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.
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.
I’m curious about Cuomo and the class thing — the divide between Manhattan and the boroughs, between the Cuomos and the Kennedys. Mario always made class an interesting and confusing subtext of the Cuomo message. He was at once a Queens pol and yet the most patrician figure in American politics. In some sense, way too patrician for American politics. But obviously not enough — in any discussion about Mario and the presidency, somebody always brings up the Mafia thing (“Well, you know why he didn’t run …”).
For his part, Andrew segues artfully between Italian-from-Queens-ness and purebred-yuppie-ness. It’s unclear which Cuomo is realer.
“Why did you go to the schools you went to?” — Fordham and then Albany Law School — I ask him, because it seems enough out of place on his resume — and because we’re pretty much the same age, and our backgrounds aren’t that different, and why pretend it isn’t a curious thing.
He defends the schools but understands what I’m asking: Why would the son of Mario Cuomo go to local, commuter schools? Why would an ambitious guy not have been more ambitious (Bill Clinton from Arkansas made it to Yale)?
He pulls on his rubber face. He doesn’t seem defensive (certainly not in the sense of Lyndon Johnson among the Kennedy Ivy Leaguers). “I went to a boys’ parochial school in Queens. I don’t think anybody went to an Ivy League school from my high school,” he says, and shrugs. “We went to St. John’s. Mario went to St. John’s. Fordham was a step up. Then there’s affording an Ivy League school. I don’t know how we would have done that.”
“Like everyone else,” I say, “you’d get loans.”
“You know, Mario was a rebel. Even if he could have gone to those schools — he was turning his back on these people. The Wall Street-lawyer crowd. He was a Brooklyn lawyer.”
So when did the striving begin?
The whole family has traded up. He’s married a Kennedy, his sister has married Kenneth Cole, and another sister married the millionaire video producer of Buns of Steel (of course, there may be some feeling of a mutual trade-up here); his brother is a television personality who hangs with Hamptons socialites. Even Mario and Matilda live on Sutton Place now.
“Your kids won’t go to Fordham and Albany Law School.”
“I know that,” he says, with some fatefulness. He talks about their earning their own money, and his not buying them cars, and getting them to work real jobs over the summer.
“Right,” I say laughing.
But I know what he’s saying: It’s a lot harder nowadays to preserve than to escape your roots. In a sense, Andrew is the last of a kind (he may well have the last Queens accent — in the future it will have a much different, polyglot sound). Despite top-flight yuppie accomplishments, he’s also uniquely old-fashioned: apprenticed to the father; made, effectively, a political runner; then graduating to ward heeler and promoted to consiglieri at an early age. I don’t know how you save that.
On the other hand, the last thing Andrew Cuomo wants to be is a Queens pol — even a princely one.
We reach the site. Politicians need a backdrop. Hands to shake, backs to clasp. A photo op even without photographs.
We’ve come out to the first help project. This is the thing that Cuomo did as a 27-year-old: He built housing for the homeless.
That, however, is an abstract or bureaucratic concept — which is, no doubt, why he’s hustled me out here to see what he’s built. As he tells it, he visited the notorious Hotel Martinique, where, given the rules of federal-assistance laws, the city was housing homeless people in squalor and degradation for a near-luxury price tag during the seventies and eighties. Andrew, who had left working for his dad and spent two years with the Manhattan D.A., and who was then restlessly practicing law, figured you could take that federal money and, within federal rules, do a lot better. In addition, he had a Clintonesque-third-way point of view, which is that the homeless are homeless for reasons other than the fact that they have no homes — you had to rehab the whole family unit.
Because he’s the governor’s son, and because he is, supposedly, a son of a bitch (he was, and perhaps still is, relatively unpopular in New York political circles, unlike, say, Hugh Carey’s kids in the seventies, who ran restaurants and were very popular), he gets his building built.
One big test of public housing must be how it looks a generation or so after it’s been in use. This place opened, with Cuomo as landlord and night manager, in 1988. Thirteen years later, it’s a liberal proof of something (unless somebody went running ahead to round up the crackheads and clean the graffiti and fix the windows). It’s a clean, sunny, orderly place. GED classes are in progress as we wander the halls, peeking into windows, with Andrew shaking the occasional hand; so is computer training, day care, exercise for pregnant women. The premise is: Families move in here from shelters; with social support, the families get themselves together; then they move into a permanent place.
Across the street is the permanent housing that Cuomo built. It’s a four-story rectangular building overlooking a large, landscaped interior courtyard. Cuomo, who I imagined can talk about public housing as knowledgeably as anyone in America, has many points to make (if you like this sort of stuff, and I do, it’s a good talk — why there’s always an el in such neighborhoods; why cities always dump facilities in poor neighborhoods, which then contributes to keeping the neighborhood poor). One of his most obvious points is about architecture. Because this is a well-designed building, it sends none of the messages that public housing usually sends (i.e., to the people who live here: You’re prisoners; to the taxpayers who pay for them to live here: They’re criminals).
Andrew has created St. Mark’s Square in East New York. A staircase at the corner forms the campanile; the common rooms and community space (they’ve held weddings here) form the basilica-like structure; the apartments, looking into the courtyard, the procuratie.
