Like father, like son? Andrew Cuomo, Mario Cuomo and the Supreme Court seat that never was

What role did Andrew Cuomo play in his father's legendary dithering — and how much did that change history?

By Jim Sleeper
March 30, 2021 10:00AM (UTC)
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Then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announcing his candidacy for governor alongside his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, on May 22, 2010 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Andrew Cuomo figured ambiguously but, as it has turned out, fatefully, in a remembrance of his father Mario Cuomo, written in 2015 by The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg on the occasion of the elder Cuomo's passing. Hertzberg reprised Mario Cuomo's maddeningly contradictory responses in 1993 to President Clinton's offer to nominate him for the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Byron White. Clinton rightly saw Cuomo as a brilliant, eloquent, principled, politically savvy choice for the court, where he'd have been a powerfully effective justice. That Cuomo had decided not to run against Clinton and other Democrats in the 1992 presidential primaries can only have boosted his stock.

Andrew Cuomo, who was then 36, was central in shaping and conveying his father's communications with the White House as his confidant and go-between, but also as an interested political prospect in his own right: He had married Robert F. Kennedy's daughter, Kerry Kennedy, in 1990 and was about to become a deputy secretary of Clinton's Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

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Yet in a series of bizarre, increasingly bathetic, then pathetic and ultimately tragic back-and-forths between Andrew and Clinton's communications director George Stephanopoulos, Mario Cuomo signaled that he would accept the nomination (and almost-certain Senate confirmation); then, that he would have to decline the nomination because of his gubernatorial obligations to New York; then, that he would accept the offer only if the president really told him to. 

Hertzberg's account of what ensued is worth quoting at length:  

As Stephanopoulos writes in "All Too Human," his White House memoir, "various versions of [the Clinton/Cuomo] pas de deux started to leak; the clock was running out. On April 7, I called Andrew. 'We have to pull the trigger one way or another,' I told him. 'It can't go on like this. It's not fair to the president. We need an answer.'"

Andrew called his father, and he told me later that they spoke for two and a half hours. The White House needed a decision by day's end, and Mario finally told Andrew, "If you want me to, I'll call Clinton and take it." But an hour later, the governor faxed the president a letter saying that his duty to New York outweighed his desire to be on the Supreme Court. ...

The saga didn't end there, though. Clinton didn't have a second choice, and it took him two months to settle on one. … Eventually he decided on Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But, before he could offer her the post, Andrew Cuomo called Stephanopoulos. Was it still unfilled? If it was, Andrew said, and if the President offered it, this time the governor would accept. "Mario will do it because the President wants him to," Andrew said. 'But the President … needs to use strong language, has to tell Mario that he has to do it."

Late on the night of June 13, Andrew called again to reassure Stephanopoulos that Mario was still "on board." A personal telephone call from Clinton to Cuomo was set for 6 P.M. the next day. At 5:45, Stephanopoulos was called to the phone. The governor was on the line. Yet again, he had changed his mind. "I surrender so many opportunities of service if I take the Court. I feel that I would abandon what I have to do. I don't want the President to think that I might say yes."

Stephanopoulos was stunned. Recovering himself, he said, "I have to see the President. Let me be clear: If he calls you, you will not accept. Will you turn the President down?" "Yes."

The aide took this as the governor's last word. "The game was over," Stephanopoulos writes in his memoir. "Cuomo would never be on the Court."

Hertzberg underscores the irony in "the governor's last word" by linking and quoting something Cuomo told me in 1982, when he was lieutenant governor and I was following him around the state, profiling him for the Village Voice during his first (and successful) run for governor:

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If somebody could convince me I'd make a greater contribution to mankind as a judge in the court of appeals [New York State's highest court], boy, I'd be happy as a clam, because that'd be a much easier life for me. I'd love to be on the court of appeals, personally to be able never to have to go to a cocktail party, never to have to do anything you don't want to do, just show up, listen to arguments, study, read, tell the truth. Can you imagine that? Never really have to compromise. You listen, you write your view, you can be Oliver Wendell Holmes, always in the dissent.

Reconciling Mario Cuomo's philosophical and poetical dreams with his political maneuvering as a candidate and then as an executive poses a characterological puzzle that seems to be playing out even now, years later, in the life of his son, the second Gov. Cuomo: It's as if the father's inner tug of war between his dream of enlightening and uplifting the people from a high bench and his messier obligation to lead them through snake pits and sloughs of despond continues, with reverse emphases, in the son's unending struggle to temper his own strong inclination to dominate and control others with his weaker efforts to emulate his father's poetic and philosophical graces.

*   *   *

In 2015 I assessed Mario Cuomo's legacy in the Washington Monthly, as Hertzberg was doing it in the New Yorker. Recalling his struggle to reconcile his attraction to a high court as a deliverance from the increasingly demagogic demands of electoral politics, with his determination to face those demands head-on, I'm still puzzled, even stunned, by his decision to stay in seedy, tawdry Albany, chatting up the local NPR station's director on their weekly "Me and Mario" show, instead of sparring for the good of the country with Antonin Scalia, who, as Hertzberg reminds us, was "Cuomo's fellow Italian-American Catholic" and "the Court's foremost intellectual."

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"Justice Cuomo would have made short work of him," Hertzberg adds, noting that "By the time Bush v. Gore reached the docket, Justice Cuomo would have had seven years to build relationships with his colleagues. His practical experience of elections and election law would have magnified the customary effects of his persuasiveness, intellectual suppleness, wit, and personal magnetism."

