The real thing is a mythological species searched for by political reporters and campaign operatives. It's a kind of great horse, or beautiful athlete, or incredible crush. There are, of course, not too many sightings of the real thing anymore.
In this day and age, the real thing doesn't become a politician. And if one did, would we be able to recognize it anyway, or is that just so over with?
Still, if only for anthropological reasons, and because George Bush is in the White House, the search goes on. I'm in a parked car on the corner of Water and Whitehall. I'm with Peter Ragone, the same political op I was with at this time a year ago when he was working for Al Gore. In significantly reduced circumstances (stripped of his earpiece and in a rented Taurus instead of a caravan of Suburbans), he is back, at the dawn of the Andrew Cuomo campaign for governor. Peter, who worked for Cuomo at hud for nine months before taking off to join the Hillary campaign and then the Gore campaign, is, naturally, trying to convince me that Cuomo is the real thing. No doubt, trying to convince himself too.
I'm open. It's spring in New York. And there's something about this point in a campaign -- no real organization, not too many handlers, few speeches (at least you haven't heard the speech a million times) -- that puts reporters and candidates in a flirtatious mood.
I was formally introduced to Cuomo a few weeks before. Early in a campaign, or before one even starts, candidates visit media offices for off-the-record meetings. There's a catered lunch at a conference table, and then the candidate gives a pitch and takes questions. It's hard to say what you're grading a candidate on in such a situation -- part policy (always a small part), part look and feel, and part patter. At any rate, my mind didn't wander too much during Cuomo's pitch over the salmon and wheat-berry salad. He told a good story. He was funny. He seemed eager to prove himself in a not-too-ham-handed way. In fact, he had the part down so well -- an intelligent, good-looking, wry, hard-working, liberal sort of guy -- that you necessarily became suspicious. Where's the body?
Even the Mario thing is subtle and effective, I was surprised to see. Andrew has the rubbery face and the cadence -- but not the imperiousness. And despite my better democratic and meritocratic judgment, I can start to see why the generation thing works in politics -- the brand recognition and, too, a sense of getting an upgrade.
"I'm curious about Cuomo and the class thing -- the divide between Manhattan and the boroughs, between the Cuomos and the Kennedys."
On the other hand, I can't imagine why, if he's smart and funny and ambitious, he's a politician.
So I got into the car. The car is the natural element for a politician. Politicians are not creatures of offices or restaurants so much as of vehicles. It's an intimate act for a reporter to strap in beside a politician ("I'll get you in the car" are the words you wait to hear from a candidate's people).
Cuomo, who seems to have a more or less permanent look of coming from the gym, meets us curbside at the concrete esplanade in front of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, the Wall Street law firm that is accommodating him while he gets his campaign off the ground (that is, while he works the phones -- a New York race costs at least $20 million).
Ragone jumps into the backseat, and Cuomo, shedding top coat and stowing his bag, takes the wheel (only he knows the way). Then we head to Brooklyn.
He's been a public figure in New York since he was 17: constantly at his father's side during the first quixotic campaign against Koch for mayor, then, at 23, running Mario's winning gubernatorial campaign, then getting his housing-project business off the ground, then marrying a Kennedy, then getting close with Clinton (a memorable scene in Primary Colors is when the impressive son of New York's Governor Ozio comes to meet with the unimpressive southern governor), then a cabinet post. This familiarity makes him seem a little like someone you knew in high school. Except now, pumped on success steroids, he's better-dressed, more comfortable with himself, and more interesting than you remember.
We start in immediately on the housing problems of the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development. His wife and three kids are still in their home in Washington; he's staying at a friend's apartment in Manhattan. (On a friend's couch? In a celebrity friend's pied-à-terre? He doesn't say.) They'll settle in New York when the kids finish school in June. His wife, Kerry, wants a house in Westchester, but he doesn't want the commute (nor does he seem like a suburban guy -- he's not going to make that Clinton mistake). Which means, he says, he needs three and a half bedrooms in Manhattan.
"A classic seven," I tell him.
And that means, his wife says, private schools, which he seems rather unfamiliar with and vaguely irritated at or possibly intimidated by.
In fact, I can tell him what private schools Kennedy kids go to.
It occurs to me it might have been more interesting to hang with him looking for an apartment on the Upper East Side, rather than going where we're going -- down Atlantic Avenue, passing the Bed-Stuy Redevelopment Corporation started by Robert Kennedy, the father-in-law he never knew, by the refrigerator-equipment plant on the corner of Utica and Atlantic once owned by Cuomo's mother's father, and then deeper into Brooklyn to East New York.