OP-ED: Politicians should not be idolized

Andrea Butler
Progressive Media Project (TNS)
In this March 24, 2020 photo, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center that will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in New York. Amid an unprecedented public health crisis, the nation’s governors are trying to get what they need from the federal government – and fast. But often that means navigating the disorienting politics of dealing with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly emerged as one of the nation’s heroes.

Pitching himself as the antithesis to the chaos and ignorance of the Trump administration, Cuomo seemed determined to use this crisis as a way to cement his legacy. He held live daily briefings to update New Yorkers on the status of the pandemic. He was on the side of science, the side of reason, determined to be the noble captain of a sinking ship.

It worked, initially. Cuomo was praised for his leadership by citizens and politicians alike. Dr. Anthony Fauci, himself a born-and-bred New Yorker, commended Cuomo for his stay-at-home order, pointing to the state as a model in the fight against coronavirus. Citizens charmed by Cuomo’s basic competency adopted the ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek term of “cuomosexual,” bolstering his cult of personality.

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In October 2020, building off the momentum of his status as the pandemic’s golden boy, Cuomo released the seemingly self-indulgent, highlight reel of a book, “American Crisis: Lessons in Leadership from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” It ended up on The New York Times bestseller list.

But since then have come a series of startling revelations. Cuomo, we now know, had deliberately misled the public in reports of the number of coronavirus deaths, omitting the numbers of those who contracted the virus in nursing homes and later died in hospitals. In recent days, two of Cuomo’s former aides, Lindsay Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, have publicly accused him of sexual harassment, as has a young woman he allegedly accosted at a wedding.

The United States’ shining example of crisis leadership has quickly begun to fall from grace.

These revelations are disturbing, but not startling. Many elected officials have twisted the truth to maintain a positive public perception, and subjected staff to unwanted advances. However, Cuomo’s rapid descent from patriotic hero to just another sleazy politician provides a lesson for the U.S. public: idolizing politicians is dangerous and foolish.

Andrew Cuomo took an oath to serve the people of the state of New York. His ability to govern in a state of emergency should not be celebrated, it should be expected. But the Trump administration had set the bar dangerously low for competent leadership, and Cuomo rode that wave to become a publicist’s dream. And we let him.

Mugs and T-shirts with the phrase “cuomosexual” emblazoned across them should not be considered normal, cute or harmless. We ought to take a step back and think why a governor leading his state is somehow sexy enough to warrant a commodifiable catchphrase.

Cuomo, in his response to the pandemic, did not do anything extraordinary. To the extent that he did anything right, he was just doing his job.

Praising politicians for their basic competency shows them that we do not expect any meaningful change, and care more about optics than legislative progress. Now for Cuomo the optics are bad, as are the potential legislative consequences.

Fostering a cult of celebrity around politicians puts them above us, the people. Cuomo is not better than the average New Yorker, but he holds more responsibility than any of the state’s other 19 million residents. We need to hold him accountable — before, during and after the facade begins to crumble.

— Andrea Butler is a freelance writer and content specialist living in Lisbon, Portugal. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.