The Cuomo Conundrum: Revisiting the Covid Briefings Miniseries a Year Later
April 2020 in New York City was not fun. The streets in my Brooklyn neighborhood were eerily empty and the only sounds I heard with regularity were the mournful sirens at all hours of the day and night and the nightly banging of the pots and pans in honor of our healthcare workers.
I am a news junkie, and Covid-19 was the lead story on every network broadcast, my Rachel and Lawrence shows every night, and on the front page of my New York Times every morning.
I was lucky enough to be working from home, but I was already feeling the pangs of missing a social life. Like many, I was finding my social life on social media.
I needed my moments of unabashed joy, which were hard to find in those spring days. I had a good neighbor nearby who often invited me over for his cooking, and I taught him how to play chess. I took spring walks in the nearby parks and felt such appreciation for nature. And for one hour every late morning, I had “The Price is Right” — comfort food that hasn’t changed since I was a kid home sick from school forty years ago. I am not going to apologize for it. I needed laughs and brand new cars for one hour a day.
At that time, Governor Cuomo was doing a daily hour-long briefing, where he sat at a table and briefed socially distanced reporters and television viewers on the latest Covid numbers, often reading off of old-school charts and graphs.
I watched him do his thing several times. Even if he had not been interrupting my program, with all the news I was already getting, I didn’t see the need for a daily fix of this. Also, as a college instructor who teaches public speaking, I tell my students, “Use your visual aids wisely. There is nothing more boring than reading numbers off a chart.” So there was that.
But I completely misjudged the public. I pride myself on usually having my finger on the pulse of what people are thinking.
A year ago, I got fed up with one more interruption that broke the proverbial camel’s back. I jumped on Facebook and posted the following: “Seriously, Cuomo, I don’t need you to read charts and graphs to me every day. Ego trip.”
The response was immediate and like whiplash. Before then, I had regularly posted on Facebook and anybody who followed me with any regularity knew where I stood on politics, which is quite left of center. I didn’t even consider this a political post; I was meaning to be funny about the pomposity of politicians who see fit to get in front of the camera every day to pontificate.
But friends and friends of friends and strangers (my page was public) piled on. I had always been known as the nice guy. (In fact, a dear friend wrote a comic song especially for me called “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”) Now, to many, I was the same as Trump. In fact, many commented along the lines of “Would you rather watch the Orange Turd?” That was never my point and, again, anybody who knows me knows I saved most of my ammunition for Trump — almost daily, in fact. They liked me then.
But apparently, many found comfort in the daily briefings and the information the governor provided. To that, I was tone-deaf. But as I reviewed the post this week (nearly 300 comments, 90% negative,I and some even vicious), I did feel that many were not simply taking in the information; it was like hero-worship. I mean, “Cuomosexual” is not about “just the facts, ma’am.” Andrew Cuomo had reached rockstar status. And if you don’t believe me, believe Rolling Stone, which put him on the cover soon after.
One frenemy even said that my post “showed my white privilege attitude.” (This person had never actually met me.) He blocked me before I could reply, “Please tell me how many people have more white privilege than millionaire son-of-a-governor Andrew Cuomo?”
Many took umbrage with my final swipe, “Ego trip.”
I dare say, those people had not done their homework, and recent exposés since the women (now up to ten) came forward with allegations of inappropriate conduct bear me out. That was the one thing I got right: the ego. The investigations are ongoing, but anyone who behaved this way, after a few years of high-profile #metoo moments and the careers of many powerful men rightfully ruined, is operating on a massive ego.
But anyone paying attention knew this long before his recent troubles. Early in his tenure, he appointed the Moreland Commission to root out corruption in politics, but when the investigation got too close to his inner circle, he shut it down.
He took donations from his political appointees (nearly $1 million), even though his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, had signed an executive order outlawing the practice. Cuomo had rewritten or reinterpreted some of the disclaimer language of the law.
When New York got $140 million in federal disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy, he used $40 million of it to run TV ads to attract tourists and business to the state. Was the money well spent, when many homeowners were still unable to rebuild a year after the storm?
While Cuomo gets credit for the new Q line extension (and he wasn’t shy about taking it), everybody knows the subways have been a disaster of delays and repairs even before the pandemic. He and Mayor DiBlasio fought over whose fault it was, but, in fact, the state used MTA tax revenue on projects that did not boost service or reliability.
A Columbia University study showed that his constant bickering with DiBlasio over the proposed shutdowns a year ago may have cost thousands of lives.
And speaking of the much-reviled DiBlasio, he also had daily briefings during the early days of the pandemic. At least he took live calls from voters, which had him facing the heat every day in real time, unlike Cuomo’s carefully planned presentations.
Finally, we have learned that the Cuomo administration likely cooked the books to hide the number of deaths because of his moving Covid patients to nursing homes. The moving of the patients can possibly be forgiven — it was early in the pandemic and we were all grasping at straws, wondering about the best thing to do. But if he cooked the books, that was intentionally deceptive.
It certainly doesn’t look good if you are pushing for a $4 million dollar book deal about your leadership during the pandemic, as he was. So much for his doing those daily briefings out of the goodness of his heart.
This year, Cuomo decided not to follow the lead of the Feds — New Yorkers on unemployment will not be forgiven the taxes on their unemployment benefit. They gotta pay ’em, even though we are still in a pandemic.
Recent reporting, like the lengthy piece in New York Magazine, shows an administration that had a toxic, bullying culture long before these women came forward.
On his brother’s cable show, he called himself the “Love Guv” and the license plate on his car reads simply “1.” Need I say more about ego?
For sure, there are successes that can be credited to Cuomo: the revised tax code, pushing for gay marriage, the ban on fracking, gun control legislation, attracting businesses, and other things. And, pre-pandemic, the New York economy remained strong (including the city’s).
If the policies are enough to keep you voting for Cuomo (and, as a lifelong Democrat, I did), so be it.
But at some point, for me, character matters. It begins to infect everything else. With all of our “wokeness” in recent years, I don’t think we need to love someone just because they are not Trump.
New York is a big state with a lot of talent. At this point, we should be able to do better.