Chris Cuomo and Self-Ownership

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It can’t be easy to have your intelligence questioned unexpectedly. It’s not as if we all carry a certified copy of our SAT scores in our wallets. Even so, CNN anchorman Chris Cuomo mounted a singularly infelicitous rebuttal to the implication that’s he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.

The exchange took place Sunday at a bar on New York’s Shelter Island when a man Cuomo doesn’t know addressed him as “Fredo.” Cuomo took exception, which is understandable, but he did so with a classic series of self-refuting statements that tended to reinforce the accuracy of the affront. Cuomo swore at his detractor, threatened him with physical mayhem, and – because this is the 21st century -- called him a racist.

“Punk-ass bitches from the right call me ‘Fredo,’” Cuomo told his tormentor, who claimed disingenuously that he thought the cable news fixture was named Fredo. “My name is Chris Cuomo. I’m an anchor on CNN. Fredo is from ‘The Godfather.’

“They use it as an Italian aspersion. Any of you Italian?” Cuomo continued. “It’s an insult to your f------ people. It’s like the n-word for us.” He went on in this vein for a while. Needless to say, the encounter went viral, as it was intended to do.

CNN, bless its heart, backed its anchorman, although one wonders if the network would have extended Tucker Carlson the same leeway if he’d had a similar public meltdown. “Chris Cuomo defended himself when he was verbally attacked with the use of an ethnic slur,” CNN communications director Matt Dornic tweeted. “We completely support him.”

Well, no. Cuomo wasn’t attacked. He was gently needled by a heckler. It happens. And though Cuomo played the ethnic slur card in real-time, that alibi didn’t wash, either. For starters, the Fredo disparagement has a long provenance in politics, used by conservatives against liberals and liberals against conservatives and in at least one instance by a liberal against a liberal. It’s true that “The Godfather” is an Italian movie -- Sicilian, if we’re being letterale -- but the insult itself does not reference ethnicity. It relates to mental acuity, along with misplaced pride. And Chris Cuomo’s reaction evoked nothing if not Fredo Corleone in “Godfather II.”

“I can handle things,” a frustrated Fredo shrieks in the movie.” “I’m smart! Not like everybody says, like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!”

A year and a half ago in The Atlantic, David Frum invoked this very scene in an article illustrated with a photograph of the great John Cazale, the actor who played Fredo. Frum’s target? The non-Italian, very WASP-ish 45th president of the United States. The headline, apparently unnoticed by CNN, was “Donald Trump Goes Full Fredo.”

Using the analogy in a more historically accurate way, Vanity Fair published a snarky piece two summers ago, comparing Trump’s oldest child and namesake to Fredo, even posting oversized pictures of Cazale next to Donald Trump Jr.

As long as American politics remains dynastic, such comparison are irresistible. None of the scions ever quite measures up to the old man, you see, whether we’re talking about Vito Corleone or Mario Cuomo or George H.W. Bush -- or your own father perhaps. And, of course, in many families there’s always one sibling who’s generally considered one taco short of a combination plate. It’s an old taunt.

In 2004, Jonathan Chait, another journalist not known for understatement, called George W. Bush “basically the Fredo of the Bush family.” Ten years ago, Ann Coulter called William Kennedy Smith “the Fredo of the Kennedy family.” Willie Smith was in the news when he and his uncle Ted Kennedy went out on a midnight caper that resulted in sexual assault charges being filed against the nephew. Nearly a decade earlier satirist Will Durst applied the Fredo description to Uncle Teddy himself, adding that Kennedy was “the only senator who by all rights should be wearing a house arrest ankle bracelet.”

Okay, so the insult isn’t new and isn’t racial and in some cases it isn’t even always partisan. It was partisan in the recent case, of course, because the beer garden provocateur who got Chris Cuomo’s goat was taking his cue from Rush Limbaugh, who has called the youngest of Mario Cuomo’s children “Fredo” for years.

But as any philosopher, psychologist, or priest could tell him -- and as Chris Cuomo himself acknowledged a day later -- a mature person knows he can’t control others. We can only control our own reactions to them. This is where Cuomo fell short. He made himself the butt of the joke. Think about it: He took offense at being compared to a gangster, albeit a feckless one. So what did he do? He talked to his tormentor like a street thug. It’s not every day that one sees a child of privilege (boyhood in the governor’s mansion, prep school in Albany, and on to Yale, and Fordham Law School) try so hard to imitate a hoodlum. It seemed like parody.

Moreover, it was unwise, which also brings Fredo’s lack of perspicacity to mind. For those of us with institutional memory, it also recalled similar denials from those accused of being dim bulbs. My own favorite, I think, came on the 2010 night when Tea Party darling Sharron Angle won the GOP Senate primary in Nevada.  In a self-refuting statement beautiful for its brevity, she proclaimed, “We have the opportunity to send a very positive message, and that message is dump Harry Reid.”

The classic instance of self-ownership, at least until Chris Cuomo entered the competition, came in 1974 when a then-young Nina Totenberg penned a piece for an obscure publication, New Times, on the “ten dumbest members of Congress.”

The man she identified as the dullest of the dull was Virginia Sen. William L. Scott. Bill Scott responded by holding a press conference to deny being dumb -- thereby confirming it. Most people had never heard of New Times, let alone seen the offending article. But Scott’s press conference was covered by The Washington Post.   

An example with more contemporary relevance took place in 1987 when another U.S. senator, Joe Biden of Delaware, was accused of serial plagiarism. It was a big story because Biden (then, as now) was running for president. Cornered by a reporter in New Hampshire, Joe Biden 1.0 was asked to address the allegations, which dated back to his law school days.

“I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do,” Biden said. “I won the international moot-court competition … ended up in the top half of my class. I was the outstanding student in the political science department at the end of my year. I graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school and 165 credits — only needed 123 credits. And I would be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours.”

Within days, Biden’s boasts were discovered to be untrue as well as boorish and he was forced to abandon the first of his three quests for the presidency. He’s back this year, of course, trying to unseat an incumbent president who describes himself as “a very stable genius.”

Perhaps trying to get the jump on his siblings, Donald Trump Jr., the president's oldest son, tweeted, “Hey, @ChrisCuomo, take it from me,  ‘Fredo’ isn’t the N word for Italians, it just means you’re the dumb brother.”

The “take it from me” caveat was refreshing, humility being in short supply these days. Self-deprecation goes a long way, as Mario Cuomo’s youngest kid once knew. In a 2010 exchange unearthed by the New York Post on Tuesday, Chris Cuomo can be heard bantering with radio host (and Guardian Angels founder) Curtis Sliwa about “La Cuomo Nostra.”

“Who am I, then,” quipped Cuomo. “Fredo?”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.



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