Might Gov. Mario Cuomo's internal paralysis shed some light on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's current public travails?

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Think back to April 7, 1993, when the White House was pressing the father, through the son, for a firm answer by day's end, prompting the two to grapple "for two and a half hours." What on earth can have been left to discuss by then? What might Andrew have urged his father to do when he heard him say, "If you want me to, I'll call Clinton and take it."? 

That Andrew may have urged his father to "take it" is suggested by Michael Shnayerson in "The Contender," his biography of Andrew, published in 2015, when he was in his second term as governor. Anticipating that he would run for president the following year, Shnayerson recycled the 1993 court-nomination drama, reporting that one of Andrew's advisers had told him that some people "'believe that Andrew very much wanted his father elevated to the Supreme Court because that would put him out of the way.' In or out of elected office, the presence of Mario Cuomo in New York would be disruptive to the son hoping to run for governor or senator himself. But immured instead in the U.S. Supreme Court Building? Perfect, for both father and son."

As noted above, Andrew's national profile had indeed risen by 1993. But although he became an energetic, iron-fisted administrator at HUD and in subsequent offices, I've characterized his public and administrative styles as "thug lite," and that style didn't thrive on the national stage. Cuomo lost a race for governor in New York in 2002 but won election as the state's attorney general in 2006, and he has terrified and overpowered civil servants and legislators in Albany ever since, stoking their resentments as governor since 2011.

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Although Andrew isn't his father's equal in intellectual or moral leadership, those thuggish undertones have served him well enough in a time of crisis against another bully from New York's Borough of Queens: Donald J. Trump. Cuomo won re-election as governor in 2018 while denouncing Trump. He asserted that leaders of the National Rifle Association "control the president … but they don't control me," and, summoning his trademark "thug lite," Cuomo added, "You try to bully us in New York, we put our finger in your chest, and we push you back, and that's what we're going to do with the NRA." There was no mistaking his real target.

Cuomo also recycled some of his father's "family of New York" poetry in his nationally praised COVID briefings a year ago this month and in his speech to the 2020 Democratic National Convention. So many Americans swooned over him then that a writer for the feminist website Jezebel satirized progressive women falling in love with him. But his own dearest attachments remained elsewhere: At one of his COVID briefings, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted, "he displayed a picture of Mario Cuomo … 'He's not here anymore for you,' he said, but 'He's still here for me.'"

I can't help wondering if oedipal preoccupations drove Andrew to urge his father, during their "two and a half hour" conversation about Clinton's offer, to decline it and remain in Albany to solidify the only legacy and dynasty the son could hope to inherit and sustain — his only realistic chance to equal and outdo his dazzling dad.

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I won't reprise here the widely reported scandals and allegations (nine women have accused him of harassing them sexually; others have accused him of fudging the numbers of nursing-home COVID deaths to hide hid policy blunders) that are now engulfing Andrew Cuomo. Some of these accusations are surely driven by bitter resentments that his all-purpose bullying has stoked among Albany's Lilliputians and among wholly innocent victims of sexual harassment and administrative intimidation. In a recent New York Times column, Michelle Cottle cites studies suggesting that "[P]oliticians may be affected by the winner effect, in which … success changes people's brain chemistry in ways that cause them to behave more selfishly or aggressively … with 'an inflated sense of their own value as a sexual prospect.'"

I don't know about that, but I've seen oedipal rage produce similar effects in other men, and I've seen people who are stressed and dispossessed succumb to a "winner effect" similar to what Cuomo has sometimes displayed and what some witless members of the news media have all-but worshipped in him.

More temperately, a few Italian-Americans I've known in Brooklyn and Queens have resisted their city's cosmopolitan challenges by saying, "Grow where you were planted." It's well known that Mario Cuomo didn't like to travel or even to spend more than a night or two away from home. The same has been said of his son.

And there's the matter of feeling unworthy. For all his prodigious, big-hearted strengths, the Mario Cuomo whom I admired and profiled in 1982 didn't feel fully worthy of the opportunities and challenges his tremendous talents had brought him. His self-doubt seemed even more unsparingly Calvinist than Catholic — dependent on deep introspection as well as on a directive from Above, a call to Duty that he didn't quite sense in Clinton's offer. Years after he'd retired from public life, Hertzberg asked him why he hadn't taken that offer.

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He gave me the familiar answers: he'd owed it to the people of New York to finish the job they'd put him in; there were plenty of available people capable of being superb Justices. … And so on.

Here is what I then said to him, in pretty close to these exact words: "All right, let me ask you this. What if Clinton had called you? And what if he had said, 'Governor, this is the President of the United States. Please don't interrupt me. This is a courtesy call. I want to let you know that in five minutes I am going to the White House press room to announce your nomination as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. This is your duty to your country. I repeat: This is the President of the United States. This is your duty. Have a nice day"? Click.

"Ah," Cuomo said, and paused for a few seconds. "Well, of course, then I would have had to do it."

I believe that Andrew sensed early on that no one would ever say to him what Clinton almost said to his father, and that Andrew would have no choice but to dominate the smaller stage his father could have transcended.


Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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Andrew Cuomo Bill Clinton Commentary History Mario Cuomo New York Supreme Court