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Gaslight, Gatekeep, Governor
A review of The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York by Ross Barkan (OR Books, 2021)
A few weeks ago, Jacobin asked me to review my dear homie Ross Barkan’s new book about Andrew Cuomo, his management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what looks to be the twilight of his reign as the prince of New York. What timing!
As you watch the potential end of Cuomo’s career, this book can help you understand how it all fell apart - and how many people were hurt along the way.
The review appeared today on Jacobin’s website. You can read it here too, republished in full.
Last week in New York magazine, Rebecca Traister reflected on Andrew Cuomo’s ability to “bend reality to his will” over his ten-year reign as the prince of New York. With scant interest in or acuity for policy, it was politics where Cuomo always thrived. There, he could transform his record of personal cruelty and public dysfunction into a ledger of his imagined virtues — as a governor and a father, as a son and a man. Politics was where he could make others indulge the fantasy that he believed about himself.
Importantly, as Traister observes: “That Cuomo’s accounts are fictional, his power based on theatrics over substance, press conferences over policy, doesn’t make them less real.” Just as important to remember is that their reality is not the fruit of Cuomo’s efforts alone.
At his daily briefings to the public in the early months of the pandemic, aides and experts stood behind him in visible deference to his primacy. In Albany, the state legislature surrendered its power to govern, enabling him to rule by decree. A credulous media reported his word as gospel, and lionized his managerial competence, his depths of empathy, his sexual vitality. The performance of these rituals made Andrew Cuomo into an institution with an existence all its own, a social fact just as real as it was distinct from the man who shared its name.
That’s what The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York, a new book from left-wing journalist (and Jacobin columnist) Ross Barkan, is really about. Sure, Andrew Cuomo’s human face appears on the cover, and its brisk 180 pages are filled with scenes from the life and times of the man who resides (for now) in the governor’s mansion. It dwells at length on the pathologies — narcissism and callousness, vindictiveness and a will to power — that have shaped the lives and deaths of millions of New Yorkers for more than a decade.
But as singular as Cuomo’s personality was, an institution as potent and enduring as his could only be built with the connivance of every segment of New York’s civic infrastructure. Barkan’s book reads like a schematic for how this was done as the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the state.
In early March 2020, the political class vested Cuomo with emergency powers outstripping any that had existed in New York state before, and that surpassed those enjoyed by nearly every other executive in the country. His office prepared legislation allowing him to suspend any state or local law he chose and rule by fiat, then delivered it to the state legislature without any discussion of its implications. They passed it after midnight the same day.
But even as he consolidated power, Cuomo publicly denied the gravity of the impending crisis, soothing New Yorkers with the promise that life would continue as normal, while officials in states like Washington urged people to work from home and warned of the imminent closure of public schools. Barkan’s assiduous documentation of Cuomo’s delusions during this period indicts not only the governor but the state legislature that abandoned New York to his whims.
But ultimately, Cuomo’s whims were based on others’ interests. For all his unprecedented powers, he governed just as he had throughout his tenure: as an instrument of capital.
“For those watching closely, it was becoming clear that Cuomo was farming out much of his pandemic response policy to the hospital association. . . . Longtime allies of Cuomo, they would chart the direction of the next year,” Barkan writes. Later, he quotes New York state senator Alessandra Biaggi’s assessment of who was calling the shots behind the scenes: “[The hospital lobby] had more access than most people in the entire government. . . . They have essentially been given carte blanche for our legislative process.”
They used Cuomo to order elderly COVID-19 survivors out of their hospitals and back into nursing homes, leading to thousands of needless and gruesome deaths among New York’s most vulnerable elders. Then they used him to lock in legal immunity for this atrocity, burying the provision thousands of pages deep in the state budget hours before it passed into law, its presence undetected by most of the legislators who approved it.
All the while, both the national media and the New York press corps conjured an alternative reality for the public to inhabit, where Cuomo reigned as their enlightened despot with sex appeal.
Rebecca Fishbein at Jezebel “swooned when he told a reporter he has his own workout routine . . . I think I have a crush???” After Cuomo called Fishbein to hear her swoon firsthand, Molly Jong-Fast wrote about the “pang of jealousy” that came over her for Vogue: “He was MY competent governor/imaginary boyfriend. . . . Rebecca can have the horrible, self-congratulatory mayor . . . who is always screaming at me through the TV.” By May, he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, and in June, his top aide and chief enabler Melissa DeRosa graced the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
But no one was in thrall to the celebrity governor more than the Gray Lady. “Andrew Cuomo is the control freak we need right now,” wrote Ben Smith of the New York Times. “[He] has emerged as the executive best suited for the coronavirus crisis . . . relentless behind the scenes, open about the risks.” Mara Gay ventured that the pandemic “may prove to be the finest moment of Andrew Cuomo’s public life.”
Barkan’s catalog of media humiliations is among the most maddening content in the book and illustrates one of his principal virtues as an author. He commands a deep expertise refined through a career in the New York press corps but avoids falling victim to the worst habits that afflict so many of his colleagues. Their open contempt for the Left, their reflexive deference to power, their fetish for the aesthetic of managerial competence — this was all fertile ground for Cuomo to cultivate the myth of himself as New York’s savior. That Barkan manages to operate in this hothouse of professional-class neuroses relatively unfazed is an achievement in itself, and it’s how he’s already written an entire book about a truth that many in the press are only now admitting.
At times, though, his own contempt for Cuomo — merited though it is — leads him to miss the forest for the trees. Like Traister, he tends to portray the governor as a quasi-omnipotent figure, whose power and prestige were unconstrained by material conditions as they actually existed. And, in some ways, it’s true: Cuomo enjoyed both unparalleled agency and insulation from scrutiny while in office.
But the deeper truth is that he was permitted those indulgences only because those with even greater power knew he’d use them on their behalf. Cuomo’s entire career has been bankrolled by New York’s ruling class to the tune of tens of millions in campaign contributions, and they got what they paid for. The media worshipped him because he crushed the Left that they already hated along the way and flattered the notions of responsible government they’d always held.
At the end of the day, Andrew Cuomo was an opportunist whose power was a reward for playing his role in the status quo and his promise to only use it for evil. What was most unique about Cuomo was how much he relished the part. But even a prince has to pay the piper.