I first met Andrew Cuomo a little more than two years ago when I started to write about his incipient gubernatorial campaign. He’d drive his rental car to meetings with New York State Democrats, expounding on most anything that came into his head while I sat in the front seat taking notes on what he said. He seemed to me then—as he still does now—a smart, funny, engaged liberal politician.
The intensity was the thing. He drew you in. It was all personal appeal. One-on-one (often hours of it). Unlike most professional politicians, he was a great, expressive, unguarded talker. And of course, in the age of Bush, he had the legacy thing going, too—Cuomo and Kennedy. More intensity.
As it happened, all of these promising political traits had something to do with why his campaign ended so ignominiously late last summer. His great drive came to seem like a personality problem. His unguardedness resulted in extraordinary gaffes (notably his Pataki-was-just-the-coat-holder gaffe). And the legacy began to look like rank opportunism—almost feral opportunism. He resigned from the race even before the primary election.
Now these same qualities—his overheatedness, the operatic political heritage he’s been selling, and his need to talk to everybody constantly—provide the background for what is shaping up to be one of the most naked political domestic dramas ever to be played out in public.
The need for self-dramatization here is evidently greater than even the desire for self-preservation and the calculation of how to run again another day. The window that’s been opened into this marriage and this political life has been flung wide by people who appear to have lost all sense—certainly media sense. (Hillary’s fine-tooled handling of her own situation, and the lifeless prose with which she expressed her pain, hang censoriously in the air.)
Indeed, in the most verboten of media-management and spin-doctor circumstances, the Cuomo-Kennedy marriage exploded just before the long, zero-news Fourth of July weekend, guaranteeing full-blown, uninterrupted attention to the details of this virtually real-time breakup.
You could turn up your nose at the tabloid smell of it all. Or enjoy the summer sport of watching well-known people behaving badly—the he-said/she-said, the in flagrante, the polo player, the appearance of the family eminences, the awkward housing arrangements. Or you could read it deeper, as American realism, Theodore Dreiser, or John P. Marquand—promising people caught in traps of their own making, struggling against conventions and expectations.
At any rate, Andrew Cuomo was once again the country’s most unmanaged and unmanageable politician.
Ambition is, of course, the point.
Andrew’s ambition is of the manic type—he’s obsessive, and a perfectionist. If he’s not winning, he’s losing. And blaming himself.
Since he dropped out of the gubernatorial race, he’s been caught in a deep, distracted funk (“I’m not sure it’s a clinical depression, but it’s pretty bad,” diagnosed a political consultant earlier this year when we sat down to rehash Andrew—a popular New York State political pastime), unable to get beyond his failed campaign, or to see his next move, wandering around the house in Bedford. (Andrew had wanted to live in the city when they moved back from Washington; Kerry had insisted on the suburbs.) It is against this backdrop that his wife takes up with the polo player.
The story of political failure in American life is a mostly unwritten one (shortly after Andrew withdrew from the race, when I knew he was looking for a book to write, I suggested, idiotically, that a book about being a loser would be interesting). Politicians surely don’t want to talk about the misery of losing, nor are most self-aware enough to face having lost. Suck it up. You’re just supposed to go back to your real life—or to making big money off your past political associations.
But not only does Andrew not have another real career and not much evident interest in making money, his personal life is his political organization. It’s two organizations, actually—the Cuomo one and the Kennedy one—comprising just about the most competitive people who have ever lived. And you can bet both organizations judge you only as a winner or as a loser.
Surely Andrew and his father have one of the most complex and competitive father-son relationships in politics. (As a politician, Mario Cuomo was controlling and ambivalent, and so as a father . . . ?). It’s long been a sideshow among political reporters in New York State: the Mario-and-Andrew act. They talk about each other—Andrew always calls his father Mario—with remarkable and weird dispassion, as though each were an analyst, most often a disappointed analyst, of the other. They’re not the Bushes.
Andrew is 24 years old when he runs his father’s upset campaign for governor and becomes one of the most powerful people in the state. But his next imperative is to achieve power independent of his father—to escape his father and to escape being his father’s hatchet man. He quickly distances himself from Mario by launching his Robert Kennedy–style public-private-housing initiative.
Further executing on his grand plan, his first date with Kerry Kennedy is a tour of one of his low-income complexes not far from the housing project (less successful than Andrew’s own) started by her father in Bedford-Stuyvesant twenty years before.