Some books age poorly; others are poorly aged from the moment they’re published. American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic, Andrew Cuomo’s recent memoir, manages to fall into both categories. The New York governor’s paean to his handling of the COVID-19 crisis is in some ways a classic political chronicle: a hero’s journey, through the ordeal to the victory, told by the hero himself. (The tale is often interrupted by musings about the power of government and the grim call of history. The author, along the way, compares himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.) But American Crisis deviates from its peers in its timing: It is considering in retrospect an event that has not, strictly speaking, ended. The book was released in October; by November, New York was facing another surge in COVID-19 cases.
The book now looks even more ill-conceived. Since last week, three women have come forward to accuse Cuomo of unwanted sexual advances. Lindsey Boylan, a former Cuomo staffer, alleged that he had “created a culture within his administration where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected”—and that the governor kissed her against her will while the two were alone in his office. Charlotte Bennett, another former employee, said that Cuomo asked her invasive questions about her personal life, including whether she had ever had sex with older men. (He is currently 63; she is 25.) Anna Ruch, who met Cuomo at a wedding, claims that the governor touched her bare lower back and, after she removed his hand, asked, “Can I kiss you?” (A friend snapped a photo of Ruch’s shocked expression as Cuomo held her face in his hands during the encounter.)
Cuomo has offered statements alternately denying the women’s allegations (“I never inappropriately touched anybody and I never propositioned anybody”), downplaying them (“At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny”), and—another classic of its genre—apologizing but only partially (“I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that”). On Wednesday, Cuomo gave a press conference offering a more robust claim of contrition: “I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it and, frankly, I am embarrassed by it.”
Managing an emergency, Cuomo observes in American Crisis, is in large part a matter of managing its message. (“I would have to convince people that I was delivering an unbiased truth with facts,” he writes, of the early days of COVID-19. “The people needed to trust me on this before I could ask them to act.”) One gets the sense, watching Cuomo’s handling of the women’s allegations, that this is perhaps a lesson he has learned too well. The governor, during the press conference, also offered an updated explanation for his alleged abuses of power: “I understand that sensitivities have changed and behavior has changed,” he said, “and I get it and I’m gonna learn from it.”
The argument has a familiar ring to it. Sensitivities have changed and behavior has changed: This was, applied to a very different series of allegations, the same type of explanation that Harvey Weinstein’s team initially offered when claims of his abuses were reported by The New York Times in 2017. (He’s “an old dinosaur learning new ways,” Lisa Bloom, an adviser to Weinstein, said at the time.) Joe Biden used the language of change as well, in 2019, after four women came forward to say that he had touched them in ways that had made them uncomfortable: “Social norms have begun to change,” Biden, then a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, said. “They’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it. I get it.”
When the New York governor speaks now of changing sensitivities, he is implying candor but also engaging in shrewd message management. He is nudging the story away from its fundamental question—Did Andrew Cuomo harass women?—and toward a more ethereal one: Did the world and its mores change too quickly around Andrew Cuomo? The latter question tidily edits out the women.
Cuomo’s reference to an evolving culture also suggests that the allegations in question are much older than they actually are: relics, the implication goes, of the mythic time before it occurred to men that women might prefer to be treated as equals. But Boylan—who claims that Cuomo engaged in a pattern of harassment that included, but was not limited to, the unwanted advance—says that the alleged kiss occurred in 2018. The photo of Ruch, her face in the governor’s hands, was taken in 2019. Cuomo’s alleged questioning about her sex life, Bennett says, took place in June. Yes, of 2020.
What is the difference, precisely, between a message that is managed and a message that misleads? American Crisis spends much of its time detailing the policies that Cuomo’s administration adopted to confront the pandemic, including the public rollout of those policies. In this book, leveling with the people often amounts to performing for them. Cuomo writes that he was terrified to get a COVID-19 test—the brain-tickling, swab-up-the-nose kind—on live television; he pretended to be calm, though, to inspire New Yorkers to follow his example. In a crisis in which so much depends on minimizing public panic, this is good leadership. But maintaining the public trust is another lesson that might have been overlearned. Twist it a few degrees, and it’s easy to see how that mandate could have led members of Cuomo’s administration, as The New York Times reported last night, to rewrite a state health report to erase its disclosure of the number of nursing-home residents who had died in the pandemic. (The edit apparently came in June, just as Cuomo was beginning to write his book.)
