A solid majority of New Yorkers approve of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. This is true even though the state has seen more deaths from COVID-19 than any other, and despite the governor’s disastrous handling of outbreaks in the state’s nursing homes. New York residents in fact do not approve of Cuomo’s management of nursing-home outbreaks, according to polls from May and October; but those same surveys show that around 70 percent of residents approve of the governor’s overall coronavirus response. So, what explains the disconnect?
The number of nursing-home residents who died of COVID-19 in New York is still unknown, because the state’s health department has stonewalled requests (including by National Review) for more exact data. This has not stopped Cuomo from capitalizing on his newfound popularity by releasing a book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.
“Exciting news: Gov Cuomo’s new book American Crisis has debuted on the [New York Times] best seller list at #7,” Cuomo posted on his Twitter account last week. “Let’s learn the lessons of the Spring to be smart in fighting back this virus now. Thank you for reading.”
Cuomo, doing his best Trump impression, coos about his book’s “ratings” mid-pandemic. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter: Cuomo can get away with it because of his popularity. That last fact is key to assessing the true “leadership lessons” conveyed in Cuomo’s book.
Looking at American politics as a kind of television series can help us understand some of the events of the past several years. (As Bruno Maçães noted in a book released just as the pandemic hit the U.S., in this day and age, “democracy may be redefined as the ability to get the show we want.”) The coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. during the term of the first “reality TV star” presidency. In March, with the coronavirus threatening to overrun New York City, there were two leading shows Americans could tune into: the Trump show, or the Cuomo show. The kind of show Trump put on at his coronavirus briefings — making fun of reporters, lashing out at political opponents, dismissing the severity of the pandemic — may have achieved high ratings, but it wasn’t the spectacle Americans needed in the midst of a once-in-a-century crisis.
Not so with the Cuomo show. In the darkest days of March, the governor of New York made the remarkable decision to speak with unflinching honesty about his own feelings as the state geared up for a possible Italy-like disaster. Cuomo’s briefings became events in their own right, with commentators on both sides of the political aisle praising his performance.
“How do you help others deal with the sense of fear and vulnerability? Show your own vulnerability first,” Cuomo writes, explaining how he chose to conduct himself at the briefings. “If I didn’t connect emotionally with the people, they would never have the trust and confidence in me to follow my proposals.”
It helped, of course, that Cuomo was able to get on the phone with his brother Chris, an anchor at CNN. But the on-air exchanges between the Cuomo brothers took on an undeniably gut-wrenching turn when Chris contracted the coronavirus.
“Chris’s broadcasts and my briefings were the most comprehensive and intimate communications people were receiving about this crisis, and now he was giving people a front-row seat to the disease’s devastating symptoms,” the governor writes. Viewers “also watched me experiencing it with Chris, so they knew once again that I understood the crisis on a deeply personal level.” (The sympathy-inducing effect ultimately dissipated when Chris staged a televised emergence from his supposed three-week basement quarantine, after having been recorded feuding with a cyclist a few miles from his home just one week earlier.)
The willingness of Andrew Cuomo to speak with apparent honesty about the toll of the coronavirus, and the general panic and fear felt by residents of all stripes, had several main effects. First, the gambit worked: Cuomo’s briefings helped reassure a worried public. The briefings and other media attention also turned a spotlight on the governor as had happened with Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
And, importantly, Cuomo one-upped Trump’s briefings — maybe not in ratings, but certainly in the reviews.
American Crisis is essentially an extension of Cuomo’s press briefings. In that sense, the true “leadership lessons” of the book are how to capture the public’s heart while obfuscating any problematic decisions and casting blame for failures on convenient targets. By demonstrating his own “vulnerability,” Cuomo gained the public’s trust and has ever since been acting out a narrative in which he and the New York state government are working tirelessly for the people, against the evil machinations of President Trump, Mitch McConnell, and whoever happens to be Cuomo’s political enemy. (Bill de Blasio makes several cameos as a bumbling nuisance, Florida governor Ron DeSantis as predictable foil.)
Those who genuinely wish to read the book will also be treated to Cuomo’s hokey observations about his family. There are cringe-inducing sentences that could have been crafted by a ghostwriter for Selina Meyer, such as, “I was raised at a kitchen table where my father talked about improving society in the teachings of Matthew 25 and tikkun olam: building community dedicated to doing justice and improving life for all.” While he’s at it, the governor also makes several references to Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, taking care to remind the reader that each of those esteemed presidents also served as governor of New York.
Cuomo has no reason to alter his political strategy for the foreseeable future. During a briefing on October 21, the governor once again acknowledged the magnitude of the pandemic, but this time in relation to its mental-health ramifications.
“I speak to friends of my family who I am worried about. You can hear it in their voice,” Cuomo said. The governor suggested that “one day” mental health experts will be “discussing the PTSD effect on children, on seniors, on all individuals, who are suffering from the anxiety and stress of COVID.”
Voters will in all likelihood reward Cuomo for simply talking about these issues forthrightly. If state residents can forgive the nursing-home issue, they can forgive his more Trump-esque statements on possible future girlfriends or doubting the efficacy of an FDA-approved vaccine. When the available options for New Yorkers are the Cuomo show or the Trump show, it’s clear which program residents will follow.