Despite arguably waiting too long to close schools and nonessential businesses, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is being widely hailed as an inspiring leader as his state suffers the nation’s worst outbreak of COVID-19. Given that he’s always portrayed himself as a pragmatic executive with little use for the idealism of activists, it’s ironic that Cuomo’s big moment owes less to his record on actual management than to his heartening motivational rhetoric.
Cuomo is not usually an emotionally resonant speaker. The PowerPoint presentations that he’s been using in his daily press conferences have long been a source of eye rolling among the Albany press corps. His plainspoken-yet-imperious communication style was more often a source of ridicule than admiration. His habit of posing and answering his own questions – “Can you close a $10 billion deficit? Yes.” – was mockingly described in 2013 by Laura Nahmias, then of The Wall Street Journal, as his “Socratic soliloquies.”
This all stood in contrast with his father, who was known for soaring oratory, epitomized in a stirring liberal clarion call he delivered at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. The younger Cuomo has tried to turn this deficit into an asset, arguing that it shows his modesty. "A progressive Democrat, a Democrat in New York state, these are not ivory tower academics, these are not pontificators, these are not people who live in the abstract or theoretical," Andrew said in 2018.
But, as Politico New York’s Bill Mahoney recently observed, the governor’s highly regarded press conferences on the new coronavirus outbreak are notable for his musings on the social and emotional import of the pandemic. “A significant part of the appeal is due to his frequent philosophical asides about what the crisis can teach us about family, love and community,” Mahoney writes. “Quite unexpectedly, he has taken his father’s famous strengths and appended them to his own.”
Perhaps Cuomo’s shift reflects an understanding of what New Yorkers need right now. "No one is surprised that he had a handle on the logistical challenges attending this, or that he had a facile command of the statistics,” New York-based Democratic political consultant Bruce Gyory wrote in an email. “But some are surprised that he has been eloquent in addressing the public psychology underlying this crisis. The public craves honesty but also needs hope. ... If Cuomo was just good on the prose of this challenge but he did not also find a poetic method of projecting hope he would be misreading the moment."
One might even say that Andrew has found his inner Mario – although Gyory rejects the comparison, arguing that the younger Cuomo has a different kind of rhetorical gift. “While you could say he has emulated his father Mario Cuomo, I think he has actually found the inner voice of Andrew Cuomo,” Gyory said. “He shares his father’s overarching philosophy of public service and governing activism. But Andrew Cuomo in these daily briefings, which are de facto fireside chats, has found his own reserved, almost understated, eloquence, which differs from his father’s grandiloquence, but has been tonic for a bruised public psyche."
Typically, Cuomo begins his daily presentation with the details of coronavirus cases confirmed in New York, and the nuts and bolts of procuring enough supplies and adding hospital beds to handle the caseload. Then he ends with a stirring call to action. Below, from each weekday last week, is a snippet of the closing portion of his address:
On spending time with his daughter while being quarantined, from March 23:
“The last thing you want to be when you're in Cara's position is hang out with the old man, and hang out with dad and hear bad dad jokes, you know? They'll come with the holidays, they'll come when I give them heavy guilt, but I'm now going to be with Cara literally for a few months. What a beautiful gift that is, right? I would have never had that chance. And that is precious. And then after this is over she's gone, she's flown the nest. She's going to go do her thing, but this crazy situation, as crazy as it is, came with this beautiful gift.”
On New Yorkers’ resilience, from March 24:
“We're going to make it because I love New York, and I love New York because New York loves you. New York loves all of you. Black and white and brown and Asian and short and tall and gay and straight. New York loves everyone. That's why I love New York. It always has, it always will. And at the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day – and this is a long day – love wins. Always. And it will win again through this virus.”
On how New York’s population density increases the risk of virus transmission, from March 25:
“That spatial closeness makes us vulnerable. But it's true that your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. And our closeness is what makes us who we are. That is what New York is. Our closeness is what makes us special. Our acceptance, our openness is what makes us special. It's what makes us feel so connected one to another. It's what makes us so accepting of one another. It is the closeness that makes us the human beings that we are. The closeness is that New York humanity that I think exists nowhere else.”
On the transformative effect the coronavirus will have on society, from March 26:
“I have my daughters here with me. This is the first time they faced a real national adversity. You have a whole new generation who have never lived through anything like this. They never went to war. They were never drafted. They never went through a national crisis. And this is going to shape them. ... Yeah, they're hurt, they're scared, but they are also learning through this, and at the end of the day they're going to be better people for it and they're going to be better citizens for it. I believe that, because they're rising to the occasion.”
His “Braveheart” speech to the National Guard, on March 27:
“You are living a moment in history. This is going to be one of those moments they're going to write and they're going to talk about for generations. This is a moment that is going to change this nation. This is a moment that forges character, forges people, changes people. ... Ten years from now, you'll be talking about today to your children or your grandchildren and you will shed a tear because you will remember the lives lost. You'll remember the faces and you'll remember the names and you'll remember how hard we worked and that we still lost loved ones. And you'll shed a tear, and you should because it will be sad. But, you will also be proud. You'll be proud of what you did. You'll be proud that you showed up. You showed up when other people played it safe, you had the courage to show up. You had the skill and the professionalism to make a difference and save lives. That's what you will have done.”
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