Tuesday, March 16, 2021

WHAT ABOUT CUOMO?

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
 In recent days, I have listened to and read about every stance imaginable regarding persistently increasing reports of gender-related impropriety by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The mass media in general have been pretty ready to throw the governor under the bus, and calls for his resignation have been widespread. Even CNN, where Governor Cuomo’s brother Chris is one of the major anchors, has been highly critical and has gone out of its way—perhaps in the interest of perceived objectivity—to bring in critical outside commentators to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, the editorial board of the New York State capital’s top paper, the Hearst Corporation-owned Times-Union of Albany, which had three times backed Cuomo’s gubernatorial candidacy, last week ran an editorial entitled Resign, Mr. Cuomo. Additionally, there is a billboard campaign in New York City demanding that Cuomo “resign now.”

Nor is the media, in this case, in the position of challenging the governor’s party, since New York Democrats have pretty unanimously called on Cuomo to resign, as have US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, US congressional representative for New York Kristen Gillibrand, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. It was only among some of my more liberal contacts on the social media and among some other friends and colleagues where I heard calls for leniency, in some cases because they felt Cuomo was too outstanding a leader for the party and the country to lose, and in others because of the “whataboutism” issue of the gutter-low bar set by former President Donald Trump who had apparently done far worse to women and been given (or paid for) a pass.

As often happens with sex scandals, this one comes saddled on the back of an actual administrative scandal—all but proven in a report from the New York State attorney general’s office—regarding a cover-up allegedly orchestrated by Cuomo’s administration to fudge the numbers on COVID-related deaths in state nursing homes by as much as fifty percent. The idea of this maneuver was to make it appear that the state government had the COVID situation in rest homes much more under control than it actually did, the excuse being that Cuomo feared Donald Trump’s team could use the real, devastatingly higher nursing home death toll against Democrats and indeed against the governor himself in the then upcoming 2020 elections. That was at a time when Cuomo was signing a deal for a book about his generally successful fight against the pandemic that had completely crippled New York City, and when there was even talk of his being an alternative to Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination in light of his burgeoning superstar hero status in the war on COVID.

But focus has been almost completely deflected away from the nursing home scandal to the more titillating topic of sexual impropriety, if indeed this can be called that, since what has been described by the alleged victims, though clearly inappropriate, sounds more like gender-related abuse of power and attendant peccadilloes than any sort of sexual assault, especially when compared to accusations regarding Donald Trump’s unpunished sexist exploits.

A half dozen accusers now lead the pack against Cuomo. The first to accuse him of sexual harassment was former aide Lindsey Boylan. In a piece that she posted on the social media platform Medium, Boylan claimed that the governor had created a culture of “sexual harassment and bullying” within his administration. She claimed that this culture was “so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected.”

Ruch, Boylan and Bennett, the first three
In the article, Boylan talks about how she learned from colleagues that the governor had developed “a crush” on her, and tells about how her boss, Cuomo’s office director Stephanie Benton, told her in an email that Cuomo thought she and his rumored former girlfriend Lisa Shields looked so much alike that they “could be sisters” but that Boylan was “the better looking sister.” From then on, Boylan said, Cuomo began referring to her as “Lisa” in front of other colleagues and she began worrying about situations in which she might be left alone with the governor.

On one such occasion, Boylan claims Cuomo called her into his office alone to show her a cigar box that Bill Clinton had given him. She found it suggestive and understood that the governor was making a pointed reference to former Clinton intern Monica Lewinsky’s claim that during repeated Oval Office sexual encounters between her and the former president, Clinton had used a cigar on her as a sex toy. Boylan also claims that at another point, Cuomo kissed her without her consent.

A second accuser, Charlotte Bennett, says that Cuomo asked her probing questions about her sex life, asked her if she had ever been “with an older man” and told her he had no problem dating women over twenty-two—Bennett was twenty-five at the time. “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me,” Bennett claims, “and was wondering how I was going to get out of it.”

Another accuser, Anna Ruch, didn’t work for the governor but is a former member of the Obama administration and worked on Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. She claims that on her first meeting with Cuomo at a wedding reception in New York City, he took her face in his hands and asked if he could kiss her. She says she found his behavior so inappropriate that she was “confused and shocked and embarrassed.” Ruch says that she was so taken by surprise that she couldn’t find words to respond and simply “turned my head away.”

