Emergency Responder

Andrew Cuomo
Andrew Cuomo; drawing by Tom Bachtell

When the first cases of Covid-19 in Wuhan became known, some New Yorkers may have foreseen the catastrophe that was to crash upon us, but few could have predicted the astonishing performance of New York’s unloved governor, Andrew Cuomo, when it did. Prior to the pandemic, his reputation was that of a top-dog machine politician par excellence—a bullying, controlling, charmless power broker, reviled by progressives, accepted by Republicans, and tolerated by the rest.

Though he easily won reelection to a third term in 2018, his power was significantly diminished. Six of the eight members of a group of Democratic centrists in the State Senate, who had unfailingly provided Cuomo with the swing votes he needed to exercise almost absolute control over state laws, were defeated at the polls. They were replaced by left-leaning Democrats, most of them avowed enemies of his. With Democrats bedazzled by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the new superstar of New York’s congressional delegation, Cuomo, who turned sixty-one in 2018, had the aura of an old-line operative with little political conviction.

It didn’t help that New York is one of the most corrupt states in the country. Between 2010 and 2018, thirty-two members of the state legislature faced sanctions and criminal charges, most of them for embezzlement, campaign finance fraud, misuse of public funds, and selling political favors. Cuomo himself was tainted by association in March 2018, when his closest aide was convicted of soliciting and accepting bribes. Testimony showed the aide and his cronies imitating characters from the The Sopranos, crowing about “magic phone calls” and referring to money as “ziti.”

Yet here was the governor, exactly two years after that low point, at daily press briefings in a dowdy Albany chamber with the solemn decor of an early-twentieth-century steak house, guiding his panicked constituents through an escalating public health crisis that seemed to have no end in sight. Almost overnight, the “establishment” politician, with intimate knowledge of the levers of power and how to use them, had become indispensable.

Every day at around noon Cuomo took his seat at a long table with his advisers and rolled out the latest data. “The increase continues. The numbers keep going up,” or some variation of this, was each briefing’s grim opening line from mid-March into the first days of April. He was self-assured, factual, and respectful, for the most part, of reporters. You could tell he was a brawler who would fight dirty if he had to; it was “a slow day,” he told a reporter proudly, when he didn’t have at least five lawsuits filed against him. Occasionally, in a preening, alpha-male gesture, he would shoot his cuffs and massage the right cufflink.

He often became intimate with his audience, romanticizing his “pure as sugar” mother and his revered late father’s severity, crafting the self-portrait of an ordinary man, divorced,…

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