This story appears in the May 2020 issue of Rolling Stone, on newsstands May 5th.
On March 1st, New York reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19, after a Manhattan health care worker in her late thirties, who had visited Iran, tested positive at a hospital in the city. Six days later, that number had jumped to 89, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency.
Two days later, Donald Trump tweeted, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” As the country faces a national emergency that is graver, for most of us, than any in living memory, a surreal split-screen response has been unfolding in Washington and Albany, via Queens. The daily public briefings held by Cuomo, 62, the governor of the hardest-hit state, have become appointment viewing, not just for New Yorkers, but for all Americans feeling terrified, unmoored, and hungry for something resembling competent national leadership. For a politician never especially renowned for his bedside manner, Cuomo has emerged as an unlikely source of comfort in these supremely unsettling times, the blunt-talking adult in the room.
The debasement of standards in the Trump era has made even minimal gestures of statesmanship appear positively Churchillian, of course, and so the mere fact that Cuomo relies on data and scientific opinion and has the ability to display human empathy can feel disproportionately soothing. Though New York is unique among American cities in terms of population density and its status as an international travel hub — that, combined with a shambolic federal response, even after Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency, would have made any state- and city-level attempts at containment difficult — Cuomo’s decisions to close schools and issue a stay-at-home order came later than other states with less-significant outbreaks. Ohio, for example, closed its public schools three days before New York, despite having only five confirmed cases, and California’s shelter-in-place order came three days before New York’s, though New York had six times the number of confirmed cases.
But as a communicator, in particular, Cuomo has risen to the occasion, proving especially adept at walking viewers through the nuances of the daily barrage of bad news, offering realistic glimmers of hope but never magical thinking. He’s shared personal anecdotes about his family, including his younger brother, Chris, the CNN anchor, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, and displayed a surprising degree of warmth and humor for someone who acknowledged in his own memoir that the Albany media referred to him, alternately, as the Prince of Darkness and Darth Vader. “Andrew has always had these two sides,” says Michael Shnayerson, author of The Contender, a 2015 biography of Cuomo. “One is charming and comes out in a time of crisis — he was brilliant during Superstorm Sandy, racing around the city late at night, checking each hot spot and earning the acclaim of people on either side of the aisle — but this is also a governor known for being brutal with underlings and ruthless with his rivals.”
His father, Mario Cuomo, the late three-term governor of New York, was considered one of the great political orators of his generation, an intellectual whose bookshelves contained works by Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and Teilhard de Chardin. Andrew, on the other hand, “favors short, declarative sentences and unvarnished imagery,” Jonathan Mahler wrote in a 2010 profile for The New York Times Magazine, when the younger Cuomo was on the verge of winning his own first gubernatorial race. “In contrast with his father, he doesn’t articulate values, summon ideals, or transmit visions. Like a mechanic poking his head out from under the hood of your broken-down car, he tells you what’s wrong with your engine and how he’s going to fix it.”
The second of five children, Andrew Cuomo grew up in Hollis, Queens, a middle-class neighborhood where his grandparents, immigrants from the Campania region of southern Italy, settled and owned a grocery store. Like Trump, Andrew went into the family business, managing his father’s first campaign for governor and, once Mario was elected, serving as his top adviser at a salary of $1 per year. He was 21. Shnayerson says they had an “almost Shakespearean” father-son relationship: “Andrew was, from the beginning, trying to earn his father’s approval, and his father didn’t really give it to him.”
In 1990, Cuomo married Kerry Kennedy, one of Robert F. Kennedy’s daughters. (They had three daughters and divorced in 2005; again, in shades of Trump, the messy split played out in the New York tabloids.) He became the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton. As governor, Cuomo embraced Clintonism, eschewing his father’s big-government, New Deal-informed liberal philosophy for a more transactional, triangulated Third Way. Critics on the progressive left loathe his austere budgets and aversion to raising taxes, pointing to the troubled New York subway system, which Cuomo effectively controls, and cuts in hospital reimbursements that have contributed to closures. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out the governor for responding to the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic with a three-month freeze on mortgage payments, but no similar cancellation of rents. (The governor did enact a three-month moratorium on evictions.)
