New York Magazine’s story on Gov. Cuomo is really doing two things at once. On the one hand it was clearly intended to be something like a comprehensive look at Cuomo’s governing style and failings. I suspect author Rebecca Traister went into it determined to uncover additional accusations that would make for high-profile reporting. And in that she was only partly successful. The piece is full of stories that are clearly bad behavior but not the sort of groping or kissing previous accusers have complained about. For instance, there’s Kaitlin, whose last name is not used to protect her identity. She met Cuomo at a fund-raiser and he immediately promised to hire her:
Kaitlin was working at a fund-raiser that her firm was hosting for Cuomo. As the governor left, he stopped to greet staffers of the event; when he approached Kaitlin, she introduced herself and told him that she used to work for a politician. To her surprise and confusion, he replied that she would soon be back in government, this time at the state level. “Then he grabbed me in a kind of dance pose,” she said, while a photographer snapped a picture. “I was thinking, This is the weirdest interaction I’ve ever had in my life … I was like, Don’t touch me. Everybody was watching.” Kaitlin recalled feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed in front of her new colleagues — “my whole team of people I’d just met” — who gathered around her after Cuomo walked away, joking “Oh, the governor likes you.”
That same week, Kaitlin received a voice-mail from Cuomo’s office asking her to interview for a job. She had not provided his representatives with contact information; they had found her on their own. She disclosed this to her new bosses, who understood her discomfort but explained that he was the governor and that she would have to take the meeting. When Kaitlin turned to several of her former supervisors and mentors for advice, they repeated the same, explaining that, professionally, she had no choice but to go to the interview and take the job he offered her.
“We all knew that this was only because of what I looked like,” said Kaitlin. “Why else would you ask someone to come in two days after you had a two-minute interaction at a party?”
Once she got the job, she was told she needed to dress well and the governor would comment if she hadn’t had time to put on makeup. Cuomo never did anything physical but he did make her feel uncomfortable on a couple of occasions.
The governor never touched Kaitlin inappropriately or made any explicit sexual overtures, she said, but his reactions would sometimes make her feel self-conscious, such as when she asked him if he wanted her personal cell-phone number: “I thought that was a normal thing to offer your boss,” she said, but he behaved as if she’d come on to him. Like other women who have come forward, she remembered him asking questions about her dating life. Once, in Albany, he brought her in to show her a room adjacent to his office; it was cold, and he was standing very close to her in a way that made her feel so profoundly uncomfortable that she remembers shaking.
All of this fits perfectly with the kind of thing other accusers described, i.e. a focus on appearance, getting someone alone in an office, awkward conversations. But in Kaitlin’s case he never quite crossed the line by kissing her or suggesting they should date. The story gives the impression there are probably a lot more women like Kaitlin who saw this side of Cuomo even if it never went beyond this awkward phase. In fact, she recalls later the governor wanted to offer another woman he’d briefly met a job and realized it was for the same reason, i.e. she was attractive.
In the absence of any explosive new allegations, the piece spends a lot of time on something else, presenting Cuomo as a paternalistic, Trump-like figure who should never have been lionized the way he was last summer.
“He makes things up like I’ve never seen anyone do before,” said Lipton. “He makes people who disagree with him feel like they’re crazy.” It’s a pattern that — like his narcissism, theatrical bombast, love of cameras, hatred of “experts,” and the fact that, as one national reporter who covered him said, “I don’t think he believes in much, except that he wants to be powerful”—makes Cuomo not the anti-Trump that many imagined him, but rather the 45th president’s Democratic twin. Or, as one person put it to me, they are “the same person” but for “two major exceptions: Fred Trump was Donald Trump’s father, and Mario Cuomo was Andrew Cuomo’s father.”
Of course this raises an obvious question. If Cuomo was always Trump’s Democratic twin, why did he become such a media star last year? And here the story can’t really explain it except to fall back on the idea that the people who knew better, in Cuomo’s office and in the media, were all silent.
As the story of Cuomo’s tactics gets reported in a more critical light, Josefa Velásquez, a 29-year old senior reporter for The City, said that she sometimes considers how some colleagues, including some of those now covering Cuomo’s troubles, “never used the power that they had to defend anyone else before this.” She’s referring to both reporters and some of the governor’s advisers. “No one checked him. He’s the governor of New York who has consolidated all this power and has all these political allies. But his aides and the men in the press corps, some of them are just as complicit in this behavior.”
There are a few hundred people at least — insiders in Albany, in media, in labor — who have known how Cuomo operates for years. And then there are tens of millions who just really love him on TV.
That’s not a convincing answer in the sense that it describes but doesn’t really explain. Yes, Cuomo and his top people were bullies who beat up people who reported critically on them, but that’s not why he became the hero of the pandemic. That happened because lots of people in the national media jumped on the Cuomo train without bothering to really look into him critically. The question remains: Why?
I’m going to go back to this piece by David Sirota that appeared in the Guardian last month. It points out that both Cuomo and the Lincoln Project were media creations that served a partisan purpose for a time.
In the chaos of 2020, the national press corps used all of its magical myth-making and storytelling powers to conjure two towering political heroes for a country in crisis. From the maw of the media machine, the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the Lincoln Project emerged as our alleged sentinels bravely battling a deadly pandemic and an authoritarian president – and supposedly leading us with principles and morality into a new era of accountability and integrity.
For millions of credulous liberals already bingeing on West Wing reruns, the twin tales conjured some more of that good old-fashioned hope-and-change nostalgia, and seemed to serve as a cheeky reminder that not all heroes wear capes. But in the last week, the facade has collapsed, revealing that those bravely trying to sound the alarm for months were right all along – and those benefiting from the media-driven fraud were attempting to evade accountability and self-servingly cover up a grotesquerie of mismanagement, corruption and abuse.
There’s a third name that you could easily add to this list. Remember Michael Avenatti? He was such a regular on CNN and MSNBC that he was at one point seriously considering running for president. Avenatti served a partisan purpose for a time, but like Cuomo he was eventually dropped like a hot stone amid a bevy of allegations (in his case that he’d been stealing money from his own clients).
I hope you’re seeing a pattern here.
There’s a pretty simple explanation for why Cuomo became a media hero. He was useful at the time. He fit a narrative that the media wanted to tell. And now that Trump is out of office and he’s not as useful, the media wants to tell you he was always a monster not much different than Trump. It’s amazing how that keeps happening. You could be forgiven for thinking the media cares more about setting up certain narratives than it does about the truth. And please don’t pretend that the problem here is they just didn’t know. Cuomo has been like this for years. Some of this harassment was happening as the media were puffing him up. The truth is they didn’t care and didn’t want to know.