On Thursday, the US reported 65,000 new cases of Covid-19 and Donald Trump falsely told a television town hall 85% of people who wear masks contract the disease. With more than two weeks to the election and a record-shattering 17 million Americans having already voted, the rhythms and tropes of the past seven months will only intensify between now and 3 November.
Early in the pandemic, Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings emerged as must-see television, counter-programming to the campaign commercials that masqueraded as presidential press conferences. The New York governor was forthright and reassuring, even as the body count mounted.
Covid-related deaths in the Empire State now exceed 25,000, the highest in the US. New York was both frontline and lab experiment. What happened there foreshadowed national tragedy. Red states were not immune. Right now, the plague rages in the heartland.
Cuomo’s new book, subtitled Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic, is his effort to shape perceptions of his own performance amid the pandemic while pointing a damning finger at Trump and Bill de Blasio, New York City’s woefully inept mayor. Like the governor, American Crisis is informative and direct – but not exciting.
I believe that this was on a par with the greatest failure to detect an enemy attack since Pearl Harbor
The book reads like a campaign autobiography except that Cuomo, by his own admission, will never run for president. It contains its share of heroes, villains and family vignettes. Cuomo’s three daughters appear throughout.
Like the governor, American Crisis is programmatic, neither poetic nor poignant. Indeed, in a final chapter tritely titled A Blueprint for Going Forward, the governor offers 28 pages of policy proposals.
Covid has taken nearly 220,000 American lives. The US suffered 58,000 combat deaths in Vietnam, 116,000 in the first world war. Only the second world war, the civil war and the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 resulted in greater casualties.
Not surprisingly, Cuomo saves his harshest words for the Trump administration: “New York was ambushed by Covid. I believe that this was on a par with the greatest failure to detect an enemy attack since Pearl Harbor.”
On that score, Cuomo compares Trump to FDR and of course finds him wanting. The administration did deliver early warnings – to members of the financial community and Republican donors. With that in mind, Cuomo’s take is almost mild.
Cuomo’s relationship with the president was already fraught. On top of Trump and congressional Republicans capping deductions for state and local taxes, the governor acknowledges fighting with the administration over “immigration policy, environmental policy, you name it”. He adds: “I found his pandering to the far right alternately disingenuous and repugnant.”
American Crisis also relays a conversation with the president in which the governor urged the former resident of Queens, a borough of New York City, to invoke the Defense Production Act and mandate private industry to produce tests and personal protective equipment. Trump declined, claiming such a move would smack of “big government” – as opposed to issuing diktats to big tech, directing that companies relocate, unilaterally imposing tariffs on imports and offering private briefings to those favored by the administration.
Time has passed. In the 1980s, Governor Mario Cuomo and his son Andrew were Trump allies, of a sort. Back then, Trump retained the services of twentysomething Andrew Cuomo’s law firm, in connection with commercial leases on Manhattan’s West Side. According to Trump, they were “representing us in a very significant transaction”. Not any more.
The president is not the only member of the administration to come in for criticism. Mark Meadows, the latest White House chief of staff, receives a large dollop of Cuomo’s wrath. In Cuomo’s telling, Meadows conditioned assistance to New York on it conveying hospital test results for hydroxychloroquine, Trump’s one-time Covid treatment of choice.
Cuomo said the state would provide the test data once it was available, not before. Meadows told him the federal government was ready to release hospital funding to states, but “strongly implied” that if the test results did not soon arrive, New York would not “receive any funding”. To Cuomo, that reeked of extortion.
In the end, the “test results came in, and they were negative”. Spiking the football, Cuomo adds: “In June the FDA itself would conclude that hydroxychloroquine was of no beneficial effect and was in fact dangerous.”
American Crisis does contain kind words for Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. “He was attentive and he delivered,” in Cuomo’s view. “Jared was the person who eventually produced the PPE, ventilators, and military personnel for New Yorkers, and I am grateful on their behalf.”
The governor is mindful of the perils faced by the city. He points to the wealthy who fled to the Hamptons, the Hudson Valley and Florida, noting that they may not return. He also acknowledges that “wealthy New Yorkers” are the core of the “city’s tax base”. Without them, economic viability and long-term survival would be open questions. Unlike the city’s befuddled mayor, the governor gets it.
Cuomo confronts criticism of his order directing that older Covid patients be sent to nursing homes rather than hospitals, which may have contributed to New York’s high death toll. Although he pushes back, such claims are not going away.
It may not matter. Outside of the state’s roiling ultra-Orthodox Jewish precincts, Cuomo remains popular: a staggering 73% of New Yorkers rate his handling of the coronavirus positively, more than three-in-five give him high marks on his job performance, a similar number view him favorably.
There is buzz of a prospective appointment in a Biden-Harris administration, as attorney general. Through that lens, American Crisis is best viewed as a job application.