Andrew Cuomo, in a black gabardine suit by his brother-in-law Kenneth Cole, leaves his SUV with a campaign worker at the wheel and comes into the vestibule at Michael’s, the midtown media-business restaurant. He immediately runs into Richard Holbrooke, the former ambassador to the United Nations. The Clinton administration’s most glitzy bureaucrat (Cuomo ran HUD) and its most glitzy diplomat fondly (it seems to be fondly) embrace.
The fusion here of ego, drive, intelligence, entitlement, know-it-all-ness produces less, perhaps, of a power moment than it might have because they are both out of office (“He would have been the secretary of State if Gore had been elected,” Cuomo tells me). Still, you feel it. An energy blow-back. The force that needs to be released. Neither of these guys is, to say the least, relaxed, or ever going to be relaxed.
Which is exactly what I am here to talk to Cuomo about over tea and cookies after the lunch hour: the rap he’s been getting for rapaciousness and a too-ardent desire for power.
Now, the Democratic-primary campaign for the gubernatorial nomination was expected to be a destructive battle about race. The internecine party conflicts and competing power centers that destroyed Mark Green in his run for mayor – the Hispanics in the Bronx, the Rangel machine in Harlem, the always-volatile Sharpton factor versus, or sometimes in concert with, all the other factions of the white Establishment – were supposed to scar whoever won the primary and hence doom New York Democrats in November (and possibly for years to come).
But so far, in some sort of unexpected realignment of the Democratic Party in the state, it isn’t at all about race – it’s about personality. Andrew Cuomo’s personality – he’s just rubbing everybody wrong. He wants it too badly, people seem to think, and will do anything to get it. He’s a bully, as well as a bull in a china shop, as well as, we’ve decided, a smart-ass. There’s a rawness to him and an intensity and even an implicit threat that is more vivid, and larger, and, too, more entertaining than race politics.
He was having lunch here, at Michael’s, not long ago (Michael’s is a Clinton-administration-in-exile hangout – Mickey Kantor and George Stephanopoulos, along with Holbrooke, are regulars; Clinton himself has been at the head table). I was a few tables away. My companion, facing Cuomo, offered me a series of bulletins throughout our lunch. About his eyes. His jaw. His brow. The tightness of his shoulders. “He’s the shark who wants to swallow the whole restaurant,” she said.
His ambition, in other words, frightens even other overly ambitious people.
I am not sure he gets this at all.
He sees, for instance, his decision to forgo the Democrats’ nominating convention as a dramatic and gutsy (as well as tactically deft) thing to do: Inside the convention, you have the party hacks; outside, you have the insurgent. And while inside, unquestionably, you had party hacks, Cuomo doesn’t see that outside you had a guy who is already, at this still-early stage of the campaign, exhausting everybody. He’s too smart by half.
“Has anybody ever at any point in your life really called you Andy?” I ask, because Andy has become the calculated term of derision by the McCall and Pataki camps, one gladly picked up by the tabloids. It’s a very precise and evocative sort of put-down.
“Never,” he says, “never ever.” But he points out that his advisers say it’s not bad for him to be known as Andy.
He and they don’t get that Andy is used with such effectiveness – to say it is to understand why you don’t like Cuomo; it’s a schoolyard razz – because he is clearly not an Andy. That’s what people are tittering about.
There is nothing laid-back or folksy or self-effacing or just-one-of-the-guys – no matter that he grew up in Hollis, Queens – about Andrew Cuomo.
As it happens, I don’t believe this, or see it this way at all – that he’s just a shark, a grabber, a transparent Sammy Glick type, a yuppie on steroids.
Or to the extent that it is true – and he is surely among the most driven and ambitious people I’ve met in a long time, obsessively and, no doubt, neurotically so – its meaning is, in my perhaps old-fashioned worldview, a positive one.
To me, he’s a quick, good, glib talker – it’s great conversation. He’s obviously a smart operator. He’s self-dramatizing in a vivid and compelling way. He’s on top of everything – not just briefed but engaged (he’ll talk you into the ground about anything, clamping his hand on yours, holding you curbside in the SUV). He’s funny. He’s cutting. He’s seductive. He’s good-looking – the good looks that come with an overabundance, perhaps, of self-confidence. He’s definitely not boring.
All of these are among the ingredients that might create a traditionally charismatic Democrat. Can-do. Vigorous. Full of the vision thing. Certainly these are all virtues highly compatible with the entrepreneurial personality so much exalted over the past Clinton-age years.
Which is of course the point – Cuomo’s caught in Zeitgeist turnaround. He’s suddenly way out of fashion. He stands in stark contrast to the new character mode.
Bush and Pataki: Stolidness is in power (stolidness is power). Underachievement is in; overachievement is out. Stupid is the new smart. It’s the age of political comfort food. Both guys turn away from any kind of self-dramatizing. They are comfortable with boringness. Their implication, in fact, is that boringness is Americanness.