Still another woman, Karen Hinton, claims Cuomo was already doing this sort of thing over twenty years ago, when he was Housing and Urban Development secretary under Bill Clinton. At the time, Hinton was one of Cuomo’s top aides. She says that when they were working together in a California hotel room, Cuomo started asking her a lot of personal questions. “I was uncomfortable with the conversation,” Hinton said in a TV interview. “So I stood up to leave and he walked across from his couch and embraced me intimately. It was not just a hug. It was an intimate embrace. I pulled away. He brought me back. I pulled away again and I said, 'Look, I need some sleep, I am going.'” Hinton went on to say that, to her mind, “It was inappropriate. We both were married. I worked for him and it was too much to make it so personal and intimate.”

Another former aide, Ana Liss, says that she was made to feel like “just a skirt” in the Governor's presence. Telling her story to the Wall Street Journal, Liss says Cuomo consistently addressed her as “sweetheart”, asked if she had a boyfriend, touched her “lower back” and on one occasion took her hand and kissed it. She says she at first tried to write it off as “harmless flirtations” but that the situation grew ever more uncomfortable. So much so that it was “not appropriate, really, in any setting.”

In its editorial, the Albany Times-Union news management team said that it “had not taken lightly” its decision to withdraw support from the governor, adding that, “He has brought to fruition a host of important progressive goals. But between his manipulation of state ethics bodies, multiple allegations of sexual harassment and these latest revelations on nursing home deaths, he has lost the credibility he needs to lead this state, especially in the midst of a public health crisis.”

If we’re keeping our priorities straight, clearly the main issue here is to what extent Governor Cuomo and his team, for a question of political convenience, sought to manipulate COVID death toll figures in an attempt to keep the real gravity of state nursing home fatalities a secret from the public. Although his actions may not have directly caused any additional deaths, they did indeed skew the level of awareness regarding the effects of the pandemic. Worse still, the inevitable revelation of the attempted cover-up only served to further undermine already abysmal levels of public trust in government data regarding the worst health crisis in a century, at a time when people’s adherence to federal guidelines for bringing this plague under control couldn’t be more crucial.

The hypocrisy of all this is not lost on even mildly objective observers, since Democrats in general and Cuomo in particular have been critical of the GOP under Trump for downplaying the pandemic and for denying the gravity of the rising death toll. Cuomo’s doing the same with the New York State nursing home deaths has immediately permitted Trump supporters to weaponize the revelation. After the many years that he has spent in politics and coming as he does from a bloodline of politicians, the governor should have known that something this big could not be kept secret. Considering that, at the very least, he should have made sure that his otherwise spectacular handling of the pandemic was absolutely transparent from the outset.

Ana Liss and Karen Hinton add voices to the mix
Which brings us back to the other scandal, since what has apparently been in play in both cases is arrogance—that most authoritarian of emotions. The greatest downfall of the powerful is to believe their own hype. There is something chillingly similar, if clearly less crass, about Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape and the kind of behavior Cuomo’s accusers are attributing to him. Trump revealed in that now infamous tape that he truly believed that being a star gave him the right to do whatever he wanted with other people, and more particularly, with young women, even to the extent of reaching out and touching whatever part of them he wished whenever he wanted to.

Cuomo has reportedly been somewhat less obvious about this. But if what an increasing number of his female staffers are alleging is true, that idea of his rock star status is at the back of his mind. In his alleged sexual harassment of—or at least inappropriate behavior toward—young women subordinates like Lindsey Boylan, Charlotte Bennett or Ana Liss, there seems to be a tacit inference on his part that either any attractive female thirty or forty years his junior should be thrilled to receive the advances of a guy like him because he isn’t just any senior citizen, but a star politician with a whole other aura, or he is so arrogantly authoritarian that he really doesn’t care what these women think because he holds the future of their careers in his hands. In either case, the premise is sexist, elitist and contemptible, because it doesn’t, for a second, take the other person’s rights or desires or personal lives into account.

