The Action Figure

Not your father's politician: Andrew Cuomo formally announces his candidacy for governor.

Watching a politician engage in a long-term, high-publicity campaign is, these days, chiefly a matter of watching him wrestle his demons to the ground. We may talk more about positions and issues — although with each passing election cycle, this is less true — but positions and issues are window dressing, and in any event are already largely fixed in place when the campaign begins. What we learn over the course of a campaign is the quality of the candidate’s moral and emotional fiber, and usually, enough of us make our decisions based on that to swing the matter in one direction or the other.

It follows that this prism inevitably favors certain types and disfavors others. Conventional wisdom says the worst thing a candidate can be is complicated. Think Al Gore here. It’s uncomplicated that the voters want, or so the media high priests tell us; people without scars, burdens, or doubts (usually these also happen to be politicians who can’t sustain an unscripted thought past three sentences, which is somehow considered a plus). Think Mike Bloomberg, George Bush, and, of course, George Pataki.

But there have been many occasions when complicated has held the trump card. Here we conjure up Rudy Giuliani, both Clintons, in their different ways, and Mario Cuomo. Which mood will obtain this year? If he succeeds at nothing else, Andrew Cuomo — who announced his candidacy for governor last week and immediately made his task, well, complicated by virtue of some remarks he tossed George Pataki’s way about September 11 — will have helped us settle that question.

Genesis Homes in East New York is one of those low-slung, post-Corbusian housing complexes whose very suburban-ness, which we would ordinarily find off-putting and sterile, seems instead an oasis of serenity when surrounded by rotting warehouses and tenement projects. Andrew Cuomo’s organization, HELP, built this place. It’s no wonder that he wanted to show it off by announcing his candidacy here, and no wonder that he wanted Cornel West and Russell Simmons at his side. It was, as these events go, comparatively genuine, and even glimpsing the back of Ethel Kennedy’s tousled head — Bobby’s widow and Andrew’s mother-in-law, sitting quietly in the front row — was enough to summon some friendly ghosts from days when a liberal candidate could say the L-word without fear of penalty.

Cuomo spoke for half an hour. I could quote him at length, but the decontextualized printed page doesn’t do him justice. This guy has got something. He’s not warm and soulful, like Bill Clinton; he’s full of sharp edges. But the edges are part of his energy, and if there’s one quality that just explodes out of him, it’s energy. Indeed, it’s his slogan: “Ideas. Energy. Action.” On the banner behind him, and on the side of his bus. With bullet points. For emphasis.

Aides will tell you that the “energy” and “action” parts are subtle messages of contrast to Pataki, a governor not known for burning the midnight oil, and Comptroller Carl McCall, Cuomo’s primary opponent and a man many regard as passive. Yet I couldn’t help but think that, whether it was considered or not, those two words had another implied message.

Andrew Cuomo has months to defeat his own demons, whatever they may prove to be. But first, circumstances being what they are, he has to shoot and bag his father’s. Mario was great — without contemporary equal — on ideas, but something short of that on energy and action. He was too Jesuitical and inward; qualities that may have made him a good man, but didn’t make him an activist governor. There was an old joke in Albany after Mario, in his 1988 State of the State Address, declared “The Decade of the Child.” The punch line was, “but he didn’t mean this decade.”

So Andrew, before he gets to Pataki and McCall, has to persuade Democrats that he’s not the old man. That he is not, I have little doubt. His manner, and his record at HUD, where he improved the nation’s public-housing stock while cutting the agency’s size, persuade me that one malady he does not suffer from is his father’s internal conflict (no Hamlet he). However, as he showed the day after the Brooklyn announcement on the press bus near Buffalo, he may have other problems.

I’m sure that by the time you read this, Cuomo will have been lustily denounced by every columnist and editorial writer in the state for telling reporters last week that Pataki “was not a leader” after September 11. So let’s first state the obvious: It was a dumb mistake. It got him well off message. It brought Rudy Giuliani out to link arms with Pataki, something Giuliani under normal conditions is loath to do. If Cuomo defeats McCall in the primary, the Pataki commercials that will be used against him could be scripted by a child: a firefighter’s widow, eyes tearing up before the camera, saying something like, “I have news for Andrew Cuomo. You better believe George Pataki is my leader!”

So it was a major tactical blunder. But it was not, as some would have it, a moral blunder. First of all, though no one will say this publicly, there was some private snickering after the Trade Center attacks about Pataki’s public posture, which often consisted of tossing in his two cents after the mayor had finished his lengthy soliloquies. Second, there was Pataki’s clumsy request of Washington for $54 billion in post-attack relief — the infamous rail link to Schenectady, and so on — that demonstrably hindered federal-aid efforts for a time. That ploy was not leadership at all. It was cheap-seat theater that got in the way of leadership.

Is it right that the enormity of the tragedy should insulate Pataki from having to defend that? There is a force field of civic piety, made all the stronger because it can rely on patriotism as well, around the very phrase September 11. Pataki, like George Bush, has benefited from it greatly. Newspapers, as guardians of the civic common denominator, have a tendency to sustain this force field. But fortunately, voters don’t think like newspapers. Bush’s approval rating is still high, and to read about it, you’d think that America can’t wait to charge to the polls en masse to re-elect him. However, his re-elect number — people who say they’re planning on voting for him in 2004 — is a much shakier 41 percent.

The difference between Bush and Pataki is that Bush offends many Democrats, while Pataki is as inoffensive as oatmeal, so making this charge, or any charge, stick, will be tough. But Cuomo is making an interesting gamble here, opening a line of attack as dramatically as possible and counting on the voters to make distinctions that the media as a rule do not.

Or, of course, it might just be that one of his demons is that he has a big, fat mouth. In either case, he makes things entertaining. Or you might say complicated.


The Action Figure