McCall, on the Democratic side, is himself a perfect complement to the comfort Zeitgeist. He merits an amount of goodwill by not really being a challenger, by not really asking to be elected – his party’s nomination, as the capstone to his career, will be enough. This was, heretofore, a race point – a black person should reap his fair reward for mediocrity, too. But it has now become another sort of point – Carl McCall is nice, Andrew Cuomo is not. Carl McCall is polite, Andrew Cuomo is rude.
Which leads to the coat-holder remark.
What Cuomo was obviously saying, in an especially ungenerous way, was what everyone observed (and in my experience frequently remarked upon): There was a notable, even weird, passivity on the part of the governor during the days and nights of 9/11. Pataki was the stoic bystander. The face in the background. The Zelig in the shot. Showing up was his only apparent job.
Over the Michael’s cookie plate, I try to parse this with Cuomo, who is still frustrated by the backfire.
One clear lesson is probably that it is just too early to fool with the 9/11 iconography – in that portrait, Pataki has a fixed role as the tall, soulful-looking silent guy. It’s a tact issue – and tact obviously is not something that Cuomo has a natural feeling for. He was, he says, just posing the most basic issue of the campaign: “Active or passive, engaged or disengaged?”
Do we want a governor who looks like he’d be happy to mow our lawns, or do we want a take-charge, roll-up-the-sleeves, let’s-rock-and-roll sort of fellow? The answer to that, while an incontrovertible certainty to Cuomo, is far from clear to most people.
“I am the provocateur. Obviously, the people in power are not going to like me,” says Cuomo.
Of course, he does not really mean he is a provocateur. He means he is smarter, quicker, younger, and less patient than his opponents. It’s really basic Democratic Party stuff: Clinton-ism and Kennedy-ism. He is – can’t help himself from being – the standard-bearer for the overachieving wing of the Democratic Party.
“I am the only person now running for office from the Clinton administration,” he says, “who hasn’t, in some way, repudiated the president.”
What’s more, there’s his Kennedy marriage.
The Kennedy stuff alone may be getting him into trouble – not just because the marriage itself suggests political opportunism of a high order (and it seems to me he ought to stop trying to sell it so hard) but because he may take too much to heart Bobby Kennedy’s own personality problems. Bobby was his brother’s campaign manager, as was Cuomo his father’s – both were hatchet men. Bobby was the Cabinet member who, out of power, came to New York to make his first run for public office – he had to overcome his inexperience, too. And Bobby was, in 1964, what the son-in-law he never knew is now: unreconstructed – each had yet to learn to express ambition as charm. And, of course, Bobby Kennedy won.
At the same time, I remind him, this most famous political name of the century, the brother of the slain president, almost lost (without the LBJ landslide in New York, he would have).
“Is this helpful,” I ask Cuomo midway through my catalogue of his personality deficiencies, “or is it just annoying?”
“Let me hear it,” he says, with evident resignation. Then he does some instant political synthesis and damage control (he seems to abstract all conversations into a high political context): “If the issue is race, we lose. If the issue is me, my personality, whether I’m a jerk or not,” Cuomo says, and shrugs, “then we can deal with that.” Getting people to like him – or dislike him less – is surely easier than rehabilitating the racial consciousness of the Democratic Party.
You can plot out the reversal. It seems to me no contest between a side-by-side Cuomo and Pataki or McCall. Excitement/no excitement. Who would do the better half-hour on Charlie Rose? (It seems to me obviously easier to make edgy seem attractive and compelling, than blah seem like sexy stuff.) What’s more, he’s raised enough money, and there’s still plenty of time to retail a smoother Cuomo. Undoubtedly, the consultants are working overtime.
Still, it isn’t exactly good political fortune to have to go up against the Zeitgeist. There is, in the air, an obvious attraction to the guy who mows the lawn. What’s more, Cuomo, unlike, say, Clinton, who would be on the back of a little lawn tractor by now, seems to have difficulty appreciating the Zeitgeist – or, anyway, he has the arrogance to try to resist it.
Is there a viable political strategy in bucking the Zeitgeist rather than joining it? It’s been a long time since any politician has tried. What happens if you run a race in which your key position is to argue that the candidate who voters evidently think is capable and trustworthy and stand-up (sweet, even) is just the opposite? That the suit is really empty. That the guy who looks asleep at the switch is. That complacency, even the aesthetic of complacency, kills.
Come to think of it, this is not just a New York issue.
I wonder what would happen if you ran such a campaign up and down the talk-show dial – a campaign of pure logic and certitude? Hello, he’s a dull boy, and I’m smart with razzle-dazzle. Who do you think can offer bigger and better opportunities and more fun? Duh.
The strange, and not unwelcome, thing is that this is exactly the kind of campaign Cuomo is running.