Cuomo or Trump? Leadership During a Time of Crisis

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The Case for Andrew Cuomo

By Darrell Laurant

It was remarkable to see—the worse things got, the more New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seemed at ease.
In many ways, Cuomo emerged from America’s turbulent spring as the anti-Trump. He said “we,” where Trump was saying, “I.” He minimized his affiliation with the Democratic Party even as Trump used Republicanism as a bludgeon. When he criticized, he targeted the act or the offending statement, not the person responsible for it.
Even as a trio of crises swooped down on his state like malignant bats–a global pandemic, a crashing economy, national unrest over police brutality–Cuomo insisted on dealing with them based on “the data” rather than emotions, politics, or some sort of gut feeling. Several times, he referred to the signature phrase immortalized by Sgt. Joe Friday of the old TV series “Dragnet”: “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”For over three months, seven days a week, Cuomo went before the public and the media all around the state — 111 days without a break. He recently joked that his assistant, Michelle DeRosa, a constant and formidable presence in her own right, “has built up enough overtime to take the next four years off.”

The sessions normally included a question-and-answer session with the media, and were carried on YouTube so they could be accessed at any time during the day. Before long, Cuomo’s audience was not only nationwide, but worldwide. And by the time the “Cuomo show” ended on June 20, New York State had progressed from having the worst COVID-19 numbers in America to the best.

“We did a total 180,” Cuomo said.

It began as a simple report on where New York stood with the COVID-19 pandemic, an almost dispassionate recital of the numbers. As these numbers improved, however, he became more of a cheerleader, telling his in-state viewers, “I didn’t do this. Government didn’t do this. You did this.” Gradually, he began to impart his philosophy of governing and some revealing snippets from his personal and family life.

But where did this come from, this sudden channeling of FDR’s fireside chats? Despite being the third-term governor of what is perhaps the country’s most visible state, Cuomo had never reached the status of a national figure. His father, Mario, also a three-term governor and one-time presidential candidate, was far better known. Even his younger brother Chris, a political pundit for CNN, had logged more national face time.

Not was Andrew Cuomo a universally beloved figure prior to this year. He has strong opinions, and some of his decisions have not gone over well with many of his constituents. Even during the pandemic, he was sharply criticized for putting some nursing home residents at risk by transferring excess COVID-19 patients to those facilities when the hospitals became overtaxed, a move he said was only carried out in response to a federal directive.

Indeed, there has always been an edge about Cuomo that he semi-mockingly calls “New York tough.” Now, though, he has transferred that expression to state residents as a whole. Like Trump, he has his base, but it is a statewide base that appears to transcend politics and race. A former prosecutor, he declared “I stand with the protestors” in the George Floyd aftermath, but also made it very clear that those involved in the subsequent looting were not protestors, but “criminal opportunists, taking advantage of the fact that the police were busy with the protestors.”
Perhaps the reason so many Americans have become fascinated with Cuomo is that they have grown weary of the alternative — the bickering, the childish name-calling, the two-party political gridlock. Once dismissed as a reality show diversion, those tactics are now becoming not only tedious, but dangerous.

“Leaders emerge from a crisis or they drown from a crisis,” New York University professor Mitchell Moss told CNN. “Andrew has found his voice. This is the first time he’s actually emerged from the shadow of his father.”

In a perfect world, what Cuomo projects wouldn’t be so unusual. He realizes that he works for the people of his state, not the other way around. He expresses a desire to represent all of those people, whether or not they voted for him.

Even his daily interactions with the media were dramatically different from the hostility shown by Trump (whom Cuomo has known personally for years). Cuomo knew a lot of those reporters by their first name, and patiently answered all their questions, even though he would sometimes chide them for repeat inquiries with “Where have you been for the last two weeks?”

In contrast to our more partisan leaders, Cuomo has handled multiple crises with a mixture of traditional statesmanship, authority, honesty, and, yes, a little swagger. He has shown a willingness to criticize his traditional allies and even praise Republicans like Maryland governor Larry Hogan. During a time of increasing pandering to partisanship, many Americans see Cuomo as an example of a bipartisan leader.

I know I certainly do.

The Case for Donald Trump

By Robert Wilkes

Darrell: Your essay on leadership touched many points I agree with. Like you, I prefer my leaders to say “we” and not “I.” I also think leaders should reach across the divide and show empathy when some part of the nation feels abused or neglected. Trump has less emotional range and when he tries he seems insincere. But these are minor matters of style.

