They’ve Come Undone

I first met Andrew Cuomo a little more than two years ago when I started to write about his incipient gubernatorial campaign. He’d drive his rental car to meetings with New York State Democrats, expounding on most anything that came into his head while I sat in the front seat taking notes on what he said. He seemed to me then—as he still does now—a smart, funny, engaged liberal politician.

The intensity was the thing. He drew you in. It was all personal appeal. One-on-one (often hours of it). Unlike most professional politicians, he was a great, expressive, unguarded talker. And of course, in the age of Bush, he had the legacy thing going, too—Cuomo and Kennedy. More intensity.

As it happened, all of these promising political traits had something to do with why his campaign ended so ignominiously late last summer. His great drive came to seem like a personality problem. His unguardedness resulted in extraordinary gaffes (notably his Pataki-was-just-the-coat-holder gaffe). And the legacy began to look like rank opportunism—almost feral opportunism. He resigned from the race even before the primary election.

Now these same qualities—his overheatedness, the operatic political heritage he’s been selling, and his need to talk to everybody constantly—provide the background for what is shaping up to be one of the most naked political domestic dramas ever to be played out in public.

The need for self-dramatization here is evidently greater than even the desire for self-preservation and the calculation of how to run again another day. The window that’s been opened into this marriage and this political life has been flung wide by people who appear to have lost all sense—certainly media sense. (Hillary’s fine-tooled handling of her own situation, and the lifeless prose with which she expressed her pain, hang censoriously in the air.)

Indeed, in the most verboten of media-management and spin-doctor circumstances, the Cuomo-Kennedy marriage exploded just before the long, zero-news Fourth of July weekend, guaranteeing full-blown, uninterrupted attention to the details of this virtually real-time breakup.

You could turn up your nose at the tabloid smell of it all. Or enjoy the summer sport of watching well-known people behaving badly—the he-said/she-said, the in flagrante, the polo player, the appearance of the family eminences, the awkward housing arrangements. Or you could read it deeper, as American realism, Theodore Dreiser, or John P. Marquand—promising people caught in traps of their own making, struggling against conventions and expectations.

At any rate, Andrew Cuomo was once again the country’s most unmanaged and unmanageable politician.

Ambition is, of course, the point.

Andrew’s ambition is of the manic type—he’s obsessive, and a perfectionist. If he’s not winning, he’s losing. And blaming himself.

Since he dropped out of the gubernatorial race, he’s been caught in a deep, distracted funk (“I’m not sure it’s a clinical depression, but it’s pretty bad,” diagnosed a political consultant earlier this year when we sat down to rehash Andrew—a popular New York State political pastime), unable to get beyond his failed campaign, or to see his next move, wandering around the house in Bedford. (Andrew had wanted to live in the city when they moved back from Washington; Kerry had insisted on the suburbs.) It is against this backdrop that his wife takes up with the polo player.

The story of political failure in American life is a mostly unwritten one (shortly after Andrew withdrew from the race, when I knew he was looking for a book to write, I suggested, idiotically, that a book about being a loser would be interesting). Politicians surely don’t want to talk about the misery of losing, nor are most self-aware enough to face having lost. Suck it up. You’re just supposed to go back to your real life—or to making big money off your past political associations.

But not only does Andrew not have another real career and not much evident interest in making money, his personal life is his political organization. It’s two organizations, actually—the Cuomo one and the Kennedy one—comprising just about the most competitive people who have ever lived. And you can bet both organizations judge you only as a winner or as a loser.

Surely Andrew and his father have one of the most complex and competitive father-son relationships in politics. (As a politician, Mario Cuomo was controlling and ambivalent, and so as a father … ?). It’s long been a sideshow among political reporters in New York State: the Mario-and-Andrew act. They talk about each other—Andrew always calls his father Mario—with remarkable and weird dispassion, as though each were an analyst, most often a disappointed analyst, of the other. They’re not the Bushes.

Andrew is 24 years old when he runs his father’s upset campaign for governor and becomes one of the most powerful people in the state. But his next imperative is to achieve power independent of his father—to escape his father and to escape being his father’s hatchet man. He quickly distances himself from Mario by launching his Robert Kennedy–style public-private-housing initiative.

Further executing on his grand plan, his first date with Kerry Kennedy is a tour of one of his low-income complexes not far from the housing project (less successful than Andrew’s own) started by her father in Bedford-Stuyvesant twenty years before.

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.

There is no politician of whom this measure is not now taken by the opposition and the press (and even by admirers). How flagrant is he? Are there partners who will talk? And what’s his opponent’s zipper status?

This is what people talk about. This is what people really want to know. A consensus develops (we believe the consensus to be more truthful than the public statements). We are imagining lives here, imputing character. Sexuality is part of the postmodern political analysis. And indeed—Clinton, Giuliani, Gingrich, etc.—we tolerate wide extremes. It is no longer a moral issue—we are well beyond that—but an issue of who you are. How real are you, how arrogant, how shifty, how crass, how human?

It may be that the single greatest Bush political achievement is that he was able to cordon off his sexual life. He admitted to having one in the past—that was the stroke of genius.

Now, I have no idea of the reality of Andrew Cuomo’s sex life. I do know that the wide assumption is that he has a sex life at least commensurate with his status as a good-looking, powerful, aggressive man. (“There are very few Peter Vallones out there,” a state political consultant says about the current scene in New York.)

