Pray Tell, Mr. Governor

By Sally Susman
Michael Shnayerson

“The Contender”
Michael Shnayerson
Twelve, $30

As soon as “The Contender,” Michael Shnayerson’s biography of Andrew Cuomo, was released, I hurried to my neighborhood bookstore to buy a copy. Failing to see it among the new nonfiction on the front table, I inquired at the information desk. I was sent up to the third floor to search in the biography section and, unable to locate it there, asked again for help from a salesperson. She suggested I go to the fourth floor and check the Current Affairs stacks. No luck there, either. Frustrated, I was leaving the store when the book, with its unmistakable cover photo of Mr. Cuomo wearing a cheeky grin, caught my eye. It was on the very table where I’d first looked.

The governor’s biography had been hiding in plain view — much like the governor himself. For me, Mr. Cuomo is an ever-present but somewhat unknowable figure on the political landscape. Mr. Shnayerson has undertaken, with exhaustive research and dazzling writing, to reveal this elusive leader to us. With scenes that transport us from Mr. Cuomo’s childhood in Queens through his governorship in Albany, Mr. Shnayerson paints a highly nuanced portrait of Andrew Cuomo, shaded with vibrant detail.

“The Contender” follows closely on Mr. Cuomo’s memoir, “All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life,” which was released last summer. Despite a title that promised humility and honest reflection, not to mention a full-scale launch from HarperCollins, the autobiography landed with a thud in sales (only 945 copies purchased the first week) and received scorching reviews. Nick Confessore, a New York Times political reporter, dismissed the book as “a long press release.”

“The Contender,” by contrast, reads like a novel and opens with the story of the governor’s personal involvement in passing the same-sex marriage bill in 2011, near the end of his first legislative session. The episode was political theater at its best — a gamble staked on a controversial cause, extensive arm-twisting of holdout members on both sides of the aisle, and a dramatic victory, right down to the midnight bill signing. Mr. Shnayerson shows Mr. Cuomo operating at the height of his power, with a keen eye for legislation of true significance. “Same-sex marriage is at the heart of leadership and progressive government,” Mr. Cuomo is reported to have said to his father. With this bill’s passage, Mr. Shnayerson reports, Mr. Cuomo managed to “tip the national balance on marriage equality.”

According to the author, Mr. Cuomo also understood the marketing implications of these actions. The governor takes credit for renaming same-sex marriage “marriage equality,” thus repositioning himself from a hard-core pragmatist to one with a liberal’s heart. There is some argument over who truly changed the legislation’s name, but there can be no dispute over the governor’s central role in passing a bill with life-changing impact to many New Yorkers, this reviewer included.

The next several chapters root Andrew Cuomo in his primary and most enduring relationship: the one he shared with his father, Mario, the original liberal, the man against whom he measured himself and against whom he weighed his accomplishments, the man he both sought to please and rebelled against. The relationship between the two has been a source of fascination for pundits for decades. At the end of the book, Mr. Cuomo scoffs at “the dime-store psychoanalysis of our quote-unquote complex father-and-son relationship,” add­ing that it was “all a lot of hooey.” He continues, “And it’s this simple: I was devoted to my father. . . . My dad was my hero, he was my best friend, he was my confidant and my mentor.”

As for Mr. Cuomo’s relationships with others, they leaned much more to the Machiavellian, according to Mr. Shnayerson. Throughout “The Contender” the governor is always calculating how he will be perceived, measuring his popularity, meting out punishment to his enemies, and rewarding his inner circle. “Andrew was his own worst enemy: no one who knew him, friend or foe, believed he did anything without considering the politics involved,” Mr. Shnayerson writes.

Even Mr. Cuomo’s marriage to Kerry Kennedy is portrayed as more about politics than romance. Mr. Shnayerson gives ample evidence to support the idea of a loveless marriage and a fundamental mismatch between the scrapping, brawling, New York-centric Cuomos and the patrician, high-minded, Bostonian Kennedys. Kerry Kennedy runs out of patience with her husband after his first failed attempt to run for governor, Mr. Shnayerson reports. The famed “Cuomolot” marriage ends in divorce.

