicians could still be giants.

He faced a choice, when these allegations of sexual harassment surfaced earlier this year. He could have handled the crisis the way his father might have — taking the high road, atoning and philosophizing, letting the voters decide whether they knew his heart or didn’t.

The Post’s Philip Bump analyzes what might happen to New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) following an investigation of sexual harassment allegations. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Or he could have handled it the way he’d handled everything as his father’s enforcer — by acting as his own Andrew, slashing and bullying behind the scenes. That is, of course, the path he chose, setting out to destroy the credibility of an accuser he now claims he only wanted to protect.

The consequence is a complete and stunning abandonment by just about everyone in his own party, and even in his own administration. And by now Andrew Cuomo must know two things for sure.

The first is that his father, whose admiration he sought for a lifetime, would be bitterly disappointed in him — although perhaps not for the reason you’d think.

Maybe Mario would have been sickened by the allegations, detailed by the state’s attorney general, of boorish groping and innuendo. But what certainly would have appalled him was the governor’s brash and bungled response to the crisis, how carelessly he threw away a 50-year family legacy by believing himself invincible.

The second thing Cuomo must see is that he will never outpace his father’s shadow now. He’ll not win that mystical fourth term that barely eluded his dad. He won’t even finish the third.

The voters rejected Mario in 1994 because they’d grown tired of the expansive liberalism, the endless rhapsodizing, the old ethnic machine. They’ll see his son tossed from office because they find him shameless and embarrassing.

The media called Mario “Hamlet on the Hudson,” a moniker he hated until the day he died. In this last act, it will be Andrew who ultimately fills the role better — anguished and haunted, unable to finish what his father left undone.

Exit stage left.

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