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They've Come Undone

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Now, marrying a Kennedy not only plunges him, he must feel, into the slipstream of destiny but gains him further independence from Mario.

As does his embrace of Bill Clinton.

In the early nineties, the two opposing poles of the Democratic Party—stylistically and philosophically—are Bill Clinton and Mario Cuomo. The presidency is not Clinton’s only victory over Cuomo (who, in 1992, is the presumptive Democratic front-runner until, in a pique of ambivalence, he withdraws)—he takes his son too.

Andrew goes to Washington as HUD assistant secretary and then, inevitably, secretary and becomes in personal affect and in political lineage more Clinton-esque than Cuomo-descended (and Cuomo-dependent).

By the time he returns to New York, he’s carrying the Clinton and Kennedy connections much more proudly than the Cuomo mantle. The rap on Andrew is that he’s running against Pataki to avenge his father. But as true, he’s running against Pataki to beat his father.

Well, he doesn’t beat Pataki—doesn’t even make it to the primary. And doesn’t beat his father. And doesn’t do what he told his wife (who didn’t want to move from Washington to New York anyway) and her brothers (who spent political capital on him) he would do. Political defeat must be as hard on political wives as on politicians. Add such defeat to marriage to a Kennedy, whose issues with regard to winning and losing none of us can imagine. Also, the governor’s race was not just a defeat—not a good loss. It was a colossal blunder—precariously close to political death. So Andrew is left without a job, without a career, without clear prospects, exiled in Westchester County (not far from his former colleague Bill Clinton).

At this point, at something near the nadir of his professional life, his marriage breaks up, and with a kind of unerring instinct for the politically unsayable that marked his campaign, in a pure moment of reflexive aggression (while he has tried to make the transition from operative to candidate, he still hasn’t lost the cold heart of the political hatchet man), he sends his lawyer out to accuse his wife of “betrayal.”

It is, in fact, the Kennedy marriage —more than even the entitlement of the Cuomo legacy—that in many ways most attached the stain of opportunism to Andrew (while all politicians are opportunists, some are credited with a special walk-over-your-mother status).

There isn’t a voter in the land who wouldn’t draw the obvious inference: On some level, it’s got to be a marriage of crass utility. There was hardly any pretense: Putting these two dynasties together was supposed to be a two-plus-two-equals-five proposition. Everybody got the point.

But in this regard, Andrew has been amazingly tone-deaf. So tone-deaf that only love, perhaps, could explain it. Love of something.

Indeed, it sometimes seemed that Andrew Cuomo was the last believer in an unrevised Kennedy myth. Even the Kennedys themselves seemed more sheepish and circumspect about Kennedyism than Andrew. Only Andrew seemed to miss the point that the Kennedy dynasty had a fast-degrading half-life. The Kennedys had become the sideshow to the main political event (even the sideshow to the sideshow: As Andrew and Kerry’s marriage fell apart, JFK Jr.’s dreadful marriage was back in the news).

Still, every Cuomo stump speech included a paean to the Kennedy family, a vivid evocation of his father-in-law (who’d been dead for a couple of decades before Andrew made his move), and a picking-up of the torch. Of course, he always pushed Kerry out front to give an official Kennedy imprimatur, although Kerry, with the clenched, uncomfortable look of the Skakels, was mostly devoid of anything that said Kennedy.

It was all a little cringe-worthy.

In fact, the Kennedys themselves helped attach the label of opportunism to Andrew. His brother-in-law Robert Kennedy Jr., a presumptive heir to power in New York State—and now, along with Mario, the family eminence called in to broker a marital cease-fire—often expressed irritation about Andrew’s muscling in on the Kennedy turf (for his part, Andrew seemed in awe of Bobby Jr.—crediting him with a political stature greater than he realistically possessed). It was not just an issue of political territory but also a primal issue of political identity. A brand issue. Indeed, to the extent that there were a lot of Kennedy girls floating around, if all of their husbands started to run—Schwarzenegger was another major problem—what brand consistency would be left?

And, of course, Kennedy brothers-in-law had a very specific place in the traditional Kennedy hierarchy—lower down.

Stylistically, too, Andrew wasn’t a Kennedy. He was some more natural cross between Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. He was hot, not cool.

And there was the money thing, with the Kennedys complaining that Andrew’s campaign was taxing the Kennedy-family donor lists.

In fact, though, the finer irony, and the one that might have been the more complex worm in the marriage, is that, actually, Kerry Kennedy rose on her husband’s coattails. There are, after all, lots of children of Robert Kennedy—this doesn’t necessarily give you a full-time career, or that distinct an identity (or even that much money). But Andrew’s status elevated Kerry, with whatever resentments and reverse resentments that entailed. He put her into the spotlight. He was the one who made her into a Kennedy symbol and allowed her to be promoted to the odd job description she seemed to favor: “human-rights activist,” whatever that is (possibly a person with good intentions who doesn’t have to work for a living and who likes to travel). She held the spotlight, too—often, oddly, dominating events.

At campaign appearances, you could see the workings of the modern political marriage. Something deeply impersonal. Parallel orbits. Even within their own suburban house, they often spoke through campaign staff and other interlocutors (as Bill and Hillary did in a much larger house). They arrived at events separately and left separately. (Shortly after I wrote what was the first long profile about Andrew during the campaign—a highly flattering one—he introduced me to Kerry, who appeared unaware of the article.) She was running for whatever she was running for, and he was running for what he was running for, without there necessarily being a mutuality of interests.

And then there’s the sex thing. It hovered everywhere.

As soon as I started to write about Andrew’s campaign, the question everybody asked was, Is he a womanizer? Or, How much of a womanizer is he? And, What about so-and-so—are the rumors true?

And, indeed, this now is the subtext of the present mess. If she is guilty, how innocent could he be? If he’s accused her of infidelities, could that possibly mean he didn’t live in a glass house himself? Or was this a preemptive strike? She was going after him, so, in Andrew Cuomo fashion, he leveled her first.

A friend of mine (a woman) writes me, speculatively and unprompted:

What I think happened was this:
Kerry has been having an affair with one person.
Andrew has had a series of dopey, Clinton-style flings with many people over the years.
Andrew does not consider these equal transgressions. In fact, at some point, Kerry probably told him to quit tomcatting, and he did, sort of, or at least became more discreet about it. But then Kerry had the nerve to fall in love with someone. Probably someone he knew fairly well. He was chumped. Humiliated. She destroyed the marriage, destroyed the family. And after he cleaned up his act, too. How dare she?

Let’s admit it. This is not just gossip, not just tabloid stuff, but among the most significant political issues of the age: A politician’s sexual background is as meaningful to a political career as the subtleties of his anti-communism would have been in the fifties.


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