Andrew Cuomo’s well crafted resignation speech proves once again you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The speech was outwardly everything a PR person could recommend when spinning such a deplorable situation, except for its having come weeks later than it should have. And it left unanswered questions of culpability going well beyond the sexual harassment behavior and hostile work environment delineated in the 165-page report by the New York Attorney General.
Talk about lipstick on a pig! The Governor’s cultural heritage, he proclaimed, made him a person who communicates through touch. (Americans of Italian descent aren’t too happy with that distortion.) He is not comfortable “just walking past and ignoring” someone, including the female trooper in his security detail. It is true that some cultures are more inclined to spacial closeness and physical manifestations of camaraderie and affection, just as some families are more demonstrative than others. In the era of “Me Too,” there are even generational differences on what constitutes invasion of personal space.
But in all these contexts, there are still lines that must not be crossed, behavior that is unwanted. Cuomo repeatedly crossed that line. He says he has come to learn that his touching women was thoughtless and insensitive, and so he apologized. This, in contrast to his obdurately and long-asserted, “I never touched anyone inappropriately.” Think Bill Clinton, “I never had sexual relations with that woman.”
Despite the legal and strategic communications wordsmithing, a lie is still a lie. Cuomo tried to sugarcoat his painful lesson about personal boundaries against the backdrop of the frenzy of contemporary politics. He declared that rashness has replaced reasonableness in discussions of gender. And, when we think of cases like Al Franken, he has a point. But Cuomo, with the screaming gap between his public rhetoric and private behavior, is not the right person to lead a rational conversation about gender issues. His mentor Bill Clinton wouldn’t have survived and flourished politically had his “consensual” intern dalliance been exposed today. Republicans may posture as the party of personal rectitude and sexual morality, but Democrats actually hold their leaders to a higher standard.
Cuomo provided a laundry list of his administration’s accomplishments, and they are not insignificant. Clearly, he would prefer making New York state the progressive capital of the nation to be his legacy. But his legacy is also twenty years of bullying behavior. More than 15 years ago, his ugly reputation was profiled in his race for attorney general: as abrasive, stubborn, terribly conceited, condescending, and “big bully,” which more than offset his ability to be charming and charismatic. He has long practiced the politics of vindictiveness, and his phone calls to those who disagree with him have been notoriously threatening and belittling. Apparently, he was equally threatening to women who claimed he had been sexually inappropriate or assaultive with them.
His aggressive style gained him positive headlines when he seemed the only governor willing to take on Donald Trump on the dangers of COVID, and Cuomo won an Emmy for his performance. But, when the nursing home scandal started to tarnish that stellar leadership image, some New Yorkers I know said they were glad they could go back to hating him as they had prior to the pandemic.
Cuomo is resigning in disgrace, but it’s unclear what will happen next. Some of Cuomo’s victims may find sufficient justice in his resignation, but others will likely pursue their court cases, which could take a couple of years to resolve. What would you do?
Resignation doesn’t absolve an executive from any crimes he may have committed, and prosecutors should not terminate ongoing investigations. Early indications are they will continue to probe the sexual assault charges. Will the Justice Department continue to investigate the nursing home scandals, in which COVID patients were dumped into long-term facilities with uninfected patients ? Places in which nursing home deaths were under-counted, leaving Cuomo administration officials fearful the real data would be used against them by the Trump Justice Department? in which scarce testing materials were allegedly diverted from nursing homes to Cuomo’s friends and families?
To what extent were state funds and personnel used in the publication of Governor Cuomo’s book on leadership during the pandemic? The book reportedly scored him more than $5 million in combined advance and sales proceeds, $500,000 of which would be donated to the United Way of New York and the rest put in trust for his three daughters. I have no idea what those daughters do privately but wonder what they might do publicly. If it is proven that state resources were used toward the publication of his COVID leadership book, is it too fanciful to imagine they’d reject the proceeds in trust for them or establish a fund for sex abuse victims?
Will the New York legislators follow through with their threat to impeach? If he is not impeached, convicted and barred from office, Cuomo could run again as soon as 2022. A Quinnipiac poll conducted just after the allegations came out showed that 55 percent of voters didn’t want him to resign. So it is not out of the question that, with some $18 million in his campaign war chest, yesterday’s mea culpa could, at least in his own mind, be an opening gambit.
Former United States attorney Preet Bhara, who investigated Cuomo in 2016 for public corruption and obstruction of justice, was suspicious. “I was a little taken aback that he said his resignation is effective in 14 days, and it may be overly cynical on my part, but I believe Andrew Cuomo is a person of mischief,” he said on his podcast. “I hope there’s nothing nefarious about the 14 days, but it strikes me as too long a period. You don’t have to give two weeks’ notice to resign as governor.”
This saga is not over. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam may have survived the brouhaha over a college blackface costume, only because the lieutenant governor, who would have replaced him, had allegedly committed worse offenses. Bill Clinton survived, and Donald Trump never went away because supporters in their bases stuck with them. But Andrew Cuomo, scion of the revered Mario Cuomo, is paying a price for his bullying and entitled behavior on the way up. Would-be loyalists have scurried off the sinking ship. I doubt he can hug his way out of the rest of the story.