As President Trump bungled the national response to the coronavirus pandemic in the spring, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo emerged as an unexpected, welcome voice. In Cuomo’s daily briefing, carried by cable networks, viewers saw a leader offering without false reassurance what was happening in his state and what his government planned to do about it. Here’s how many ventilators we need; here is where we’re desperately short of protective gear; here’s why we have to shut down schools and businesses. Coupled with flashes of humor, tales about his family and his nightly visits on CNN with brother Chris, the governor’s daily reports won him a level of trust that placed him second only to Anthony S. Fauci.

It was a remarkable reinvention for Cuomo, though not the first. He had survived the collapse of his first run for governor in 2002 and the collapse of his marriage afterward in a frenzy of tabloid headlines. (Early in his book, he writes: “I suffered the pain of feeling I failed my children. I was publicly humiliated by a losing campaign and was declared a political dead man.”) Even after winning three terms as governor of New York, he had never fully shaken the image of a take-no-prisoners political enforcer, first for his father, Mario, who also served as New York governor, then for his own fortunes.

What those daily briefings did was to show to the public an official who was deeply immersed, as he put it, in the “how” of government, in what happens after the lights and cameras go away. To read “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic” is to get a sense of just how daunting it was — and is — to deal with the day-to-day demands. How can you design a uniform policy for New York’s hospitals when they are each governed by different rules? If you shut down schools, what happens to the jobs of parents, and what about the hundreds of thousands of children who are fed breakfasts and lunches in those schools?

While battling the virus and its repercussions, the governor became acutely aware that the inherent unfairness of our economy weighs heavily on those on the front lines. Of the “essential” workers who keep the machinery of society running, Cuomo writes that they “are the structural framework for the service economy. They are the backbone of New York. They are the blue-collar working folks we too often take for granted. . . . Why is it that the poorest among us are always asked to pay the highest price? . . . The powerful institutions work together to protect themselves and their friends, and the government is their unwitting or, even worse, conscious ally.” (These populist sentiments, to be sure, have not prevented the governor from raising more than $100 million for his election campaigns, many millions of which come from powerful institutions that do business with the state.)

Most of “American Crisis” is a granular recounting of how New York state responded to the disease that was taking 1,000 lives a day at its peak. In its detailed account of how decisions are made, it’s a book that would serve to leaven a diet of theoretical political science books in any university course.

It is also an effort to push back on some of the criticisms that have been leveled at the governor. He is most determined to defend himself against the charge that he had mandated sending thousands of covid-19 patients out of hospitals and into nursing homes, resulting in thousands of deaths. Cuomo says the charge was a line of conspiracy put forward by “the Trump forces,” and he adds, “It was a lie.” (In its examination of the controversy, PolitiFact says that the charge is “mostly false” but that nursing homes may have misinterpreted an ambiguous directive.) He’s less defensive about the criticism (detailed in a ProPublica evaluation), that he, along with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, was hesitant to impose draconian measures that would have saved countless lives. Cuomo contends that there was still much unknown about the virus: that the disease was coming to New York not via the West Coast and China but through Europe; that asymptomatic carriers could spread the disease; that masks were in fact a powerful deterrent.

Late in the book, he turns to the protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd, noting that while he supported the demonstrations, “the city was descending into chaos.” Some people on the streets “were not protesters; they were criminals. The looting was nakedly opportunistic.” Asserting that de Blasio “didn’t have enough of his police force deployed to control what was happening,” he writes: “I issued an ultimatum. Either he had to empower the police force to do their job. . . . Or, I said, ‘my option is to displace the mayor of New York City and bring in the National Guard.’ ”

His dissatisfaction with the mayor cannot compare with his contempt for the president and indeed for the performance of the federal government in general. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security, all come in for withering assessments. Nor is that scorn confined to the national administration and its response to the crisis. He spends pages distinguishing between “real progressives” (like himself) and “faux progressives,” who have no idea about how to turn a wish into a program. (He names no names.)

In the alternate-universe version of “American Crisis,” New York and the United States would be returning to normal life; businesses would be reopening, restaurants would be crowded, schools would be in session, stadiums would be packed. But not on this planet. The president now presents himself as the heroic conqueror of the disease, having helped turn the White House itself into a petri dish. In neighborhoods of New York, thousands of residents, members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, have seen spikes in positivity that — should they spill into wider areas — threaten to shut down the schools once again. And the feuding between Cuomo and de Blasio has led to conflicting rules and widespread confusion and anger. The economic impact of the virus — the collapse of tourism, the shuttering of thousands of businesses, the subsequent loss of tax revenue — has left New York state with an estimated $50 billion shortfall. And winter is coming.

“American Crisis” provides an impressive road map to dealing with a crisis as serious as any we have faced. But it cannot offer much guidance, or solace, to a nation whose most powerful leaders simply will not lead.

American Crisis

Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Andrew Cuomo

Crown.
308 pp. $30