Folklore tells us that if you wish to slay monsters, you need the proper weapons. A stake to drive through the heart of a vampire; a silver bullet to fell the slavering werewolf. But in the murky forest of American politics, there’s only one weapon powerful enough to slay the beast: a good old #MeToo-ing by an army of brave women warriors.
This looks to be how it’s going to end for Andrew Cuomo, the New York state governor who resigned this week after an investigation by New York State Attorney General Letitia James found that he’d sexually harassed eleven women over the course of his political career. The report detailed a pervasive pattern of harassment that included everything from overfamiliar touching to suggestive comments; the most serious allegation was that he’d put his hand up a woman’s shirt and groped her breast.
Cuomo has flatly denied some of the allegations (including the groping charge); others, he’s tried to contextualise as the innocuous byproducts of his affectionate, gregarious nature. The governor argued that he’s always hugged and kissed people, men and women alike; he simply hadn’t realised how much he’d fallen out of step with the norms of a more enlightened age.
“There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate, and I should have,” he said, in a statement that utterly failed to win over his detractors but did launch a cottage industry of I’m not perverted, I’m just Italian T-shirts.
But even as it’s being treated like a bombshell, the 165-page report raises at least as many questions as it answers. Tablet‘s Michael Tracey has pointed out several oddities and inconsistencies, including the fact that some of Cuomo’s behaviour was found offensive by James but not, remarkably, by the women who were subjected to it — and that despite accusing him in a press conference of having violated federal law, James has not brought charges against the governor.
In this way, the Andrew Cuomo sexual harassment scandal contains echoes of an earlier, hastier takedown: in 2017, at the height of MeToo fervour, Democratic Senator Al Franken stepped down amid multiple allegations of harassment and intense pressure from his peers on the Left. His case followed a similar trajectory to Cuomo’s, beginning with an allegation from a former colleague-turned-political rival. In Franken’s case, conservative talk-radio personality Leeann Tweeden accused the senator of having forced her to repeatedly rehearse a kissing scene against her will during a USO tour in 2006; in Cuomo’s case, the controversy began with allegations from Lindsey Boylan, a former aide who was now running for office herself.
Boylan complained on Twitter about a toxic work environment at Cuomo’s office before upping the ante with a claim of sexual harassment, then famously refused to elaborate or cooperate with journalists who were attempting to report the story. But as with Franken, once the first allegation drew attention, others followed. And as with Franken, it wasn’t the details of any one incident but the sheer volume of women claiming to be harassed that made all the difference.
The most charitable reading of this #MeToo trajectory is that there’s safety, and courage, in numbers — that women are empowered to come forward with allegations once they realise they’re not alone. The cynical one is that #MeToo-ings have a certain glow — one that attracts not just true victims, but also attention-seekers and fabulists, like moths to the flame. Look at these brave and valiant women speaking truth to a powerful, abusive man; who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Anyone over the age of 40 will recognise Andrew Cuomo as the sort of old lecher whose behaviour is grossly inappropriate by the enlightened standards of the current year, but who was quite recently considered tolerable and toothless if not charming (and some people did find him charming, including those now pretending otherwise). He’s also not the first politician with a long history of displaying open affection for constituents and staff to get tripped up by evolving norms; after all, it was only last year that we were still trying to decide if Joe Biden’s handsiness was an encouraging sign of human warmth or something more sinister.
For Biden, warmth won out. But Cuomo, for reasons of both identity and self-presentation, couldn’t project that same grandfatherly vibe. He was younger, rougher, and unmarried after a notoriously acrimonious split from his wife in the early 2000s. And far from being cautious about how these things might impact his image, he leaned into it: “I’ve always been a soft guy,” he joked with his brother, CNN’s Chris Cuomo, early on in the pandemic. “I am the love gov. I’m a cool dude in a loose mood.”
Of course, until about five minutes ago, people were eating this up — which explains why it took nearly nine months between those first allegations of misconduct and Cuomo’s unhappy ouster from office. It’s not that Andrew Cuomo was a good guy; it’s just that we desperately wanted him to be. New York was one of the first states to be hit hard by the pandemic, and before long, New York’s governor was being hailed as a Covid hero. Andrew Cuomo developed a reputation for taking the virus seriously (unlike those science-denying yokels in, say, Florida, who wouldn’t even wear masks at the beach), and for taking control of a population that refused to control itself. In hindsight, it was all a bit much.
“I love Governor Cuomo, his soothing Queens accent, his stories about his dad Mario (himself a three-time governor of New York) and his 88-year-old mother Matilda,” gushed Molly Jong-Fast at Vogue, while Jezebel’s Rebecca Fishbein swooned over his “measured bullying, his love of circumventing the federal government, his sparring with increasingly incompetent city leadership.” The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah declared himself a proud Cuomosexual. When a photo surfaced that suggested the presence of nipple piercings under Cuomo’s polo shirt, media Twitter lost its mind for three straight days.
And as long as Andrew Cuomo said all the right things, nobody seemed to care much that he was doing all the wrong ones. This was the man who mandated that Covid-infected patients be admitted to nursing homes without testing, resulting in tens of thousands of fatalities, and then tried to cover up the scandal by undercounting the dead. In the early days of the pandemic, when tests were scarce, he diverted them away from essential workers and gave them to his friends, family, and administration VIPs. This was the man who got a $4 million book deal to write a pandemic memoir about his amazing leadership, then violated the ethics of his office by making state employees work on the manuscript.
And yet, throughout all this, he continued to play moral authority — and the media, including his brother Chris at CNN, colluded to reinforce the message. Without this MeToo moment to interrupt his stride, who knows how long New York’s naked emperor would’ve kept on strolling?
Cuomo has raged that the allegations against him are politically motivated. And in truth, yes, some of them probably are. Just as tax evasion was hardly Al Capone’s worst offence, the imperviousness to scandal of someone like Cuomo begets a prosecutorial, let’s-find-something-to-charge-him-with mentality, which in turn begets the weaponisation of sexual misconduct allegations against a man whose worst crimes are something else entirely.
And yes, this is a trend that threatens to weaken due process and cheapen the legitimate issue of workplace harassment.
But if the opportunistic tarring of Andrew Cuomo as a pervert is bad, so too is corruption, and conspiracy, and nepotism, and finger-wagging at the public over their Thanksgiving travel plans after your egotism and ineptitude just killed off fifteen thousand grandparents. And if the government and media would stop providing partisan cover for political werewolves, maybe desperate citizens wouldn’t feel the need to use MeToo as a silver bullet.