Mr. Shnayerson appears to believe the governor is aware of his popularity problem and political clumsiness. His first gubernatorial bid in 2002 finished dismally. Mr. Cuomo was unable to beat Lt. Gov. Carl McCall in the primary after a damaging gaffe about former Gov. George Pataki. During the next campaign, Mr. Cuomo treaded far more cautiously. One campaign aide was quoted as saying, “Andrew knew it would work against him to be in public, so he preferred not to be.”

With that 2010 victory, Mr. Cuomo joined the pantheon of powerful New York governors: John Adams, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, and the Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin. Yet, in Mr. Shnayerson’s telling, Mr. Cuomo has never managed to reach the heights his lofty predecessors achieved, because he wallowed instead in petty, backroom Albany fights. Mr. Shnayerson details deals cut by “three men in a room,” referring to the governor and the leaders of the state’s two legislative chambers. These scenes — full of seedy horse trading, backstabbing, and broken promises — will likely make East Enders grateful that Albany is more than 240 miles away.

The questions regarding Mr. Cuomo’s presidential ambitions and his future chances run throughout “The Contender.” Mr. Shnayerson doesn’t seem to like the odds. He describes a leader who micromanages and is unable to recruit and retain top talent. If you’ve ever been on the wrong end of a bully, the portrayals of Mr. Cuomo berating underlings are chilling. One Cuomo staffer is reported to have said, “He wasn’t a screamer. But he was a prick . . . his way of dealing with staff or things he doesn’t like is to play mind games with people and make them feel small.”

Mr. Shnayerson repeatedly describes Hillary Clinton as a political boulder blocking Mr. Cuomo’s path. I read “The Contender” the same week Mrs. Clinton launched her campaign with a video titled “Everyday Americans,” her way of portraying herself as an authentic, of-the-people candidate. Mr. Shnayerson explains that some of Mr. Cuomo’s centrist policies are a reaction to Mrs. Clinton’s tactics and an attempt to triangulate the electorate in his favor. “I think his positioning is Clintonian. The irony is: who is more Clintonian, Hillary or Andrew?” Mr. Shnayerson asks.

Innumerable adjectives — many clich­éd — are used in “The Contender” to describe the governor — some positive, most negative. “There’s that nagging question of character,” Mr. Shnayerson writes. “Andrew was commanding, pragmatic, hardworking, personally incorruptible (so far), fierce in defending his policies — and willing to compromise when absolutely necessary. In short, a strong leader. He was also vengeful, bullying, meanspirited, conniving, not always true to his word, and very secretive.”

Mr. Shnayerson goes deep into the Cuomo psyche. He notes the unique speaking style of both Andrew and Mario Cuomo, both of whom sound as if they are reasoning aloud, as if they ask and answer their own questions. Following a recent scandal in the State Assembly, Mr. Cuomo is quoted as saying, “Is the governor to blame . . . ? No. Will you ever stop people from doing venal, stupid, criminal, illegal acts? Not in government, not in politics, not in the military.” One can almost hear Mr. Shnayerson undertaking the same Socratic monologue: Can one fully know Andrew Cuomo? Yes. Is the portrait a pretty one? No.

Wherever the reader lands on the question of Mr. Cuomo’s character, it’s hard not to enjoy Mr. Shnayerson’s rich storytelling and the dishy details he offers up about members of our state’s political elite. Even for those who have no interest in politics, “The Contender” is still a worthwhile read. As its title promises, it’s a timeless tale of a filial drama, the tyranny of expectation, aspiration, and struggle.

Sally Susman, a regular book reviewer for The Star, lives in New York and Sag Harbor.

Michael Shnayerson is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair whose books include “Coal River.” He lives in Sag Harbor.