"Politics abhors a vacuum," said the late John McCain, as have others. The coronavirus menace shows the truth of it. President Donald Trump's floundering response created a void into which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was sucked.
New York City is itself a stage, and Cuomo now commandeers the spotlight. His daily news conferences detailing how the state is dealing with COVID-19 have become a source of information and encouragement for Americans everywhere. And they underscore the serious leadership that has been missing on a national level.
In a humorous piece – "Trump Catches Melania Watching Cuomo Briefing" – The New Yorker's Andy Borowitz writes, "Caught by surprise, Melania quickly turned off the television and claimed that she was only watching Cuomo 'to see how many big, terrible mistakes he makes.'"
Cuomo and Trump both have roots in Queens, the borough of New York's working people. Both are sons of powerful fathers, Trump's a real estate developer, Cuomo's a New York governor. Both are street fighters who cultivate their Everyman persona.
Trump used his regular-guy voice to advance his business interests. (I share a widespread belief that Trump's 2016 candidacy was a marketing ploy and that he never expected to be elected president.) But Cuomo directed his talents with an eye toward getting elected and governing a people.
That's why Cuomo could cite how many hospital beds he had in the metropolitan area, and how many protective masks and ventilators would be needed, while Trump lowered the country's guard by initially downplaying the threat. Cuomo was on the ground helping set up makeshift hospitals in parks and tennis stadiums as Trump pulled visions out the air of life getting back to normal by Easter.
When the terrifying news that this plague could take up to 200,000 American lives sunk in, Trump adopted an air of seriousness that for some moments detracted from his attacks on those doing the work. That the financial markets were not amused may have played a part.
A low point was Trump's implying that New York hospital workers were stealing masks. "Where are the masks going?" he asked. "Are they going out the back door? How do you go from 10,000 to 300,000?"
An epidemic takes you from 10,000 to 300,000. It's likely, however, that hospital workers are taking some of these N95 respirator masks for themselves. The gear is supposed to be used one time, and workers have been sterilizing them to extend their life. And, really, what does it say about Trump's performance defending public health that there might be a black market in protective masks that used to cost 58 cents?
Cuomo has taken on the role of explainer, strategizer and comforter. His briefings address the threat on the street level – reminding one of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in his good days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York City. Giuliani stepped up as a voice of strength and grief for a terrified nation, mixing reports of the dead with information on which subway lines were again running. The message was that despite the horror, life would get back to normal.
Perhaps driven by jealousy of Cuomo's takeover of the nation's attention, Trump tried to create a personal tie between himself and the Queens hospital whose morgue is overflowing. He used to pass it, he noted.
Cuomo, meanwhile, was yelling into the presidential emptiness about the absurdity of having 50 states bid against one another for ventilators. The Federal Emergency Management Agency should be buying them all, he said, and allocating them to states according to need.
Armed with information, Cuomo is running a war during an undependable presidency. And don't you think the American public is noticing?