Still, Cuomo’s approach to governance — micromanaging, single-minded, ruthless — has resulted in a number of substantial wins, including pushing a marriage-equality bill through the GOP-controlled state senate in 2011, as well as a fracking ban, tighter gun laws, raising the minimum wage, and making tuition for state colleges free for families making less than $125,000 a year.
Rebecca Katz, a political consultant who worked closely with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a longtime punching bag of Cuomo’s, and who later served as a top strategist for the actress Cynthia Nixon when she challenged Cuomo in the 2018 primary, has never been a fan of the governor. Still, Katz acknowledges, “Cuomo benefits from understanding how communication works in a way that frankly no other elected official does right now. Trump understands why it’s important to be on TV. Cuomo understands how to tell people what’s actually going on in a way that’s both sobering and soothing.”
Shnayerson sees political calculus: “Cuomo saw right from the beginning that Trump is incapable of empathy,” he says. “And instinctively or deliberately — I’d suggest deliberately — he set out to carve out this turf, where on a daily basis he’d show how incompetent and downright dangerous Trump is. And Trump can’t really do anything about it. He can’t fire him! All he can do is grumble about how Andrew isn’t grateful enough about what he’s getting.”
For all of his manifest ambition, the governor had surprised political observers by not entering the 2020 Democratic primary, instead all but officially endorsing Joe Biden quite early in the process. Now that the pandemic has positioned Cuomo as the perfect foil to Trump, and at the same time left Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, struggling to break into the news cycle, some are indulging in “Draft Cuomo” fan fiction, picturing how an abrasive New Yorker of their very own might work on a debate stage against the abrasive New Yorker-in-chief.
Whatever his political future, Cuomo has become a trusted voice in a world of uncertainty. His homely PowerPoint slides are routinely memed. The slow, booming cadence of his sentences, once grating, could probably be marketed as a meditation app if we end up surviving this thing. Somehow, he’s connecting with millions of people at this time of extraordinary crisis and unimaginable loss. Cuomo spoke with Rolling Stone by phone from his office in Albany on Saturday, April 4th.
The country has gotten to know you through your daily briefings, but can you walk us through what the rest of your days have been like during the crisis? Are you getting briefed at all hours of the day and night?
Yeah. A situation like this is pretty much 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if you’re going to do it right. Because it’s evolving all the time. So, you work until you can’t work anymore, and then you close your eyes for 20 minutes and then you work again.
Who have you been consulting with?
You talk to everyone. Obviously, I have my state team, which manages things on a day-to-day basis. But then the federal government relationship is important, so the president and the vice president. And the health experts, so the World Health Organization, NIH, international health experts. And then you talk to the local officials, because you want to keep them calm and coordinated. The business community. You know, you’re doing two basic things, right? You’re managing the operation, which is a health operation. There are operational decisions like closing schools, closing businesses. And then the second dimension is a communication dimension. People need information. They need correct information. Everyone is out of control, right? Your life is out of control. You’re at a place you’ve never been before. You’re worried, you’re anxious, you’re out of work. You’re literally afraid of going out of doors. You’re afraid of contact with other human beings, which is probably the most isolating experience you’ve ever had. A hug now becomes a dangerous act. Right? You’re at a place you’ve never been. Who’s going to help me? Who’s managing this? Who’s in control when I’m out of control?
With the briefings, was there a point where your team realized, “We have the responsibility to get the facts out and provide some reassurance, not only to New Yorkers but to Americans, period,” and a realization that you were filling a certain — you might not put it this way — leadership void at the national level?
No. No. There never — No, Mark. I did the briefings the way I would always do the briefings. I understand your question. But I have done nothing different than I have always done. Forget the whole national perspective.
The death toll in New York has been soaring. Even in terms of best-case scenarios, we’re talking about unfathomable tragedy. And your primary role is to keep the number of deaths as low as possible. But have you thought about how your job is also to comfort people — but in this case, you can’t do things you would normally do as a leader, like go to funerals or hug the families of the deceased?
