Are We Finally Done With Tough-Guy Politicians?
In the photomontage that accompanied his response to the New York State attorney general’s investigation into the sexual harassment claims …
In the photomontage that accompanied his response to the New York State attorney general’s investigation into the sexual harassment claims against him, Gov. Andrew Cuomo aimed to portray himself as a misunderstood touch-aholic, a benevolent ingratiator who never met a rosy cheek he didn’t feel compelled to kiss, pinch or caress. Leaving aside whether these gestures were welcomed by their recipients, the bizarre slide show has him distributing his affections ecumenically — to wizened veterans and young children, to strangers, to Al Gore, to Robert De Niro — making the case that he who plants his lips on everyone by default violates no one.
The crux of Mr. Cuomo’s defense against the accusations of assault and impropriety corroborated in the detailed 165 page report from the attorney general’s office is that the world is out of step with his paternalistic, Mediterranean style. His compulsion to ask young women who worked for him about their sex and dating lives was really just “banter,” and that banter was just part and parcel of his fatherly mentorship. That he touched these women over and over — women who worked for him and alongside him in offices, at parties, in elevators — was meant to “convey warmth, nothing more,” as he put it. His were merely the sins of benign tactility.
What has resulted, in addition to the harm caused to nearly a dozen women, is a political crisis that extends far beyond him and his inner circle of enablers to a world of supporters now forced to reckon with the consequences of an attraction to a Dad-in-charge leadership style at any cost. Shortly after the harassment allegations against Mr. Cuomo surfaced early this year, a Siena poll found that only 35 percent of respondents — and just 29 percent of Democrats — believed that he had committed sexual harassment. This is even though, in the case of Charlotte Bennett, one of the first women to come forward, the governor did not deny the substance of the claims against him, merely that he had not intended what was inferred.
At this point, the governor was still riding high on his reputation as the pandemic’s savior, having taken the reins amid the chaos and vacuum of the Trump administration’s response to the spread of Covid-19. Let us recall that his popularity was so huge that there was speculation he might jump into the presidential race and win.
His own daily televised coronavirus briefings became such an addiction — and to so many a balm — that the governor was awarded an Emmy, the chairman of the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences explaining that, “People around the world tuned in to find out what was going on, and New York tough became a symbol of the determination to fight back.”
Gritty paternalism was the political brand Mr. Cuomo had been building his whole career, an image shrewdly forged in a blend of aggressive masculinity and performed compassion. Now he’d reached the apex. Even during Hurricane Sandy, polling put him ahead of Mayor Michael Bloomberg in terms of who was more successfully handling recovery. Mr. Cuomo was visible always in his bomber jacket, on site, in flooded tunnels, holding flash lights, looking as though he was going to come over and muck out your basement and then replace the sheet rock. By contrast, Mr. Bloomberg was often behind a podium in an elegant sweater — the cool architect to the governor’s robust contractor.
The impression of competence was intoxicating enough to leave supporters overlooking a lot. While Mr. Cuomo was running for a second term, in 2014, he announced that he was disbanding the Moreland Commission, an investigative unit that he had established to much fanfare not long before, tasked with looking into the avalanche of corruption that characterized Albany. The group had a promising list of targets, including a lawmaker who was thought to have used campaign funds to pay his girlfriend’s bills at a tanning salon. Voters ultimately cared very little. Mr. Cuomo secured the Democratic nomination, regardless, defeating Zephyr Teachout, a progressive law professor and a woman, who was running on an anti-corruption platform.
It hardly bears remarking that women lose out to our collective infatuation with proxy father figures nearly every time. New York City is about to elect a mayor, Eric Adams, who has promised to rebuild the house, to restore the order and keep the outlaws in line, the way only a patriarch believes he can. Kathryn Garcia’s steely managerial competence ultimately could not compete with this posture of determined authority.
Until now, little has gotten in the way of the governor’s assertions of power. Many of Mr. Cuomo’s victims were afraid to come forward out of fear of retaliation. Their boss was a fan of both “banter” and retribution. “I am the same person in public as I am in private,” the governor said this week, a statement that can seem like the problem more than the exoneration, because in public Mr. Cuomo can be combative and domineering, something New Yorkers have closely observed over the course of eight years as he has regularly submitted Mayor Bill de Blasio to pulverization in his mortar and pestle.
Mr. Cuomo’s defense has also implicitly relied on his ethnicity — indiscriminate physical affection is just the Italian way of doing things, he would like us to understand, even if Mr. de Blasio, aloof and impersonal, is right there to offer a countervailing view. Did the governor approach a particular woman at a Christmas party with a kiss on the forehead and a greeting of “Ciao, bella”? He doesn’t remember the incident, he said in his prepared remarks, but he has no doubt that he did it, he explained, because that’s who he is.
We soon may get to witness a different kind of style, if Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul winds up serving the rest of Mr. Cuomo’s term just as the pandemic is entering a new phase full of uncertainties. Hers would likely be a tenure devoid of jokey talk show appearances, tantrums or hugging. Maybe, at last, we’ll be fine with that.