Andrew Cuomo, the disgraced New York governor who resigned today, was a creature of television.
He’d already been a successful politician — a street-fighting candidate turned three-term governor — before his rise to national prominence during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But his daily televised briefings created the perception that Cuomo was the face of the national response to the virus.
This perception was badly flawed: For one thing, Cuomo “has been accused of deliberately obscuring the full scope of nursing home deaths in New York” due to his administration’s policy of forcing homes to readmit residents who’d had COVID, according to the New York Times. (This scandal exists entirely separately from the one that’s recently overwhelmed his office, which is about allegations of sexual harassment.) But Cuomo pushed past and through reality, creating his own.
The image Cuomo projected — leveraging both his ability to take over the airwaves once a day and a peculiar sort of anti-charisma — was of a one-man pillar of strength, holding the state up. The facts he marshaled were available in other venues; what his most dedicated viewers tuned in for was Cuomo himself. The facts he presented about COVID were tough to take at times, but they added up, most crucially, to a sense of Cuomo as the source of truth.
This expressed itself in manners that seemed plainly ill-advised at the time. The so-called “Cuomosexual” movement, epitomized by a fawning video made by the entertainer Randy Rainbow, placed emphasis on Cuomo not merely as a leader trying to share information but as a unique talent, someone who, alone, could fix it. And Cuomo’s jokey, goofy broadcasts with his brother Chris (a CNN anchor who, in what would be a firing offense in any other segment of the media industry, also advised his brother on the sexual harassment inquiry behind the scenes) was embraced in a certain cohort. It seemed proof of an idol’s frank humanity, rather than an obvious attempt to use the media to dictate how Cuomo would like to be seen (lovable) and how often (all the time).
In other words, Cuomo, a spotlight-craving politician with an ability to hold viewer attention as he spoke discursively, was the establishment left’s answer to the figure they most hated: Donald Trump. Both men’s political agendas seemed centered around the idea of themselves as savior being more centrally important than the people that they saved; both men burnished that image on camera. Why, viewers might wonder, are we hearing jokes about Cuomo family dinners on CNN, the place where the news was supposed to go? Is his constant sniping at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over jurisdiction of even the smallest aspects of COVID relief meant to help anyone, or simply to ensure the viewing public knows who’s in charge? Why is the governor on television showing off art he made to symbolize how special and genius his particular response has been — and why isn’t anyone in a position of real authority taking the cue to dial back the hagiography?
Of course, many in the media had been sounding the alarm on Cuomo for some time, including when he dissolved a commission meant to investigate ethical issues prior to his 2014 re-election. But reporting is a lot less fun to watch than what Chris Cuomo did with his brother on TV, and less soothing than a single figure promising he has the answers. The fact that Cuomo won an International Emmy for his work on television is a bizarre and hilarious punchline on a troubling period of time. Many viewers were so troubled by a genuinely bleak set of facts that Cuomo’s daily broadcast was a bright spot. And many transitioned from using it as an information digest to a sort of entertainment product, led by someone who was a public servant in name but who demanded from his public endless attention and appreciation.
That a political class so attuned to ethical lapses and misuses of the bully pulpit by Trump so avidly consumed more of the same, but from the left — a state-media broadcast intended to burnish a personality cult — is troubling, and says little that is good about media literacy in the long term. At least, now, the spell seems to have faded for Cuomo, thanks to real reporters and thanks, perhaps, to his own flying too close to the sun. (Would the allegations against him have caught fire among what had been a deeply sympathetic audience were it not for the obscene $5 million book deal?)
Today, Cuomo’s final broadcast as governor was filled with strange recriminations and ended with his recollections of what the state, under his leadership, achieved during the COVID era. (He had previously in this broadcast placed his personal lawyer under the seal of the state to refute the allegations against him, a misuse of the power of Cuomo’s office that no longer has the power to shock.) In rattling off his memory of the events of the past year, Cuomo sounded strangely nostalgic for the worst time in many viewers’ lives. For him, this was playing the hits.
That Cuomo’s successor, Kathy Hochul, is a little-known figure seemingly chosen as Lieutenant Governor so as to run no risk of overshadowing the man who’d been at the top of the ticket, has one fringe benefit: She seems unlikely to grow as entranced by television’s glow, its power to define and override facts. She also doesn’t have a brother working for CNN. But the overwhelming volumes of particularities of Cuomo’s case, the extremity of his personality and the allegations against him, seems designed to ensure that nothing will be learned from this. Our culture will wait to see which politician comes along to entertain us next. And Cuomo, in resigning before he could be impeached, is eligible to run for governor in 2022.