Well, look, nobody’s been here before, right? These are all uncharted waters. So you use your experience, you use your knowledge, you use your instincts, and you feel your way through the situation. Nobody can give you a chart. They can’t tell you the depths of the water. They can’t tell you where the rocks are. But if you’ve navigated for years, you develop an instinct that helps. But also keep it simple. Tell the truth. Give people facts. Explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it. I don’t go out to impart confidence. You can appear confident, but you’re not going to fool New Yorkers, right? They’re going to hear what you’re saying and watch what you’re doing. They’ll make their own decision whether or not it makes sense. Here’s where we are, here’s what I’m doing, here’s what I’ve done, here’s what I plan to do, this is why I’m doing it. These are dramatic actions. I’m going to close the schools. “What? Why are you closing the schools? I want my kid to go to school.” I mean, that’s a normal reaction. “Well, this is why I’m doing it.” “OK, that makes sense.” Or they think it doesn’t make sense. But it’s the actions and the facts that ultimately win or lose here, right? They’ve been watching what I’m doing for five, six weeks. So far, I think people think the actions we’ve taken make sense and are logical. But I think it’s a function of the merits and the substance in the actions more than anything else. I don’t care how many times you go out and brief. If what you’re doing doesn’t make sense to them, they will lose confidence very quickly. You know, confidence is earned. It’s not declared.
The pandemic reminds me of the response to climate change, in that it seems difficult to get people to change their behavior for a threat that’s looming but still largely invisible. Was there a tension between scaring the hell out of people so they would stay inside versus not wanting to create a mass panic?
Well, look, there’s no doubt that government is only as effective as people allow it to be, unless you criminalize behavior. This is a democracy, and people have free will. And they’ll hear what the government says. And if they agree, they’ll follow it. If they don’t agree, they don’t follow it. What could counterbalance it? Criminalization could counterbalance it [laughs]. If you do it, you’re going to go to jail. But short of that, they make their own decision. But you’re right, this virus, it was hard to communicate, hard to accept, the reality. Because we’ve never seen it before. “Well, it’s like the Spanish flu of 1918.” OK, but I wasn’t there, really. And they have different medications now than they had in 1918. I can’t believe that what happened in 1918 is going to happen again. “Well, remember Ebola!” Yeah, but Ebola turned out to be nothing. “Well,
remember H1N1.” Well, that turned out to be nothing. “Nah, I think I’m a little cynical and skeptical, and I think this is going to be overblown.” And, by the way, there were voices out there saying this is all overblown, that it was a political conspiracy.
In hindsight, do you second-guess yourself as far as the speed of your response to the crisis? You and Mayor De Blasio initially resisted the calls to close the schools. And when the mayor began calling for New Yorkers to stay home, you held out a couple of days longer. What are your thoughts looking back now?
No, every action, Mark, that I took, I was criticized for being hypercautious and premature. I decided to close the schools. It was very controversial at the time. And people criticized me. I did the containment zone in Westchester, which had a bad name. Containment was supposed to mean containment of the virus. It was interpreted to mean containment of people. They thought that they were being imprisoned in the geographic area. It was the number-one cluster in the country, and people criticized me. I closed the playgrounds last week in New York City, and people criticized me. So my way has always been to err on the side of safety. I would always rather be accused of having an unnecessary economic loss than an unnecessary death. So even in all the past situations, past storms — I’ve closed roads, I’ve closed subways, I’ve closed businesses. And sometimes the storm happens, and a lot of times the storm didn’t happen. And I was criticized. But I can live with that. I’d much rather live with that than “Had I moved sooner, we could have saved lives.”
What would you say about the federal response so far? Yesterday, the president was asked if he could assure New Yorkers that they would have the ventilators they need, and he said, “No, they should have had more ventilators.” What’s your reaction when you hear things like that?
Unless I can talk to you off the record, I can’t talk about this now.
Understood. Well, on the record, what can you say? Trump is somebody you’ve known for 30 years. Do you have a personal rapport with him, when it’s just the two of you talking, that has helped you in terms of getting New York the help it needs?
Look, there’s no governor in the United States who’s been more critical of this president than I have. There’s no governor in the United States who’s been more criticized by this president than I have been. What I said to him in this situation is, this is a bigger situation than politics, it’s biggerthan partisanship. It’s going to take the state doing everything it can, and it’s going take the federal government doing everything it can. Because, he’s right, when he says, we only have 10,000 ventilators. He doesn’t have the capacity. So it’s going to take federal efforts and state efforts. I said if he’s a good federal partner, I will say that. And if he doesn’t fulfill the federal partnership role, I will say that, Mark. And I have said both. And depending on the action of the day, I will say both, or either. And that’s the relationship. It’s transparent, open, and honest.
