We now know for certain two things many of us long suspected: (1) that Andrew Cuomo’s management of the pandemic response in New York was a disaster and (2) that he is generally a terrible human being.
This wouldn’t be such a big surprise if the media hadn’t spent much of 2020 building up Cuomo as a hero—the competent and empathetic leader showing us the right way to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.
Everybody knows why he was built up. Donald Trump needed a foil. If Trump was the bad guy, someone had to be the good guy, to be Trump’s symbolic opposite.
Which makes it all the more ironic that Cuomo turns out to be very much like Trump in several important respects.
There’s a lesson in that.
Cuomo’s disastrous errors in dealing with the pandemic have been somewhat different in their specifics, but the essence is the same. He was more concerned with how the pandemic would make him look than with the actual results in the real world.
The ultimate example, the one that has laid bare the Cuomo myth, is the recent confirmation that Cuomo’s order early in the pandemic forcing nursing homes to accept COVID patients—ensuring the rapid spread of the virus among the most vulnerable population—led to thousands of unnecessary deaths. (And it wasn’t just nursing homes. He also did it for the developmentally disabled.)
But it’s not just the crime, it’s the cover-up. Cuomo was caught undercounting these deaths and had his staff remove the embarrassing numbers from a report—just days before he began work on a book touting his leadership in the pandemic.
All along, Cuomo has been at war with his own public health officials, who complain that “they often found out about major changes in pandemic policy only after Mr. Cuomo announced them at news conferences—and then asked them to match their health guidance to the announcements.” This has led to a wave of resignations by demoralized public health experts, and the result has been a slow and confused vaccine rollout in New York state.
The New York Times sums up the overall picture as “the lengths to which Mr. Cuomo has gone in the middle of a deadly pandemic to control data, brush aside public health expertise, and bolster his position as a national leader in the fight against the coronavirus.”
Not only is this a stark contrast to the exaggerated praise Cuomo received early on, but it should all sound like another blustering New Yorker who got himself elected to an important executive office.
The fact that Cuomo’s fans called themselves “Cuomosexuals” also carries a heavy load of irony, because it turns out that the governor was also terribly lonely, as he let it be known to young women on his staff.
More generally, pretty much everyone who has ever worked with Cuomo says that he created a hostile, toxic environment:
Many former aides and advisers described . . . a toxic culture in which the governor unleashes searing verbal attacks on subordinates. Some said he seemed to delight in humiliating his employees, particularly in group meetings, and would mock male aides for not being tough enough.
It’s described as “a systemic, intentional, hostile, toxic workplace environment.”
Then there’s the way he’s organized smear campaigns against his accusers and decided that he can just brass it out because there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that you can get away with anything in modern America if you’re sufficiently shameless.
Andrew Cuomo’s big crime was that he pushed policies that got people killed in a pandemic, and he tried to cover it up. But it’s part of a larger pattern of him being vain, thin-skinned, abusive, ambitious, and self-aggrandizing.
The fact that the media’s designated anti-Trump turned out to have a lot of the same profound character flaws as Trump is instructive. Some years ago, there was a lot of concern about “normalizing” Donald Trump. But at the time, what worried me was the even more terrifying possibility that Donald Trump is normal. Andrew Cuomo is a dispiriting example.
Not every politician is as despicable as Trump or Cuomo, but politics attracts bad people. It rewards those who have the ability to lie shamelessly and manipulate the emotions of people around them, to be endlessly flexible about their principles and utterly ruthless in pursuing their ambitions.
The opposition to Trumpism should not be channeled toward the search for a benevolent leader who will make government work with perfect effectiveness and beneficence. That quest is doomed to failure.
Instead of investing energy in projecting our hopes and dreams onto public officials, we should be looking to check their power and instead build up the strength of our culture and civil society.
We should get used to the fact that government cannot solve all our problems, and we’re never just one election away from utopia.