High on the list of things that nobody could have predicted just a few weeks ago is the emergence of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a buzzy daytime TV draw.
Cuomo’s expansive daily media briefings on the state of the coronavirus pandemic that has spread quickly through the Empire State have become national news, airing live in their entirety this week across most cable news networks, including Fox News and CNN, as well as YouTube, Twitter and a host of other platforms.
“The Andrew Cuomo Show,” as it were, is a strangely compelling mix that is part “West Wing” revival, part therapy session and most important, a credible source of important information about the contagion that has abruptly upended every aspect of life in the U.S. and around the world.
In this environment, it’s no surprise that America yearns to be reassured by a folksy, long-winded New Yorker with obvious command of the nitty-gritty details of government. At a time when volunteers are sewing surgical masks at home and New York City hospitals are running out of room, who doesn’t want to hear a leader say with real determination: “I will turn this state upside down to get the number of beds we need,” as Cuomo did on March 24.
The Queens native — who’s boasted of his ability to discern NYC accents borough-by-borough — loves his home state so much his typical briefing uniform is a polo shirt emblazoned with his custom coaster-sized patch featuring the New York state seal and the promise “I Work for the People.” The Democrat has led the state since 2010.
Cuomo’s image has blossomed in the spotlight of a crisis that requires true leadership, CEO management skills and genuine empathy for others, particularly the less fortunate. President Donald Trump has stood in sharp contrast at his regular coronavirus briefings with his typically ego-centric focus and tenuous grip on the facts.
But Cuomo’s rave reviews have been spurred by more than the shortcomings of President Trump in this crisis. The skills and the strengths that have been on display in Cuomo’s PowerPoint-enabled briefings have put a Klieg light again on the work of the government. That work is something Cuomo has been involved with since the mid-1970s, first at the side of his father, the Empire State legend Mario Cuomo, who was a predecessor of his son in the governor’s mansion and a former New York City mayor. His younger brother, Chris Cuomo, is a prominent anchor on CNN.
Andrew Cuomo’s daily recitation of the number of cases, hospitalizations, testing rate and all manner of other statistics — including the grimmest — reassure people because it shows that somebody’s leading a team to attack the problem in the state where the outbreak is the most aggressive, for now. He’s not trying to spin the numbers, he’s informing his state and the rest of the country on what might be coming.
“This is not a sprint, my friends, it’s a marathon,” he instructed.
Cuomo’s discussions of building makeshift emergency hospitals to handle the volume of patients and pressuring the federal government to do more to help shows that somebody out there has a vision for what needs to be done. It’s no accident that the governor ends most of his roughly hour-long briefings with “I gotta get to work” — and then takes a few more questions on his way out the door.
“Ventilators, ventilators, ventilators,” Cuomo has said more than once. Longtime Cuomo observers say the governor has never been known for his mastery of media relations, but he’s proven to be an expert in using his live TV platform to goad the federal government into action. As a leader, it’s clear he cares enough to go on TV day after day, hollering about the state’s need for 30,000 life-saving machines if doctors are to avoid having to make the cruelest choices when the apex hits.
Cuomo is also presenting an expansive vision of what federal, state and local governments owes citizens at a time when the concept of public service, legislating and government has been battered in the public eye. President Trump’s ascent to the White House was surely the most significant flowering of the “let’s run government like a business campaign.” With the coronavirus wolf at the door, Cuomo’s facility with the levers of government is suddenly a super power that he is executing on a national stage.
“That’s government, baby,” he opined during a March 17 appearance on his brother’s nightly CNN series “Cuomo Prime Time,” in response to a question about Trump’s handling of the crisis.
Andrew Cuomo’s causal references to his past experiences during his time working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and his years as New York state Attorney General only adds to his bureaucratic street cred. The message is loud and clear: Big Government isn’t evil, it’s vital — oftentimes when you least expect it. The outpouring of appreciation for Cuomo’s visibility is a sign that Americans are looking for leaders and institutions to stand taller than the petty partisan nonsense that dominates most political headlines.
The aspect of “The Andrew Cuomo Show” that has surprised even the governor’s longtime associates is his ease at expressing his genuine concern for those who are suffering. He repeatedly invokes his 88-year-old mother, Matilda, in reinforcing the need for social distancing to protect “our seniors.” He brought out his 22-year-old daughter Michaela to one briefing to help get the “flatten the curve” message out to her generation. He’s made references to the joy and the strain of spending quality time with family members during this period of forced isolation. In his now familiar slow, sometimes halting voice, he’s been able to give voice to the frustrations and fears of millions.
Noting that most of the more than 700 New Yorkers who have died to date of coronavirus had underlying health problems, Cuomo said: “That doesn’t make us feel any better. If they didn’t have this virus they’d be with us today. Yes, death is inevitable for all of us. Just not today.”
On Saturday, Cuomo was fired up with prescriptions for how the federal government should reform the health care supply chain as a means of explaining how the shortages happened in the first place. He sees a new normal settling in where Americans have to get used to battling fearsome viral strains with behavioral changes and improved testing capabilities.
“This can’t happen again,” he said. “You don’t win on defense. You win on offense.”
Cuomo’s ability to communicate clearly and effectively about everything that is under way to ward off the worst-case-scenario coronavirus outbreak is admirable. He’s in his element. Toward the end of Saturday’s nearly hourlong session, he gave a long answer to a question about the availability of coronavirus testing. Then he turned to New York state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, who was sitting at least six feet away from Cuomo at the news conference, to ask if he had anything to add. “I think you’ve covered it,” Zucker replied.
As Cuomo looked back at the sparse group of reporters spread out in six-feet increments around the briefing room at the state Capitol in Albany, the governor grinned.
“There’s no one who didn’t ask a question,” he observed. “That’s a nice feeling.”