Have you, as governor, done enough to stop the closing of hospitals? Sixteen hospitals in the past two decades have closed in New York City, and the state has lost something like 20,000 hospital beds. You’ve been criticized from the left for cuts you’ve made to Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals. What would you say to that?
More people have health insurance in this state than almost any state in the United States. We’re at 95 percent covered. We had too many hospital beds in the health system. We still do. The health system has transitioned to more of a holistic system that focuses on wellness, community-based care, as opposed to hospital beds that are only intensive care. That’s where the health system is going. Now, to close a hospital is very hard. It employs a lot of people, it becomes an institution within the community. So it’s hard to make that transition. But it’s inarguable that you have too many beds in hospitals, and you need more ambulatory programs, community-based programs, et cetera. In Brooklyn, we started a national demonstration program, where we were closing hospital beds, opening community-based clinics focused more on wellness and on continuing health care. In other words, health care is not supposed to be that you get so sick that you need a hospital bed. Health care should be, “I’m going to keep you healthy so you don’t go into a hospital.” And that is a nationwide reorientation that we’re doing here in New York, and it’s the current thinking across the country. That’s inarguable. It’s very hard to do. Medicaid — we have more people on Medicaid now than ever before.
Supporters of Medicare for All would argue that the way Obamacare depends on employee health plans doesn’t look good when millions of jobs have disappeared overnight.
Look, people can use the crisis to make whatever point they want. But these facts don’t show anything other than the number of people who are now infected in this pandemic exceeds the capacity of the health care system, not the design of the health care system, or the funding of the health care system. The very capacity. We have 50,000 beds statewide. This is a multiple of that. Now you can argue, well, the 50,000 beds should have been paid for by Medicaid for All. The problem is the 50,000 beds in this crisis. Well, why didn’t you have 100,000 beds? Because you never should have needed 100,000 beds. And you probably will never need 100,000 beds again. I hope. And it’s not even the beds. The beds, we found. It’s these damn ventilators. Which, you normally never needed anywhere near this volume, until you have a pandemic that happens to hit the respiratory system, and if you don’t have a ventilator, you can’t really provide adequate care. But this is five times the number of ventilators the health care system has ever needed. How do you prepare for that, Mark?
As governor, your father never had to deal with a crisis at this level. Are there things you learned from him that have been useful over these past weeks?
Let me do it the other way. There is nothing that I learned from him that wasn’t useful [pauses]. No challenge is too great. Believe in the inherent goodness of people. Believe government done well is an art form. Believe government is the mobilizing vehicle for our better angels. Find support in family. I have my daughter here working with me the way I worked with my father. Speak honestly. Tell people the truth. They will respond to the truth, and logic, even if they don’t like it. The trust between an elected official and the people they serve is everything. Trust and respect is everything. If you have to make a tough decision and you believe it’s right, make it, and if people resent you for it, so be it, because you have to act in a way that fits your conscience and your heart. Yeah, that’s all my father. That’s everything I’m doing. And when you’re tired and you can’t work anymore, work harder.
He famously said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, and it’s fair to say you’ve generally landed on the prose side of things. Have the briefings shown a more personal side? Were you thinking about your father’s ability to communicate?
No, my father did not communicate that way, Mark. My father communicated aspiration, but he did it in a formal sense. He did not speak personally, in terms of himself or his family or his life or his experiences. He was a formal speaker. The expression I used to use was: He’s a big-room speaker. He’s a podium speaker. He spoke to large audiences, right? That was his art form. He would not talk about family experiences the way I’ve spoken about them here. You understand the distinction I’m trying to make?
Definitely. The way you’ve spoken about family experiences in the briefings, for instance, talking about what your brother has been going through, there’s less mystery when you have a face attached to these things.
Yes. All I’m saying is, my father did not do that. He’s not comfortable with that. That’s not the way he communicated. You started by saying poetry-prose — he was a great speaker. Yes. The best. But not in what you’re talking about.
The reason I did that is, this is stressful and disorienting in a lot of ways. But it’s probably most impactful on a human level. Yeah, you’re afraid about your job and your paycheck. But it’s the human level that is shocking here. The social level. And I want you to know you’re not alone in that. It’s not you. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t think that you are misperceiving the situation, or you’re hypersensitive, or you’re deficient in not being able to handle the situation. You’re not alone. Everybody feels what you’re feeling. I feel what you feel. I’m afraid. I’m hurt. I’m having trouble with the situation. It’s not just you. I believe that, and it’s important and helpful to communicate it. And by my relaying my feelings, I think it may have helped you to understand that your feelings are not unique in this situation.