Cuomo for his part has made a half-hearted and qualified apology in which his quavering voice and damp eyes seemed to indicate sincerity. But his subsequent comments on the affair have tended to dismiss the allegations of his accusers as a misunderstanding and an exaggeration of the facts. Using the excuse, for instance—as Cuomo did about Charlotte Bennett—that her perception of his overly intimate treatment of her as sexual harassment was off base because he considered himself her “mentor” is disingenuous to say the least. It begs the question of whether a young woman in the employ of “a great man” must accept as a normal part of the “mentoring process” being subjected to probing personal questions and sexual innuendo from a male superior old enough to be her grandfather—or from any boss for that matter.

Sadly enough, however, in both the public and private sectors, this is far too often the case. And this is why the MeToo movement was formed, as a means of bringing cases of on-the-job sexual harassment and, indeed, of sexual assault to the forefront and to seek punishment for its perpetrators. The governor is no stranger to this phenomenon and was one of the first of powerful men to come out publicly in support of it. Meanwhile, however, on a personal level, Cuomo can’t seem to shake the antiquated culture of objectifying and sexually exploiting women in the workplace that has sadly been part and parcel of the era in which he was forming his impressive political career.

There is no doubt that Governor Cuomo’s political enemies in the Republican Party and indeed his rivals in the Democratic Party (such as Mayor de Blasio) are milking his current woes for every political point they can possibly gain. But there are a couple of questions that those who have angrily charged that Cuomo “is being framed”—and I confess to being one of them before I gave the matter a lot deeper thought—should be asking themselves.

The first one is this: Why, no matter how hard they tried—and you just know they did—to dig up personal dirt on former presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama were their political enemies unable to do so? Answer: Because there was no “there-there”. They kept the slate clean in their private lives, and they certainly didn’t seek to intimately fraternize with or sexually exploit their female staff members, but rather, treated them with utmost respect. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, no matter how great his achievements or how beneficial to the country his presidency may have been, will always be remembered at a grassroots level as the perv-president who repeatedly had sex in the Oval Office with an intern half his age.

Cuomo, proud father of three daughters...

And the second one is this: When is “harmless flirtation” or “playful banter”, not merely harmless flirtation or playful banter? Answer: When the person initiating it is someone too powerful to challenge without the threat of damage to one’s career advancement. Worse still, when such “banter” and “flirtation” belies a perceived sexual proposition that makes the target have to ask herself: Is my career really worth challenging this and carrying it to its ultimate consequences (and maybe getting blackballed in the process) or, failing that, is it worth sleeping with the boss in hopes that he will do me no harm in the future?

No subordinate should have to ask herself (or, far less often, himself) that question. And if one does have to pose it, then there is clearly sexual impropriety in the workplace.

Finally, I have a rhetorical question for Governor Cuomo himself. He has three lovely daughters with his former wife, Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. By all accounts, Cuomo and his wife did an excellent job of bringing their three girls up and all three appear talented, intelligent and well-educated. The kind of young women that could very well end up working for a powerful man like the governor himself. If that should happen, how will Cuomo feel if he learns that one or all three of them have been made to feel that their careers are in jeopardy if they don’t sleep with the boss? Perhaps he should think that over and re-think his apology.

 

3 comments:

Fabio Descalzi said...

Oh my...!

As a proud father of a 21-year-old girl, I also do think that Cuomo (or anybody else in his place) should think that over, too!

Unknown said...

Apparently Cuomo's daughters are speaking up in his defense, or in at least his right to a thorough investigation. Family ties run strong. (May or may not be relevant, apparently, one of his daughters was dating a cop who had been assigned to Cuomo's security but when dad found out he had the poor guy assigned to a remote outpost on the Canadian border.) We've moved into a new era of behavioral expectations regarding race and sex and, while it seems like the masses are all too quick to grab their pitchforks and burn the guilty at the stake, I think that making an example of these people will ultimately lead to a better world.
Power is a strong cocktail that, more often than not, leads to abuse. And that gives me all the more respect for leaders such as Jimmy Carter and Obama.
Thanks for the note Dan.

Lilly said...

Interesting!! Thank you for this very comprehensive analysis. I certainly do understand it a lot better.