You yearn for a bureaucratic leader (“Just the facts, Ma’am”) at ease with his power and authority, who can also throw in a heartwarming anecdote about his mother. With this claim, you have described your theory of government, which is very revealing. Let me explain.

As every schoolchild knows, America was founded on limited government. The powers of the Federal government were the most limited of all. We are a people that treasure our freedoms, and the best way to protect them was to keep power at the local level close to the people. Thus, the Tenth Amendment, passed in 1789 and ratified in 1791, was the last of our Bill of Rights. Here it is:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

How things have changed. This is now the essential political divide in America: an all-powerful, unaccountable, incompetent bureaucracy run by a self-proclaimed governing elite as opposed to an America where the people are sovereign, not the bureaucracy. Andrew Cuomo is a perfect avatar of the arrogant, powerful bureaucrat.

This is the political battle we have been fighting since the last decades of the 19th Century. America has endured a relentless accretion of bureaucratic power to the Federal government (Wilsonian Progressivism, FDR’s New Deal). Now, just as the Brits did with Brexit, the people are fighting back.

I’m one of them. I feel betrayed by entitled bureaucrats. We see them in the numberless overlapping agencies that can fine us or regulate our businesses out of existence, often without legal recourse. We also see them in the monotonous decay of our culture, our cities, our schools and all we hold dear because the entitled elite, while congratulating themselves on how much they care about the people, really don’t. Unless they are demagoguing, they care little about American ideals; they care about power. They have power, and in the use of that power they have been shown to be hopelessly incompetent.

This is my counter to your argument. Heavy-handed, oleaginous politicians such as Cuomo (and the clueless and dangerous Mayor De Blasio) are why got Trump elected. Therefore, you have it backwards when you say Cuomo is the anti-Trump: Donald Trump is the anti-Cuomo. And America loves him.  

The Transcendent Eloquence of Donald Trump

But you raise a debate-worthy question: what do we require of our leadership in a time of crisis? As any sentient American knows, President Trump talks too much. He loves the cameras and the sound of his own voice. His press conferences are repetitive, windy sales pitches. Mr. President, please take my advice. Talk less, communicate more. On June 1, in front of St. John’s Church, you did just that.

On the weekend of May 30-31, our capital, sacred ground, was the scene of riot and mayhem. As many as 30 Secret Service agents were injured protecting the White House. Nearby, windows were shattered at AFL-CIO headquarters and the building was set on fire. Our most beloved national monuments were defaced including the Lincoln Memorial. Fires and burning cars smoldered around the capital. Risible CNN reporters breathlessly told viewers the protests were “mostly peaceful” as they scampered to safety.

At 6:43 PM on Monday, June 1, 2020, Trump made these remarks in the Rose Garden. At 7:01 he walked across Lafayette Square and stood at the door of the partially burned and boarded-up church. Ambient sounds of protest and drifting smoke added dramatic stagecraft to the High Noon symbolism of the scene. The strain of the previous night’s mayhem was evident in the eyes of his jittery Secret Service detail.

Trump held up the bible and spoke not a word. It was the most eloquent moment of his presidency. Seven days later, congressional Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi, wearing African-art-inspired shawls, gathered in the lobby of the Capital Visitor Center. They silently knelt on the marble floor, genuflecting, heads bowed, for nearly nine minutes. They were bowing down to a mob. There are four months to go until the election, but these two indelible impressions may overshadow the economy and become the defining issue.

Which of the two political acts legitimately expresses the American founding philosophy that “All men are created equal?” Are we a nation on our knees, or a people who stand shoulder to shoulder and eye to eye? Nancy Pelosi has made her choice. But show me a hardworking American in a pickup truck who would get on his knees for anyone but God. It’s not going to happen. We are proud to be Hillary’s deplorables—and proud to be Americans.

Get off your knees, America!

Our nation has watched as uncivilized barbarism, destruction and disgusting brutality have, so sadly, inhabited our television screens for weeks. Civilization is a thin veneer over a sea of passion and brute force. We defend civilization, not for our own purposes, but for the greater good of the community and the nation.  And the world.

Two of the keystones of a modern nation are 1) the state monopoly on power, and 2) respect for the rule of law. Insurrections must be quelled. Law breakers must be arrested and brought to justice. The streets must be safe for the weak and unarmed. Lose that, and we lose the nation.