What’s been personally hardest for you? Outside of obviously the incredibly difficult job you have. But on the personal side, are there people you haven’t been able to see?
I haven’t been able to see my mother. I’m not with one of my daughters. That on a personal level is very taxing. And I constantly say to myself, what else should I be doing? What else could I be doing? People are dying every day, and I don’t know what else to do. And I know that tomorrow more people will die. And I don’t know what else to do. And that is a terrible weight, and just an oppressive burden.
Another thing about this tragedy that’s been very surreal is that, with disasters like a plane crash or an earthquake, you see faces and names. But here, because of medical privacy issues and because of the scale, so many of the people dying are somewhat invisible. It’s very haunting. How have you been processing this level of death? Have you reached out to families of those who have died?
Yes, I have. Yes, I have. All of the above. And look, my daughter says to me the other night, “Why don’t you go to sleep? Why don’t you close your eyes? You look tired.” And I said to her, “Because there’s more to do. There’s more to do.” I’m just doing my best to fight to save as many lives as possible. I’ve accepted that people are going to die. This virus is very effective at what it does. It’s an expert killer, and it’s a killer of the vulnerable. That’s why it’s a coward in some ways. It doesn’t attack the strong. It attacks the vulnerable. And I’m here to protect the vulnerable. That’s my job. I fight for the vulnerable. I fight for people who need a voice. I fight for people who need justice. And they are being attacked by this virus. And I just spend every minute of every day saying, “What else can I do? What else can I do?”
You endorsed Joe Biden very early in the Democratic primary. Have you been in contact with him during the crisis?
Yeah, I never endorsed Joe Biden. I never endorsed anybody. I said what I thought about him, which is that he’s an extraordinary man, he’s an extraordinary leader. I speak to him quite frequently. He gives me advice. I bounce ideas off him. This is not the time for politics. I’m sure he’s talking to other governors and other mayors. Just be helpful. Just be helpful. This isn’t the time for anything else. Just be helpful.
You’ve rejected any talk of national political ambition right now. But the discussion has been thrust upon you by the moment. Have you been hearing from Democrats trying to draft you for a role in the November election?
I have real things to do, and real things to talk about. And that is not a real thing. I am governor of New York. It’s a job that I asked for. It’s a job that I believe I am prepared for. I believe I can make a difference in it. And everyone assumes, well, a politician just wants to take the next step on the ladder. Well, politicians always aren’t in it for themselves. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes there’s an elected official who actually means what he says. Or is going to do what he says he’s going to do. Wouldn’t that be refreshing? I said if elected, I will serve four years as governor of the state of New York. Period. And that’s what I’m going to do. Period. It’s all simpler than we make it. Say what you’re going to do. Do what you say. Do it with honor. Do it with integrity. Do it with skill. And that’s it. And you’ll sleep well at the end of the day, even if it is a very long day.
Do you worry about politicians in this country taking advantage of this crisis in a dangerous or unconstitutional way? It’s happening in Hungary with Viktor Orbán.
I worry about politicians taking advantage of people, manipulating people, manipulating opinion, manipulating feelings. I worry about that all the time. You mentioned my father [chuckles]. My father used to say, “As a class, I don’t like politicians.” And I know what he means. Some politicians I respect, and others I don’t respect. But am I wary of political power? Yeah. It can be abused, and manipulated. But it can also be used to do good. So we do what we can, and we give it our all, and that’s all we can do, Mark. I can’t save everybody’s life. But I can do everything that I can to save as many lives as I can.
What could a return to normalcy look like? What do you see happening once we get past the apex and head into the summer?
I think the economy reopens. The economic re-entry strategy is tied to a public-health strategy. So there’s a public-health strategy that has rapid testing, where people who are negative or had the virus and are immune start to go back to work. Younger people start to go back to work. We protect the vulnerable population. So it’s a public-health strategy and an economic strategy. And they both dovetail. I don’t think it’s a question of saving lives or making money. I reject that as a false choice. You have to do both.