Wilson Mizner, an early-20th-century raconteur, learned a thing or three about life during his indescribable 56-year ride on this wondrous planet. A crook and an artist, a con man and philosopher, he was as comfortable among hardened criminals as he was swanning through the star-studded dining room of his Hollywood restaurant, the Brown Derby. He would have been the first to note the overlap between those two.
Mizner comes to mind because he is credited with the oft-quoted advice: “Be nice to people on your way up, because you’ll meet them on your way down.” That guidance helps to illuminate the growing mess in which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo finds himself.
The New York Democrat has been a presence in U.S. politics for most of his life, first as a sounding board and message-bearer for his father, the late Empire State governor Mario Cuomo, and later as an independent force. Many things have been said of Andrew Cuomo, often with respect and occasionally with admiration — but “nice to people” is not one of them.
If you watch politics from a distance, you might think that this is no weakness for a politician; it might even be a strength. But the wisdom of Mizner’s advice applies in politics as elsewhere. Sooner or later, nearly every politician hits a rough patch, and those who rely on intimidation can find themselves with nowhere to turn when the going gets tough.
For Cuomo, this is a very rough patch, and it arrives just as he was nearing the top of the ladder. For a number of impressionable viewers a year ago, Cuomo’s daily televised pandemic briefings were profiles in ideal leadership and a bracing counterpoint to the briefings from the White House. Twitter was all aflutter, and the same question began to be heard that once dogged his father: When will Cuomo run for president?
Like a ball flung skyward, the younger Cuomo reached his apogee and, per Mizner, started down. He had made a deadly miscalculation by requiring New York nursing homes to accommodate elderly covid-19 patients. Fair to say that Cuomo ought to have anticipated the disastrous impact of that decision, as the extremely contagious virus spread from one high-risk resident to the next.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is investigating whether the Cuomo administration illegally obscured statistics concerning covid-19 nursing-home deaths. If that proves to be James’s conclusion, this will be a case in which the offense and the coverup are both very bad indeed — one a blunder of deadly proportions, the other a possible crime.
Thus wounded, Cuomo was ill-prepared to weather the next storm of his own making. Seven women have gone public with descriptions of creepy behavior — unwanted touching, leering looks, sexually loaded commentary — for which the governor was forced to apologize, although he maintains it was “unintentional.” It’s all of a pattern, and the pattern has been enough to inspire a parade of New York Democrats to call for his resignation, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
That’s a level of pressure few public officials could survive, and it’s not at all clear that Cuomo will make it to the end of his term next year. The fact that he’s still in office is a testament to his brusque determination and general unconcern for the opinions of others.
But now there’s a third scandal, and this is the one that might make the bully governor wish he had heeded Mizner’s advice. When the first wave of the pandemic was inundating New York and testing capacity was overwhelmed, Cuomo arranged access to coronavirus tests for his family and certain friends. This is the sort of thing that happens often but never looks good — special favors for the powerful and well-connected. Most elected officials have some version of privilege in their story: an airline upgrade, a backstage pass, a seat in a stadium suite. When it’s leaked at the moment of greatest vulnerability, you can assume the official is not surrounded by friends.
It’s like the factoid that leaked in Albany recently. Cuomo was asked to complete the same training other state executives received regarding the problem of sexual harassment. He reportedly assigned an underling to take his place. A detail like that, in the middle of a sexual harassment scandal, reveals that toppling the governor has become an insider project.
Without friends to lean on, Cuomo is apparently trying to survive by his proven ability to intimidate, boasting of his poll numbers, his approval ratings and his support among Black voters. But it seems clear that any missteps or unclean laundry he might have socked away in his past are likely to be leaked, until he drops like the victim on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, knifed by everyone with a grudge. He is on his way down, and those he climbed over are watching him fall.
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