Over the weekend, the two-hundred-and-forty-second woman to accuse Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment came forward. That number is no less true for being inaccurate. It seems you can’t open a newspaper these days without reading about some horrible Cuomo come-on at an Albany Christmas party or a Manhattan cocktail hour. How’s it going for Democrats seeking a left-wing foil to Donald Trump? They seem to have gotten all of the vices with none of the humor.
Of course, Cuomo deserves his due process like everyone else. But the accusations do seem credible and certainly fit with his hard-charging bull-in-a-bodega persona. There’s also the matter of the governor’s other scandal, which has been swept under the rug despite it involving the mass death of old people. After a Cuomo aide was caught on tape admitting to concealing the COVID-19 death toll in New York nursing homes, Cuomo came forward and admitted as much. The fatality count in those facilities was not 8,500, as the state health department had initially claimed, but more than 15,000.
All this will come as a shock if you’ve been reading only the Huffington Post style section for the past year. Conservatives have been grousing about the New York nursing home massacre since last summer, when even the state health department acknowledged that thousands of COVID-19 patients had been transferred into nursing homes under a Cuomo directive. Yet the story was largely ignored outside of the right-wing press. Instead Cuomo was given a primetime speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. He landed a lucrative book deal. His press conferences about the coronavirus became fireside chats for elites. Instead of coming clean on the nursing home issue, he trashed the Post for reporting on it.
The Champagne flutes were clinking right up until Democrats in Albany decided to turn on their governor. It’s understandable that Cuomo was initially cast into the limelight, given that New York was the state hit hardest by the coronavirus. And some of this was routine partisan politics, Democrats defending one of their own and leveraging him against Republican governors who took more lenient approaches to lockdowns. But there was something else at work here too. Lurking beneath the Cuomo phenom was one of America’s most persistent and grating features: her celebrity culture.
Cuomo, after all, was almost tailor-made for modern show business. Here was a guy who looked like a Batman villain just as antiheroes were all the rage. His discursive, slightly whinnying manner of speaking, with each hard New York vowel fired at your face like a Yankees fastball, was reminiscent of Trump, yes, but also of Goodfellas and the Corleones. And he deployed all this in the service of good. Of science. Cuomo was in the same pantheon as Dr Fauci, a public servant turned cult figure who reinforced that you really were superior to that neighbor next door who refused to triple-mask while jogging. Cuomo even had his own TV gig, courtesy of his meathead brother over on CNN with whom he would appear and scat like dueling Anthony Scaramuccis.
That these exchanges were absolutely cringeworthy should have been a warning sign. Watching them inspired little except a hope that they would one day degenerate into a Punch and Judy show. But the rise of Andrew Cuomo never had anything to do with reality. The fact that the man presides over a state where almost 50,000 people have died from COVID ought to be proof enough of that. It had to do with his being a jumbo-size personality who said all the right things about masks and lockdowns. We Americans are so in thrall to our celebrity culture that even scrubbing with hand sanitizer requires affirmation from under the kliegs. We want not only to be entertained but to feel good about being entertained, to hear our entertainers asseverate our mundane actions and opinions into the stuff of humanitarian righteousness. That’s what Cuomo did.
Such vicarious national therapy is the same reason that Princess Diana was so beloved (though to her credit, she had far more dignity and class than Cuomo has ever mustered). And just as the facade of Diana Spencer concealed a darker reality, so too with the grunting governor of New York. The press deferentially ignored his scandals for months, swept up in left-wing COVID-era hero worship. Now they’ve suddenly noticed that Cuomo left an almost empty medical ship lolling in New York Harbor for weeks on end. It’s a fickle thing, celebrity, and a very poor bedmate for public policy. One is fleeting and skin-deep, the other enduring and sometimes tragically consequential.
With Cuomo falling from grace, the eye now turns west, where another pandemic royal, Her Excellency the Queen of Michigan, sits radiantly ensconced. Like Andrew Cuomo, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been touted as a COVID hero. Also like Andrew Cuomo, she forced coronavirus patients into nursing homes and covered up the death toll. Will she now be held accountable? That depends on the answer to another question: are we at last willing to stop regarding even political crisis managers as celebrities?