People survive scandals when we want them to.
At the moment, the dominant media vibe is that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is going down. And he may, but there are a few variables that need to be considered in the meantime, such as why somebody who was being talked about as a presidential contender a few months ago is now cable TV roadkill.
The cliché is that the media like to build people up and tear them down. The problem with this construct is that it doesn’t address why. The answer is both timing-driven and personal.
On the timing side, Cuomo was puffed up during the early stages of the COVID pandemic not for his charm but because he provided a seemingly cogent and competent foil to President Donald Trump’s colossal buffoonery in the face of the crisis. It was not an especially high bar to clear much in the same way that New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was hailed as a hero on 9/11 for pretty much just being there when it happened.
On the personal front, journalists are human beings who have the same foibles, crushes and resentments as the rest of us. They also have the same impulse to frame public figures in one-dimensional terms. If Person A is bad then, it stands to reason, that there must be a Person B out there who is good. Think Good Kate and Bad Meghan in the U.K.
In the pandemic scenario, Trump was bad. Cuomo, whose daily news conferences displayed a seeming mastery of current events during a time when people wanted an alternative to speculation about drinking detergent, seemed good. Or, at least all right, especially since all we wanted was a little sanity.
The COVID crisis likely masked a deeper probing of death rates in senior care facilities and Cuomo’s alleged penchant for grabbyness.
Trump is out of office, vaccines are in various stages of distribution, and coverage of COVID has taken on a workaday quality. In the eternal nano-news cycle, the rifle scope must go somewhere and then … enter the flaw-detection phase of the scandal.
A woman comes forward with a sex-pest allegation against Cuomo. And then another. And another. (In the scandal business, there is rarely just one.)
Media admiration quickly converts to resentment. Why did we puff you up when you’re no better than we are? Did you think you could fool us? That you’re better than we are? What makes you so great that you get to capture the headlines? And, hey, what did you actually do that was so great? (We’re pretty awesome, too.) Did you not think the bill would ever come for all the free advertising?
We’re now in the filibuster stage of the scandal. Cuomo apologizes, the apology is declared to have been botched by pundits who have never managed a crisis, and debates begin over what the “best strategy” is for managing the situation, as if there were actually a playbook for this kind of thing.
The cliché is that during the Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton apologized and was forgiven. Wrong. First, he lied (“I did not have sexual relations…”). Second, he used the seeds of doubt raised by his denial to buy time. Third, he said that we needed to “stop the politics of personal destruction.” Fourth, he called in his top people and encouraged surrogates to look into the sex lives of sexual hypocrites in the GOP. Fifth, Republicans’ sexual hypocrisy was widely exposed. Finally, once Clinton’s enemies were decimated, he apologized. The scandal was over.
Clinton, of course, left office with very high approval ratings. This took time, and that’s what Cuomo is playing for now, understanding that winds shifts and that the scandal of today may be just a nuisance tomorrow.
Nevertheless, Clinton had a few things that Cuomo doesn’t. Lots of people liked him, including (lest we forget) very prominent feminists. Clinton had bad boy charm while Cuomo has bad boy smarm. Clinton also had a soaring economy. Cuomo still has a pandemic, a gutted economy, and ongoing scandals on two fronts.
Time is a legitimate variable in crisis management. If I were to make a prediction, it would be that Cuomo doesn’t weather this one long-term. The people of New York are in a terrible mood and very few constituencies have a vested interest in keeping him. He’s been in office for more than a decade now. And in an age when progressives are confronting the consequences of a movement they initiated, Cuomo’s alleged behavior is a hard cause to rally behind.