When I knew Andrew Cuomo, he was the 20-something top adviser to the governor he called Mario, and I was the 20-something Albany bureau chief for Newsday. I still remember how he ended our occasional phone calls: “Bye, hon,” hanging up immediately before I could protest. It was vintage Andrew — calculated and patronizing, a show of power.
Even in those early years after Mario Cuomo was first elected governor, in 1982, the differences between the two men were as apparent as their similarities. Both were ruthless competitors, prone to bullying. Both were control freaks, inclined to trust very few people outside a small circle of confidants.
But Mario Cuomo’s sharp elbows on the basketball court and pugilistic verbal gymnastics were wrapped in moral complexity, intellectual heft, and Jesuitical questioning. His son exhibited none of those qualities. He had inherited his father’s fierce, win-at-any-cost competitive spirit without the humanity or introspection.
The Cuomos have now secured a place in history alongside the Bushes, the Daleys, and the many political dynasties in which sons, who seem to view elected office as a birthright, fall short of their fathers, in accomplishments or stature or both. There are a few exceptions: Jerry Brown in many ways outdid his father, Pat, and governed California for twice as long, in no small measure because the son rejected his father’s politics (going so far as to enter a Jesuit seminary). Andrew Cuomo, on the other hand, was shaped in the crucible of his father’s career, and tied himself to his father with an arrogance that never wavered as he moved from 24-year-old campaign manager to the office to which he felt entitled.
Mario Cuomo is best remembered for his soaring rhetoric, rather than the substance of his three terms as governor of New York, when his most notable accomplishment was an enormous expansion of the state prison system. His impassioned speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention about the “shining city on the hill” catapulted him into contention as a candidate for the next two presidential cycles.
Andrew Cuomo adopted his father’s cadences, often speaking in rhythms that evoked his father’s trademark phrases. But the words were never memorable.
Perhaps the most telling difference between father and son was that people liked Mario Cuomo. He had a large circle of lifelong friends, from college classmates to gubernatorial appointees. Many remained loyal long after they stopped working for him; he generated genuine affection.
The same was not true for Andrew Cuomo. “The problem with Cuomo is no one has ever liked him,” Richard Ravitch told Times reporter Shane Goldmacher. “He’s not a nice person and he doesn’t have any real friends.” Mr. Ravitch should know: He served in various high-ranking state positions, including chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority while Mario Cuomo was governor in the early 1980s, and lieutenant governor while Andrew campaigned for the top job.
Mario Cuomo could be verbally combative, but also witty and self-deprecating, joking that he had a “face made for radio.” For every story about an angry phone call, there are far more anecdotes about small acts of kindness or grace. He did not like many of the stories I wrote for Newsday, but when I won an award for a series of articles arguing that he had not, in his first few years in office, lived up to the high expectations political insiders and his own soaring rhetoric had set for him, he sent me a handwritten note with his congratulations. Another time, he muttered about a less-than-favorable story I wrote for Mother Jones, which he called “Mother Turtle, Mother Whatever,” and then lent me a book by the legal scholar Laurence Tribe because he thought I should consider law school.
When my editors were convinced that he would run for president in 1988 despite his disavowals, I spent six months reporting what was meant to be the definitive profile, tracking down dozens of college classmates, professors, legal mentors, neighbors, relatives, political allies and adversaries. What emerged was a consensus that Mario Cuomo’s early defeats and ignominy, in particular his loss in the 1977 New York City mayoral race, profoundly shaped his future decisions. Friends described a competitor so determined to win that he still contested a decision that resulted in a tie for first place in his law school class — but also an insular, insecure politician prone to stepping back from contests he feared he might lose or situations where he felt he would have to cede control.
Mario Cuomo offered various reasons for rejecting the entreaties that he run for president, saying he was not convinced he was needed, that his candidacy lacked a rationale, or that there was too much work to complete in Albany. It is hard to imagine his son suffering similar self-doubt or walking away from the plane that waited on the tarmac to take Mario Cuomo to New Hampshire in 1991. Andrew Cuomo — who celebrated his television stardom by signing a book deal about his heroic role in an ongoing pandemic — appeared to believe his own hype.
Watching Andrew Cuomo’s final days reminded me of one of his father’s favorite parables, about the wasp and the frog (more commonly told about a scorpion, but Mario Cuomo always used a wasp.) The wasp asks a frog for a ride across a river. The frog is leery, but the wasp points out that if he were to sting the frog, they would both drown. The frog accepts the logic. In the middle of the water, the wasp strikes. As they are drowning, the wasp explains, “I couldn’t help it, it’s in my nature.”
The fabled wasp demonstrated greater self-awareness than Andrew Cuomo, who even now seems not to comprehend the depth of his self-destructive behavior. He leaves Albany the way he arrived back in 1983, convinced of his ability to bully his way to yet another upset victory. He wanted a fourth term to best his father’s tenure as governor. In the end, he will fall short of even equaling his father’s record, in longevity or gravitas.
Mario Cuomo’s very public waffling on his presidential prospects earned him the epithet “Hamlet on the Hudson.” But at least in this regard, Andrew has indeed outdone his father as the true Shakespearean figure, whose hubris and love of power for power’s sake had tragic consequences for so many.
Miriam Pawel (@miriampawel) is the author of “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation.”
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