“C’mon, Pop, read from the book.”
It’s a balmy night in mid-November, and Chris Cuomo is anxious. His father, Mario, is supposed to be fielding kids’ questions about the elder Cuomo’s new children’s book, The Blue Spruce, on the fourth floor of Barnes & Noble at Union Square. But a gray-haired Cuomo devotee has asked the former governor what he thinks of the two Democratic presidential nominees, whom Cuomo refers to as “Boring” and “Less Boring.” Unbeknownst to Cuomo, Karenna Gore Schiff – the vice-president’s daughter – is standing back by a stack of sale books, her stony visage a vivid reminder of her father’s.
Two minutes into the former governor’s long-winded critique of the Dems, Chris Cuomo, surrounded by a gaggle of friends and his father’s well-wishers, repeats, tersely, “C’mon, Pop, read from the book.” He raises a copy to his chest and drums his fingers loudly on the dust jacket.
“What?” his father barks from the podium. “You want me to hold up the book? Okay.” He halfheartedly reaches for one and mumbles, “Spends some time on TV, now he’s a salesman …”
“No. I want you to read from the book.”
“Oh … read? I’m not going to read from the book – the nerve. Everybody?” Cuomo points to his son and says, “You see that strong, tall, good-looking young man back there? He’s my bodyguard.” He chuckles at his little joke. “No, he’s my son, Christopher, and we’re very proud of him, because he’s gonna be the youngest correspondent ever at 20/20.”
The crowd applauds; the women rubberneck.
Chris has arrived at Barnes & Noble from his first day at ABC, where he met with news vets like Diane Sawyer, Peter Jennings, and Barbara Walters. As his dad gives him grief, the 29-year-old sighs and admits, “My pop didn’t want me to go into journalism. He used to say, ‘Why do you just cover these things? Why don’t you go out and do them?”
Many Cuomo observers are wondering the same thing: why a son who practically has sunburn from a lifetime of media glare has chosen to join a business that his family has tolerated grudgingly – at best – for so many years. Geraldo Rivera, who used to call Cuomo “my young protégé” when Chris co-hosted The Geraldo Rivera Show back in 1998, jokes, “Well, the money in television is a helluva lot better than it is in politics. No, seriously, it’s Andrew’s turn; Chris is a loyal son and a good brother.”
Chris gladly admits that older brother Andrew, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is “the new lion in the pride,” but he also notes the differences in their upbringings. “Politics wasn’t foisted on Andrew,” explains Chris, who’s twelve years younger than his brother. “I was that blue-eyed little boy. Andrew was able to have his own life.”
In 1983, 12-year-old Chris moved his Transformers into the Governor’s Mansion and said good-bye to playground friends in Queens. In 1988, he left New York for Yale. He felt then, and still believes, like the Gen-X spokesman he’s become, that “my personal politics have largely disintegrated, because I know a little too much about how it gets done. The only reason I pay attention is to make sure everything’s cool with my brother. Whatever Andrew is,” Chris says, “I am. He’s the man.”
So as Andrew, who calls Chris “Mansion Boy,” moved into Clinton’s Cabinet, Chris grabbed his J.D. at Fordham in 1995 and made some quick money as a lawyer on Wall Street. Then the clean-cut little boy suddenly blossomed into a stud. In 1997, he landed on People’s “Most Beautiful People” list, and W declared him “New York’s most eligible bachelor” – after John Kennedy Jr.’s engagement, of course. He even made the list of most eligible bachelors at Manhattan File – strange, as he was (and still is) dating the editor-in-chief, Christina Greeven. Kennedy helped Cuomo with “the favored-political-son stuff, the hunk stuff,” Cuomo remembers. “He said, ‘Don’t let the media’s perception of you define you.’ ” Cuomo laughs, then adds, “He also said, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll always consider you to be the poor man’s me, anyway.’ “
Like Kennedy, Chris grew unsatisfied with his career in the law. So, taking advantage of the offers his name afforded, he took a guest stint on CNBC’s Equal Time in 1997, and followed that with a co-host slot on The Geraldo Rivera Show.
“When I was younger, I had a lot of disrespect for the news media,” he admits; “I still do. But, if anything, it gives you a lot of confidence that you could succeed in the field because you don’t exactly have the highest opinion of what it takes to make it.” And Cuomo discovered that reporters didn’t have to equivocate on contentious issues the way politicians do. He asks, “Would you rather try to pass a piece of legislation that might help or might not? Or would you rather expose that problem to so many people that they are forced to cry out against it?”
He scored his first regular reporting job at Fox Files in the summer of 1998. Cuomo pursued stories that stood out amid the show’s usual tabloid frenzy, covering hot topics like racial profiling and school prayer. He also dipped into some of the more standard Fox fare. At the 1999 Redneck Games, in Georgia, he interviewed the “heavily favored” mud-pit belly-flop champion. (Cuomo: “You look like an athlete; how do you prepare?” Redneck: “I just get out anywhere that’s got water, just belly-flop in there, you know, perfect my technique.”)
Cuomo, too, was perfecting his technique, and soon caught the eye of the more established media. His new boss at 20/20, executive producer Victor Neufeld, says he hired Cuomo because he was “moved by his reporting on the JFK tragedy” and impressed by his tough coverage of “street gangs and drug use among teens.” As part of 20/20’s attempt to court a younger demographic, Cuomo’s first assignment is a piece on the beleaguered manager of ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, which will air January 6. Characteristically, Cuomo is looking to cover grittier territory; a segment on police accountability is in the works.
Cuomo swears that his “mission” is “to get young people excited about the world around them.” Naturally, this is the kind of stuff that makes Pop proud. Back in his Sutton Place home, reflecting on the night he ribbed Chris at Barnes & Noble, Mario says, “Chris may not be a politician, but he wants to make a difference. I wouldn’t be surprised if, instead of wanting to be president of the United States, he decided he wanted to be president of a news network.” The only thing standing in his way, boasts the ex-governor, “is that Chris has this intense jealousy that a guy my age can score baskets right over his head.”
“Yeah, right,” says Chris, who must love the fact that he’s finally getting the last word in a Cuomo profile. “The only thing he’s dunkin’ is doughnuts in coffee.”