Gov. Andrew Cuomo on confronting a “frightening” pandemic, and thoughts on his political future


Gov. Andrew Cuomo with “Sunday Morning” host Jane Pauley, at the Executive Mansion in Albany, N.Y. CBS NEWS

(CBS News)–The Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, has been home to, among others, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and, for the past nine years, Andrew Cuomo.

“Do you know, it’s a lovely home, but it’s not homey. Where’s the homey part?” asked “Sunday Morning” host Jane Pauley.

“There is no homey part,” said Gov. Cuomo. “We live more on the second floor. It is a little more casual.”

And familiar. His father, Mario Cuomo, who died in 2015, was a three-term Governor of New York. “I can see him sitting right in that corner watching a ballgame, with the telephone,” said Andrew. “And he was never more than ten feet away from the telephone.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo with “Sunday Morning” host Jane Pauley, at the Executive Mansion in Albany, N.Y.  CBS NEWS

Today, Cuomo is having his moment, despite New York being the global epicenter of the COVID crisis this spring, suffering a staggering death toll of 25,000. New Yorkers give their governor an approval rating of nearly 80 percent.

COVID arrived with a single confirmed case on March 1. Three weeks later, infections now in the thousands, Cuomo shut down the state (some say not soon enough), and he marshaled New Yorkers to battle “the curve.” How high and how steep was in their hands.

Pauley asked, “You have a political jujitsu. You and a handful of other governors asked people to do hard things, and got more popular.”

“Go figure!” Cuomo laughed. “This was a frightening period. People were afraid for their life, literally. ‘How do I keep my elderly parents safe?'”

“You personally?”

“I have felt that also. And I wanted to connect with the people I was talking to.”

And talk he did. From March 2 until just last Friday, 111 daily briefings kept New Yorkers informed – and riveted (“You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die!”) – while watching the curve rise. 

The state needed help from the federal government. Cuomo called on another New Yorker: President Trump, also from Queens. Some say that’s where the similarities end.

Cuomo recalled, “I said to the president, ‘There is only one truth. My state needs help. Every state needs help. This is a federal crisis. And if you shirk your federal responsibility, I will say that.’ And I was true to that. The president sent in the Army Corps of Engineers. We built temporary hospitals all across the state. He sent up the U.S. Navy ship Comfort to provide emergency backup beds. He did that.”

But, in Cuomo’s view, President Trump could have – and should have – done more. “This was a national crisis,” Cuomo said. “The federal government should step in aggressively and ‘own it.’ In my state, I owned the situation.” 

“For better or worse,” Pauley said. 

“For better or worse. There was always a schizophrenia from the federal government. They would help when pushed to help. There were voices that always wanted to minimize it: ‘This is just the flu.’ ‘It’s going to pass.’ And then there was a desire to reopen, reopen, reopen. And you know where we are now? Dow Jones tumbles again, fear of second wave. That’s what happens when you reopen and you don’t do it intelligently, you do it politically.”

After peaking in early April, New York began to flatten the curve, and in May it started to bend. By June, the state reported the lowest infection rate in the nation.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives a briefing on the status of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths in New York State.  CBS NEWS

But at such great cost, is it a wonder then that people are weary and eager to move on? Despite COVID cases rising in more than 20 states, the president is in campaign mode, holding rallies, and declining to wear a mask. (“I would wear one if I thought it was important,” said the president, mask-less.) 

“Masks became about ideology,” said Pauley. 

“Yes, and that was a mistake,” Cuomo said.

“Who made that mistake? Was it the president?”

“The history books are gonna have to decide.”

“How will history record you answered that question?”

“I’ll answer for my actions, and then history will decide,” Cuomo said.

History turns on times like these. In rapid succession, three seismic events: global pandemic, an economic aftershock, and then, on Memorial Day, eight minutes and forty-six seconds that galvanized the world.

Pauley asked, “In this social movement against 400 years of racism in this country, there’s a moment. How do you capture it? How do you make it last?”

“Mr. Floyd’s murder, that is one in a long list of horrendous situations,” said Cuomo. “You can go back to Rodney King 30 years ago; Amadou Diallo, brutalized. Eric Garner was killed in New York much the same way six years earlier. Outrage, but not the national, international outrage.

“I think because it’s the same moment between COVID and Mr. Floyd’s murder. We are one. We are connected. When you killed Mr. Floyd, you killed my brother, my family member.”

Just as millions of American families have watched history unfold, at home, together, so has the Cuomo family, in a grand house where old and new memories meet. 

Of the Governor’s Mansion, Cuomo said, “All the family holidays were here. My mother did the renovation of the whole mansion. So, my mother can walk into a room now, and she’ll tell you exactly every piece of furniture, every piece of fabric. So, there are a lot of great memories.”

An undated photo of Andrew Cuomo with his parents, Matilda and Mario Cuomo.   CBS NEWS

New York’s former first lady Matilda Cuomo hasn’t seen the house — or her son — lately. 

“Oh, breaks my heart,” said Andrew. “I have not seen her since this started. I put myself in a lot of situations where I might be exposed. My mother is still young, but she is in a category where she is vulnerable. So, I’ve literally not seen her since this started.”

But the governor doesn’t lack for company — the COVID lockdown brought his three daughters home. “This is a gift. This will never happen again,” he said. “Every second I get, I spend time with them.”

“And the boyfriend?” Pauley asked. 

“And the boyfriend was here. The boyfriend is now gone. Not … he’s still in the overall picture,” said the dad.  

Cuomo was married for 15 years to Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, and until last year was in a long relationship with author and TV chef Sandra Lee. But he’s unattached now.

“You are a bachelor,” Pauley said. “You’ve got a nice house here! And having a moment, and you can’t do a thing with it. Is your social life in a phase one relationship possibly? Is that an unfortunate set of circumstances? ‘Cause I know you’re a bachelor. I know, you’ve talked about being available.”

“Yeah. First, the house isn’t mine. Sorta like a rental!” Cuomo laughed. “I will move out one day. I can reopen the economy. But dating, that’s a whole different thing beyond my control!”

“Pity, isn’t it?”

“Yeah!” he laughed.

Pauley said, “I find it really hard to accept that after decades in government, you don’t have a political agenda in your future that’s on the back of your mind. Four years from now, either Donald Trump will not run for reelection, or Joe Biden will be 82 and probably there will be search for a Democratic nominee. And I cannot believe that Andrew Cuomo won’t be on that stage.”

“Joe Biden is going to be the President of the United States, I believe that,” Cuomo said. “I believe Joe Biden will run for a second term.”

“At 82?”

“Yes. And I hope to be the governor of the State of New York.  I believe I have something to contribute. This is my home. I love it. And I’m happy.”

“What is it with the Cuomos?” asked Pauley. ” The fact that your father never ran for president is still, you know, one of the great mysteries of political life. What does your mother say?”

“We haven’t had that conversation!” Andrew laughed. “Really!”

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