This is his pitch: Liberal solutions can work (forgetting the fact that, here in East New York, we’re also surrounded by former generations of public housing, like sedimentary layers, that didn’t work). Government, or, in middle-of-the-road-speak, a public-private partnership, can make something functional, economical, uplifting, and dignified; indeed, there are 3,500 people in help housing — in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester, Philadelphia. The other part of his pitch, which I find hard to resist, is that he’s the only modern-American politician who’s actually put a roof over someone’s head.
It’s very movielike. The young, idealistic politician against this background of accomplishment and hope. It’s almost eerie in its foreboding — where’s the body?
He courted his wife out here. On their first date, he took her, on his Harley, to see her father’s Bed-Stuy project, and then he took her to see his own deal.
He shoehorns his wife into almost every conversation in a way that suggests that he either thinks the Kennedy thing is the biggest political asset he’s got going for him, or she’s been after him to get some credit for herself (It’s not all about you!).
Or it may be that, like many liberal Democrats of a certain era, he has a Kennedy fixation — he’s just taken his a little further than most.
Peter Ragone tells me that Andrew was giving a talk the other day to which he’d brought his family, and, in the middle of his speech, his young daughter walked out onto the floor. “Upstaged by a Kennedy,” Andrew said proudly. (I ask him if he thinks of his children as Kennedys. He says, with some amazement, that they have Kennedy mannerisms and gestures.)
I think it’s part of the class thing.
You can make the case that there’s a lost generation of pols. If you were a hotshot in the eighties and nineties, you didn’t go into politics — you became a finance guy, or technology guy, or media mogul. But Andrew, because he had to help his father, or because he was an underachiever, or because it was the way out of Queens, did go into politics, and he really doesn’t want to be thought the less of for it. In addition, even putting aside the doing-good part, housing the poor seems, as he talks about it, at least as interesting as being a finance guy or technology entrepreneur.
Still, I don’t think he has any illusions about politics or people in politics. He knows it’s largely low-grade work. A politico is not high up on the doing-big-things ladder. When he talks about Pataki, you feel that’s what he objects to most — Pataki is small-time (he seems embarrassed that this is his opponent, that they would be in any way comparable); Carl McCall, too. These are just political-class guys.
Whereas he’s pitching himself on a higher level. So even though he is a vastly more accomplished politician with a brighter future than anyone currently named Kennedy, I think he thinks the Kennedy thing helps dignify his endeavors (there are rumors, though, of dissatisfaction among the Kennedy men about a non-Kennedy using the brand). He’s in the Kennedy political class and everyone else is in another political class.
You get a powerful sense that it is Andrew who is searching as hard as anyone for the real thing. He has forged a filial bond not only with the Kennedys but with Bill Clinton — he’s one of the few Clintonites to have lasted the entire term.
Then, too, he’s among the most loyal and dedicated Gore-ites (if Gore had won the presidential race, in all likelihood Cuomo would not be running now but would have ascended to some higher, executive-branch place) — although he cringes at the thought of the Gore campaign.
And while I don’t see any trace at all of reluctance about running — after all, he’s been doing this for more than twenty years; in some sense, there has never been anyone, at least since Bobby Kennedy, as well prepared to run for public office as Andrew Cuomo — I wonder if knowing what he knows must not engender a certain painful self-consciousness. What is your chance of not disappointing yourself and everyone else?
Indeed, the one liberal giant who oddly, or not so oddly, he doesn’t seem to identify with is Mario. Mario’s ambivalence is something to steer clear of.
We’re sitting back on Water Street, the car idling. I’m starving, but politicians never go out to eat (they scarf something down and go on to the next event). Peter Ragone is scrunched up in the backseat, paying rapt attention to Cuomo. I wonder if he’s worried about Cuomo’s motormouth — Cuomo is, for a politician, unusually aware of the process of being a politician, and oddly willing to talk about it. (Most politicians are absent people — there but not there. Whatever they say, they’ve said innumerable times. You never have a real conversation.)
He’s demonstrating for me the Clinton touch: holding my shoulder, taking my hand, stroking my knee. It’s perfect mimicry. He seems to understand both the humor of it and the power of it.
“He knew every nuance of what he was doing,” he says, with some awe, about Clinton. “The effect of touching you there, or touching you here.”
The real thing, Andrew seems to be saying, is, of course, always partly a phony.
He goes on to a brief deconstruction of Mario — that he could accept an intellectual relationship with the voters, but was not at all interested in an emotional one. So, equally, the real thing may fail because it’s not phony enough.
He keeps chewing: What does it take to be the kind of person who voters or the media want you to be, or think they want you to be — and do you want to be that person (Gore, he believes, in the end did not)? And what does it take to be a politician who is not tainted by being a politician?
The question he seems to be trying to answer, at the beginning of his first campaign for office, is: How far is it possible to distance yourself from the pack of hacks, seducers, wonks, special-interest-group guys, and fathers’ sons?
“What do you think?” asks Ragone, after Cuomo has gone back to his office, and we go looking for a sandwich.
Not to jinx it, and because you always end up paying for a political crush, I say, “He looks good, but there’s a long way to go.”