American Crisis provides, almost in spite of itself, a portrait of what leadership looks like when the leadership redounds to one person. When Cuomo introduces a staffer to his readers, he typically notes his assessment of that person: brilliant, loyal, tireless. In one way, this is simple magnanimity, a gesture of appreciation from the boss to his employees. Repeated over the course of a book, however, it’s a reminder that, for the workers, everything depends on the governor’s personal assessment of their talents and dedication to him. Cuomo tells the story of a lawyer with “a rare combination of talents”; she had worked with him when he was New York’s attorney general, and then she left to take a “great gig” in her home state of California. “A few months after her departure,” Cuomo writes, “I called her up and said, ‘You have to come back, I really need you.’ She came.”
The anecdote is offered as a testament to teamsmanship: “If you understood the bond that we develop working together the way we do, you wouldn’t be surprised,” Cuomo writes, of the woman’s willingness to answer his call. But we’ve seen many times, in other circumstances, how that “bond” can be abused. Boylan, in her essay about her experience working for the governor, accuses Cuomo of fostering a culture that revolved around his own whims. “His inappropriate behavior toward women was an affirmation that he liked you,” she writes, “that you must be doing something right. He used intimidation to silence his critics. And if you dared to speak up, you would face consequences.”
American Crisis is a balancing act. Cuomo decries leaders who are all talk and no action, yet his book is dedicated to the proposition that, in government, talk is action. He is a politician who repeatedly claims to resent politics. (“I am not a typical politician,” he declares at one point. “If I were, I would have run for president.”) What does Andrew Cuomo, the three-term governor who is the son of a three-term governor, mean by “politics”? He never makes that fully clear; what is unmistakable, though, is that in his book, it’s his appointed enemies—Donald Trump, Bill de Blasio, the press—who engage in politics. Andrew Cuomo, however, offers leadership.
Political memoirs tend to engage in canny confessionalism, sharing just enough to convince the reader that something authentic has been revealed. This is the power of books whose ostensible authors are also their subjects. Cuomo’s ode to his own leadership is so full of small admissions that you might come to see, in their outlines, a preemptive defense. “I am a controlling personality,” acknowledges the man whose interpersonal skills have won him the nickname “Prince of Darkness” and comparisons to Darth Vader. But then Cuomo flips the script: “You show me a person who is not controlling, and I’ll show you a person who is probably not highly successful.” There are many such switches in the book: domineering becomes decisive; volatile becomes emotional; impatience becomes a policy (“‘constructive impatience,’ which promotes an aggressive posture in problem identification and resolution”). Were American Crisis one’s primary source of information about the governor, one could easily come away thinking that his principal flaws are working too hard and caring too much. One could also come away quite charmed.
In the book, the politician who has long been known for his misanthropy spends a lot of time discussing what he says he has learned about vulnerability. He talks about openness and honesty being key to his ability to connect with people during his daily briefings about New York’s coronavirus response. (The briefings were often carried live on cable news and were notable in large part because they served as antidotes to Trump’s grotesquely unhinged affairs.) “I learned that even in the public arena vulnerability is always worth the risk,” Cuomo writes, “because without it there’s nothing. I learned that in the right circumstances people can reach a higher level of trust and goodness. Sometimes it just takes the other person to go first. So I’ll go.”
He has applied the same lessons to his life outside politics. “Showing love makes us vulnerable,” Cuomo observes, “and we don’t want to be vulnerable. We are also socialized to think showing love is showing weakness—especially men. I have gotten past that. I am an emotional person and I show it very openly in my personal life.” Building on his earlier memoir, All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life, he talks in American Crisis about his divorce and election losses:
After what I went through, I became much more emotionally expressive. I wanted to fully communicate how I felt and understand the feelings of others. I try to ask questions to understand what makes other people tick. But in politics, I have remained what I would call emotionally reserved. Politics can be nasty. Opponents seize on any weakness. The press is always looking for any controversial statement or action to exploit.
Here is the author refuting himself (is he emotionally reserved in politics, or emotionally vulnerable?). He is also, perhaps, protecting himself. Staffers’ claims of personally invasive questions? I try to ask questions to understand what makes other people tick. The reports that his administration “dramatically and intentionally understated the pandemic’s toll on nursing home residents in New York”? The press is always looking for any controversial statement or action to exploit.
And on and on. American Crisis is in some ways a compelling read. Chapters begin with orienting statistics about COVID-19’s path in New York State—total cases, total hospitalizations, total deaths—and the effect is to remind the reader of the grim stakes of the story. Cuomo correctly assessed that as the nation reckoned with active anti-initiative from the federal government, competence itself could become its own kind of sell. But competence can do only so much. And American Crisis, for all its confident claims of crises managed and lessons learned, ends up raising more questions than it answers. Primary among them: What are Americans willing to sacrifice, at this point, for the semblance of a leader?