“I would not find it intensely believable that a guy like that could go his whole life without some slippage,” remarked a friend of mine when I argued that Andrew might have been faithful to his wife.

“His eyes drink you in like straws,” said a young woman I know who has been around Andrew.

Certainly this sense of Andrew’s being too hot to handle became a factor in the campaign. The Clintonian aura attached to him. The flirtatiousness was real. In any given room, he was a serious serial flirter. The intensity—physical, sexual—was ever-present. Nobody looks at this uncritically anymore. Everybody has well-developed radar.

Including the wife—who we know now, courtesy of the New York Post and a photographer’s long lens, has been spending lots of time in the gym.

It has the feel of irony and payback: She cheated on him.

And this now has revealed him, in a further irony, as not a cynical politician but a naked, cuckolded husband with real hurt and rage. The political world may be less postmodern than it sometimes seems.

And then the comedy.

It is not just that your wife is having an affair but whom she’s having an affair with.

This really becomes the illusion-shattering thing. And your illusions not just about your wife but about yourself.

A long time ago, almost fifteen years, I had some dealings with Bruce Colley. It was one of those being-involved-with-people-you-shouldn’t-be-involved-with things (Andrew may be feeling something similar now). But I was trying to raise money for a business venture, and that led from one more-or-less-questionable rich person to another.

Colley’s father was among the largest McDonald’s franchisees in the country (possibly the largest), meaning the Colleys were worth hundreds of millions. The father ran the business and the son didn’t—it seemed that simple. But the son didn’t appear to do anything else either. He was pompous and ridiculous. Disengaged and superficial in a way that made you think it really is damaging to be rich. And not so bright. That was in fact his calling card—”He’s not so bright,” said my friend who was his friend—so, in other words, there was some chance he might invest in what I was doing.

Indeed, you could hardly imagine two more opposite people than the fatuous and self-satisfied Bruce Colley and the intense and hungry Andrew Cuomo. At least on the face of it.

But if the human-rights activist was once interested in the liberal politician but now madly in love with the Republican polo-playing McDonald’s franchisee (human-rights activism and polo playing are, in the end, both leisure-time activities), well, there it is.

The point remains: It really isn’t all that hard to follow the standard playbook here. You issue a statement. You leave town for a little while. You appear amicably together in public once or twice. You quietly sort out your real-estate issues.

Political or economic self-interest, or just the desire not to be publicly and vastly humiliated, should win out. You put on a game face.

What’s more, Cuomo is advised by his longtime chum, Dan Klores, one of the city’s consummate PR crisis managers (he handled Lizzie Grubman). And certainly, the Kennedys know a thing or two about managing personal disasters.

So how come it came apart?

Apparently for the same reasons most people in similar icky situations come unglued: mutual wounding. Imagine the pressure cooker of hatred that must have built over the months of “trying to work it out”—the failed counseling; the continuing affair; the inevitable, ongoing, unrelieved bitterness.

Plus you have two organizations—the Cuomos and the Kennedys—that, when their interests are not aligned, can be counted on to turn against each other, resulting here in tabloid tit-for-tat (because they are both so often the focus of tabloid interest, they are both wired into the tabloids).

And so commences the fanzine melodrama: the charges of betrayal … then the revelations of the polo player … then Andrew waving his finger at the polo player: “Stay away from my kids” … and the polo player threatening legal action … and Kerry pronouncing her love … and then how distraught she is that the polo player might not be in love back … and Andrew, in a moment of gallantry, announcing that he still loves his wife.

And, of course, Andrew just can’t stop talking.

The rap that he went negative on her—went public with her affair before she could go public with anything about him—suggests he is more in control than he really ever has been.

Indeed, Klores was denying all over town that any of the affair stuff came from him or from Andrew. And technically, that may be true. But—imagine—Andrew is on the phone night and day. He’s not consciously talking to the press, but he’s talking to anybody who will listen to him. He isn’t different from any other wounded husband—except that he can talk longer, can explain further, can analyze better. Indeed, he can’t stand for anybody else to tell the story. He is his own narrator—that’s his need.

How many people did he call? No doubt, a good portion of the biggest gossips in the state.

Likewise, to counter Andrew’s gossip, the Kennedys have to deploy their own gossipers in the field.

And then, after the hardy band of tabloid reporters wring the gossip out of everyone who has talked to anybody who has had any contact, Andrew is on the phone with reporters (or at the end of his driveway going on and on), pleading with them not to call everyone he has called.

The rap on Andrew may be dead wrong—he’s not a lover; he’s a talker. As promiscuous and indiscreet a talker as there has ever been. It’s his mouth he can’t keep zipped. He wants you to know what he thinks and feels.

Now, this is obviously a political liability of some magnitude. Andrew’s inability to shut up now holds him up to vast torment and ridicule—not to mention meaning, in any conventional sense, the end of his political life (betrayal, unlike with Hillary, has not lent him stature).

But let me return, before he is hopelessly cast aside, to the idea of Andrew as a political figure.

The interesting thing is that people are always trying to shut Andrew up, trying to manage what he says, trying to get him on the straight and narrow.

But what if you gave Andrew free rein? Let politics again become what it has not been for a long, long time—an expressive art.

After all, there’s hardly anything left to hide. He’s devastated, destroyed, finished, report people who have spoken to him, just like all left-behind husbands. But this is the subject, the real-life political subject, that people want to hear about. This isn’t a phony issue.

Let him talk.

They’ve Come Undone