Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Andrew Cuomo and the shamelessness epidemic

If only the New York governor felt a little shame

The New York state attorney general’s report into governor Andrew Cuomo, published this week, depicts in corroborated, convincing, detail conduct that should bring a political career to an end.

The document reveals Cuomo to be a creep. He fondled, groped and grabbed the women who worked for him. His questions and comments suggest he first and foremost saw them as sexual targets. His office was a place of unwanted kisses, invitations to sit on the governor’s lap and awkward come ons. Enabling all of this, the investigation finds, was a vindictive, bullying and retributive style of politics and management that left many too scared to say anything for too long.

Cuomo’s downfall, whether via overdue resignation (something that many Democrats, including the president, have called for) or impeachment and removal by the New York legislature, seems inevitable. And when it happens, it will represent many things. Among them, the probable end of the state’s most prominent political dynasty. Also, a spectacular upending of fortunes for a man who, last spring, was so worshipped for his coronavirus briefings by self-styled “Cuomosexuals” that some even suggested he be drafted, last-minute, into the presidential race.

But as much as anything else, the fall of Cuomo is a study in shamelessness. First, there’s the shamelessness with which Cuomo positioned himself as a #MeToo champion even as he was harassing his subordinates. Then there’s the shamelessness of his response to the Attorney General Letitia James’s findings. Rather than recognising that the writing is on the wall, Cuomo has dug in.

After the report went public, the governor released a recorded video rebuttal. He denied any wrongdoing. He included a bizarre montage of himself hugging, kissing and touching members of the public. “I try to put people at ease,” he said. A separate written response from Cuomo’s lawyers included photographs of Barack Obama and George W. Bush hugging hurricane survivors.

Among the arguments he made in his own defence: that a family member of his own is a survivor of sexual assault, that his is “no typical 9 to 5 office”; that criticism of his female lieutenants was a sexist double standard; that the report is biased (Cuomo previously asked New Yorkers to “wait for the facts from the attorney general’s report before forming an opinion”); and that, quoting his dad Mario, who was also a New York governor: “Politics is an ugly business”.

The tough-it-out approach to scandal is unseemly when the politician has a chance of surviving. When he’s cooked, it only prolongs the pain

Needless to say, no one appears to have been especially persuaded by any of this. The New York legislature is moving forward with impeachment proceedings. A criminal investigation is in its early stages. The tough-it-out approach to scandal is unseemly when the politician has a chance of surviving. When he’s cooked, it only prolongs the pain. For them, for families, for their alleged victims and, on a far smaller scale, for the rest of us. If only Cuomo were capable of feeling a modicum of shame, then he could bring all of this to a far swifter conclusion.

A little more shame might have also come in handy last year, when Cuomo was paid $4m to write a self-congratulatory book on leadership on Covid-19 even as the virus was still raging and his aides were busy concealing the extent of care home deaths in the state.

Shamelessness, it seems, runs in the Cuomo family. On his nightly CNN show, Andrew’s younger brother Chris plays the role of brave inquisitor. According to one of his programme’s slogans: “When he faces power, no one gets a pass.” Unless, you’re a relation.

On air, Chris has largely ignored his brother’s travails. Behind the scenes, however, he has been busy helping craft his brother’s response. “I’m family first, job second,” said the younger Cuomo when apologising for working with his brother, before claiming: “I know where the line is.” He has now disappeared from television screens for a conveniently timed holiday.

Two more honourable mentions for shamelessness in this saga. The first goes to Roberta Kaplan. Kaplan is the co-founder of Time’s Up, a #MeToo organisation founded to fight sexual harassment in the workplace. But Kaplan’s role in the Cuomo scandal wasn’t offering support or advice to those accusing Cuomo of sexual misconduct. Instead, she was lending her time to the governor, helping him with a newspaper column designed to discredit one of his accusers.

The second mention goes to Alphonso David, the president of Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights organisation. Like Kaplan, David is named in the report as someone who helped Cuomo craft his response to allegations of sexual misconduct. According to the report, David (who used to work for the governor), even sent the confidential personnel files of one of the accusers to a Cuomo aide, who then leaked those files to the media.

In recent years America has been treated to a masterclass in the liberating power of feeling no shame. Not even Cuomo could top the shamelessness of Donald Trump. The 45th President of the United States can lie, boast, deny and bluster without any sign of embarrassment. “No one respects women more than me,” he said with a straight face in 2016 after audio was released of him bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy”. Whenever he faced accusations of racism, a simple denial was never enough. Trump had to make clear that he was the least racist guy ever.

Cuomo and Trump are clearly extreme cases when it comes to shame deficiency disorder. But American politicians and their proxies in the media are frequently caught telling porkies, behaving badly, contradicting themselves and saying things they very obviously don’t believe without showing any sign of embarrassment.

Perhaps partisanship is to blame. If both sides are convinced that we are one election away from the end of America as we know it, then any concession to the other side becomes a kind of moral failing. And so those in American public life can tell themselves they are doing the right thing when they refuse to acknowledge mistakes, apologise or resign. A win for the other side must be avoided at all costs. Or perhaps the challenges of living in the public eye mean the system selects for an especially shameless breed of politician.

Whatever the cause for its absence, the return of a little shame to American public life might make it ever so slightly less noxious.

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