Glenn Thrush, chief political correspondent for Politico, spent more than a decade covering New York for a variety of publications.
By Michael Shnayerson
Twelve. 529 pp. $30
Escaping New York has never been easy. Ten New York governors have earned major-party presidential nominations over the years, but only four have won — a weak showing for a state that was for decades the nation’s most populous and economically powerful.
The canniest governors knew that brevity was the key to success: Make busy and get out quickly — or be clawed down by corruption, petty dealmaking and prolonged exposure to the press. Martin Van Buren, the first New Yorker elected president, served as lord of Albany for only three months in 1829 before being tapped as Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state. Theodore Roosevelt was two years into the job when New York state Republican boss Thomas Platt kicked him upstairs to the vice presidency — and he earned his promotion only after William McKinley met an assassin’s bullet. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the state’s 44th governor, pushed through a sweeping state response to the Depression and left before it was fully implemented.
The last New York governor to occupy national centerstage was the eloquent Mario Cuomo, who famously begged out of a presidential bid in 1992. More than any other American politician since Roosevelt, Cuomo could really talk — and while he’s remembered for his city-on-the-hill oratory, he grew up in Queens, the borough of tabloid columnists, and was always best with a quip. “You campaign in poetry,” he said. “You govern in prose.”
The problem was that Mario’s poetry outpaced his prose. Cuomo the Younger — Andrew, the imperious, sometimes defensive governor now serving his second term — isn’t nearly the talker his late father was. But he’s been a far more vigorous and arguably more accomplished chief executive, racking up a succession of big legislative victories in his first couple of years like a blitzkrieg general: He passed balanced budgets on time, something his father never did; capped property taxes and restructured the tax code; rammed through (weak) ethics reforms; and, in an act of epic legislative lobbying, managed to sell enough Republicans on a sweeping same-sex marriage bill.
This should put him in the conversation for 2016, right? “He understands how to lead a legislature better than almost any politician in America; how to wrangle votes, playing on needs and vulnerabilities, building alliances and getting what he wants,” explains Vanity Fair writer Michael Shnayerson in his nimbly written, amply reported and comprehensive new biography of the iron-willed Cuomo.
The title of the book — published less than a year after the abysmal sales of Cuomo’s memoir — is “The Contender,” a reference to Cuomo’s White House aspirations. But Shnayerson’s research, which includes a generous compendium of previous reporting, proves the opposite, as the author himself has recently acknowledged: Cuomo isn’t a contender, and he probably wouldn’t be one even if Hillary Clinton sat out 2016.
The reasons for his marginalization are complicated. His center-left politics are too much in line with Clinton’s to make him a genuine alternative, compared with standard-bearers of the left such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). But Cuomo is as much a victim of his own temperament and of New York’s political realities as he is of an inhospitable national climate. It takes a certain kind of person to govern a state often viewed as ungovernable, and that kind of person isn’t terrifically appealing to voters in the other 49.
The Cuomos trace their origins to Campania in southern Italy, but there was always a touch of the Tuscan Medici in both father and son. From Andrew’s early teens, Mario treated his eldest as a chamberlain, destined to rule. “Mario,” as the boy was allowed to call him, confided in Andrew, tapping a tactical, operational intelligence that contrasted with his own more philosophical approach.
But he was a distant, edgy and often unforgiving father. They had much in common: a searing competitiveness, a fear of competitive campaigning — a result, perhaps, of Mario’s bitter loss to Ed Koch in the 1977 New York mayor’s race — and eerily similar speech patterns. But differences defined them, making them a complementary team. If the elder Cuomo was a deep reader with a monkish hair-shirt streak, Andrew was an intellectual skimmer who loved cars, hoops, girls and cigarettes.
As a politician, Andrew virtually ignored his father’s lifelong ambition — revitalizing American liberalism — to focus on the mechanics of his career and a more conservative agenda championed by another political father figure, Bill Clinton. There was a memorable turn as Mario’s steamrolling aide-de-camp in Albany, where he earned the moniker “Prince of Darkness”; law school; a short, unhappy and lucrative stint, facilitated by his father, at a Manhattan law firm; a profile-building position as a crusading advocate for the homeless, in which he leveraged his connections to finance housing projects in the city. Eventually that led to a four-year tenure as Clinton’s secretary of housing and urban development, where he developed a reputation for competence and ruthlessness. From there, he followed the path of Tom Dewey and Eliot Spitzer, serving a term as state attorney general — where he launched high-profile, medium-bore investigations of banks involved in the financial crisis.
To say he was tightly wound, especially after his unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial bid, was an understatement. During Cuomo’s 15-year marriage to Kerry Kennedy, he vacationed at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port but felt like the “odd man out,” according to Shnayerson. Once, when the family gathered around to warble Irish melodies, Cuomo sat stonily outside the circle; when someone shouted for him to sing something, he replied, “No, I’m not Irish.”
Cuomo’s 2010 landslide election as governor revealed him to be a control freak’s control freak — in the inside-government parlance of D.C. and Albany, a principal who behaved like staff. During the best of times, that approach served noble purposes: To squeeze the final six votes needed to pass same-sex marriage in 2011, he offered a Mario-like appeal to posterity and morality. “Where in history do you want to be in this story?” he asked one Democrat who eventually voted for the measure.
This is what Americans allegedly want in a leader: someone who is willing to break gridlock and impose bipartisan order on chaos. But they don’t want too much of it, and Cuomo too often skirts the line between management and mania.
Compared with President Obama, who is so allergic to chatting up legislators that aides have to hector him to pick up the phone, Cuomo is admirably hands-on and willing to stake political capital on bold action (although Shnayerson’s repeated comparisons to LBJ are over the top). But Cuomo’s style can be too overtly manipulative — it’s not enough to wield power; he seems to want lesser men and women to bend to his will.
If one single action defined — and diminished — Cuomo, it was his ham-fisted attempt to control the Moreland Commission, an anti-corruption panel he created to probe misdeeds in the ever-corrupt state legislature. In 2013, he promised the commission unfettered investigative power — only to kill it a year later, after it began to probe the political dealings of his top aides. Shnayerson concisely details this crucial part of the story, arguably the most important episode of Cuomo’s three-decade career, but offers little new information to augment the excellent newspaper coverage.
No charges have been filed against any of Cuomo’s aides. But a serious presidential contender would be certain to face relentless questioning on the matter. Cuomo would also face scrutiny of his recent decisions to purge the state’s e-mail servers and exempt his live-in girlfriend from state financial-disclosure laws.
This compulsion to control everything around him isn’t limited to governing. Shnayerson should know. In 2012, the governor summoned him to an oyster bar on the East Side of Manhattan to make a stunning offer: Ditch the idea of writing an independent biography, Cuomo said, and co-write my book — I’ll give you complete access to my family, staff and former business associates. “Thank God I didn’t do that,” Shnayerson told the Wall Street Journal this month. “I think it would have been a hellish experience.”
Shnayerson made the right call. But it would have added greatly to this interesting, if incomplete, portrait of a power-obsessed politician if he had included that story in his book.