Michael Shnayerson has written a superb and frankly frightening book, “The Contender: Andrew Cuomo, a Biography.” This book is balanced, showing Andrew at his best and at his absolute darkest.
His darkest, according to the book, is just plain scary. Indeed, it might cause you nightmares. It’s clear that the Cuomo people hate the book.
Shnayerson has spoken to hundreds of people who know Andrew either well or too well. He takes you from Andrew’s childhood in Queens to the present day, with stops along the way at various political postings including his time in the Clinton cabinet where Andrew seemed universally distrusted and, in fact, hated.
The book portrays Andrew as someone who takes no prisoners and has a memory for perceived wrongs that never quits. Shnayerson documents the fact that even his so-called friends are never safe. People who were once friends no longer are due to some imagined slight in Andrew’s memory.
The governor bullies those around him and he thinks strategically. Alliances change as need be and nothing is as it seems. In fact, it’s all about politics. The book is called “The Contender” because Shnayerson seems to think that most of Andrew’s decisions are constructed so that he can achieve the one major goal denied to his father, becoming President of the United States.
Like Lyndon Johnson, Cuomo knows how to manipulate the levers of power and a good deal of that involves instilling abject fear in his trading partners. In fact, he seems to despise them. Shnayerson shows us how Cuomo picks on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, perhaps because Schneiderman was once married to Jennifer Cunningham who helped run Cuomo’s campaigns.
His obvious distaste for and bullying of the very competent state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, follow the same path. Everyone is a rival.
Because I spoke on the radio with Andrew’s father, Mario, every week for years, I was fascinated to read about the father-son relationship. Sometimes it seems like Andrew adored Mario. Other times, it appears that Andrew competed with his father, not only because he wants to better him but also so that he can finally get the love that was denied him because Mario was seemingly always out of the house.
If I have any quarrel with the book, it is Shnayerson’s tough approach to Mario, the father. I’m here to tell you that Mario Cuomo was one of the deepest and funniest men I ever met. Week after week, he would both outfox and out-debate me. He believed in press conferences and transparency and there was no reporter with whom he’d refuse to debate. He did not pass that love of transparency on to his son.
The further you get into the book, the scarier it gets. It isn’t that Shnayerson doesn’t give Cuomo his due. He faithfully reports how Cuomo was able to pass marriage equality and the SAFE (gun) Act. As Attorney General, Cuomo went after some greedy bad guys and got settlements from them.
On the other hand, Shnayerson paints a picture of a guy who compulsively shines his shoes to a polished sheen every morning and who causes the kind of caution among staff that Joe Stalin must have had among his.
When I spoke with him, Shnayerson told me how Team Cuomo tried to get him not to write this book but instead, to write one with Andrew about the general topic of governance. Thank heavens Shnayerson didn’t fall for it.
Just his passages about how the governor has lacked kindness toward his ex-wife Kerry Kennedy Cuomo boggle the mind. I listened to the book on audio as I drove back and forth to work every day but inevitably, I found myself sitting in the car wanting to hear more. If you want to know how it really works, get the book.
Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 4/11/15