We have a republic and a good one. We invite everyone in America to stand proudly, black, white or brown, and be our countrymen. Be an unhyphenated American and share with us the freedom and opportunity this great land has given us.

With all due respect, we’re having the wrong argument here.

Dear Robert,

When talking about Andrew Cuomo, I was referring primarily to perception. I only recently returned to New York State after many years in Virginia, and hadn’t paid much attention to my new governor until now. For all I know, Cuomo could have had only personal motives for what he was doing. Maybe he really does wants to run for president in 2024, despite his denials — politicians change course all the time.

But this isn’t about Cuomo as an individual, but about how he was perceived by so many of his listeners and viewers. The fact that he was greeted as a breath of fresh air raises the question of why the current air is so stale.

I don’t think it’s possible to have a traditional political discussion about Donald Trump at this point, because for many people, his politics are not the issue. I don’t disagree with all of his actions, nor do I fault everyone who voted for him in 2016.

Now, though, based on polling (which is, I admit, dubious at best), you can’t really make the blanket statement “America loves Trump.” A lot of people still do, and they’re entitled. But it doesn’t seem to be anything close to a majority.

Like you, I feel that our federal overlords have become overbearing in many ways, no matter which party is in power. I dislike political correctness and the concept of the government as “Mom.” And I can see how Trump might have seemed an attractive alternative to many people in 2016.
On the other hand, I don’t consider his obvious flaws to be “minor matters of style.”
He lies constantly, lies that often become evident not because of “fake news” (although I do agree that some elements of the media are out get him) but because he has tweeted them out in plain sight. Or they have been disproved by video or eye-witness evidence. I don’t want a president I can’t trust, whatever his politics. And yes, I realize that most politicians lie — just normally not this much.

He is narcissistic, thin-skinned and erratic. He has appointed borderline criminals to cabinet posts because of his personal relationship with them, or because they kissed his ring. Instead of trying to convince others of his point of view, he polarizes.

Moreover, as far as our “overbearing government” being divorced from the public, what about Trump’s penchant for “executive orders,” often issued on a whim and by no one else’s authority?

I am not a card-carrying member (do they still have cards?) of any political party, and I voted for my Republican Congresswoman, Elise Stefanick, last time around. Moreover, I have always been rooting for Trump to succeed because he is, for better or worse, my President. I don’t feel morally qualified to critique his personal life and history.

However, I do love my country, and I want Trump gone for that reason.

The St. John’s photo op

To me, the St. John’s episode epitomized what I see as some major problems with Trump.

It was clumsily spontaneous and poorly planned. If Trump was going to have his Bible-toting photo op, it should have been planned and announced ahead of time, and maybe the protestors could have been moved without the need for chemical sprays and rough handling. Or maybe not, but catching them by surprise certainly wasn’t helpful.
The priest at the church didn’t even want him to do it. Speaking of government being overbearing ….
Trump is not religious, at least not in any obvious sense. This simply came across as being about his own re-election.

As a long-time newspaper reporter, I used to cover protests from time to time. This doesn’t make me an expert but did provide some perspective.

To my mind, there were three kinds of people out there — a) those who were peacefully expressing their First Amendment rights, b) a small minority of those who let their feelings run away with them and committed some unnecessary property damage, and c) a criminal element who chose the opportunity to perform what were essentially burglaries. Trump didn’t bother making any distinctions here.

Robert, I appreciate the chance to share my thoughts. In the end, I always fall back on what political columnist H.L. Mencken used to say to all his critics: “Thanks for sharing your thoughts. One of us might be right.”

If you enjoyed this article, you can read more bipartisan debates, op-eds, and interviews here.

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Robert Wilkes
Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall

Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall, is the former president/creative director of Wilkes Creative, a national branding and marketing company. Robert flew 100 combat missions in Vietnam as a Navy attack pilot. He spent ten years in engineering and marketing at Boeing, where his writing skills were called upon for technical papers, marketing assignments, and speeches for Boeing executives. As an activist in pro-Israel politics, he lobbied with AIPAC for 15 years where he met many congressmen and senators from both parties. Robert loves history, enjoys the craft of writing, and has a passion for civil debate. He resides in Bellevue, Washington.

Darrell Laurant

Darrell Laurent is a 40-year veteran of journalism. He has published multiple books including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America" and is working on his latest book "What Holds Us Back," which examines what "greatness" might mean in an American context and what obstacles litter our path in that direction.

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