The improbability of many politicians and people working for them is a permanent phenomenon. No need to go with Cuomo other than asking for it for decades and it’s on the news right now.
His fall is part of a convergence of recent events this week that puts an old subject in a living new light.
Here’s an obvious truth: Cuomo, who battles allegations of sexual harassment by female employees and widespread reports of abusive office culture in ways beyond sex, hasn’t cared much about becoming friends and allies over the years cultivate willing to stand with him even when times are tough. On the contrary, many politicians from both parties are calls for his resignationand an even larger number are apparently enjoying its steep fall from the lion status it enjoyed a year ago during the first days of the pandemic.
Here’s another obvious point: Vernon Jordan, the civil rights activist who became executive director last week and was extolled by former presidents and CEOs at a memorial service on Tuesday, devoted his life to friendship and taking advantage of those friendships. Since his death, it has also become clear that Jordan spent a lot of time cultivating media figures behind the scenes, an effort that is likely more than just a coincidence for the reputation he enjoyed.
The following should be obvious, but obviously it isn’t. Even if the efforts are insincere, self-interest alone would dictate that most politicians and activists try to mimic Jordan, and in any case avoid breaking up like Cuomo. There are many examples of people who appeared mature from political opponents or the media – the raw material for negative review and judgment seemed likely there – but avoided in part because good personal relationships made them less attractive targets. And there are many counterexamples like Cuomo of important people who learned that too late What goes around comes around.
Yet many people in politics make no effort to be attractive, and many who try are unsuccessful. To put the question clinically, what structural factors explain why politics produces so many assholes?
One element is likely timeless. Professions that require public achievements attract ambitious, creative, and often needy people who feel under severe psychological pressure and often do it on people when the spotlight is not on (or they mistakenly assume it is not on). There are even examples, as I have heard, of this phenomenon affecting people in the news media.
One important factor, however, is clearly a product of this age: the cult of ass fucking that has gotten into politics, including, or particularly, politics and media relations. This coincides with the rise of formerly anonymous political activists to quasi-celebrity status. In both directors and advisors, a willingness to brag and growl and be combative about opponents and journalists is now often seen as a sign of strength. The trend is non-partisan. In the Obama years, many young activists who seemed like decent people in some contexts adapted F-bomb dropping personalities during work hours, in which complacency was cool and combative as a sign of devotion to the boss.
It could be said that Donald Trump, expressing his contempt for anyone who challenged him, proved the case that sympathy does not matter. Still, many who have spent time privately with Trump say that he was shaped by the hospitality industry and actually seems to work on being charming when needed. While Trump is as unlikely as he seems, he’s not a useful example to most politicians. It’s a bit like what they said earlier Evel Knievels daring motorcycle stunts: don’t try this at home kids.
The third factor is that sympathy is an ethically more complex issue than it might blush at first glance. For 30 years, people have said that Hillary Rodham Clinton is actually way more personable – empathetic, sincere, gossipy, funny, normal – as her public person who is typically seen as selfish, calculating, brittle, not correct. I have enough firsthand experience to believe this alleged sympathy is more than a rumor. But she turned down countless times the advice of consultants to spend more time with journalists whose work she turned down. No, that would only prove she was as insincere as critics said she was. So good for her that she didn’t pretend to be more personable than she felt. But honesty has come at a cost, for her and anyone who believes Trump’s presidency has been a setback for the country.
There are also counterexamples. Journalist Mark Leibovich in his sour book, “This city,” described Washington careerists who were nice on the surface but actually benefited bullshitters. I can imagine a successful public affairs worker who can easily get past my OS detector – always promptly returning calls and responding with responses – and who has the reputation of an abusive boss. (No, no name here – maybe over a drink).
After all, there is a blurry line between kindness and, as the children say, thirst. Journalists shouldn’t bias reporting towards people we personally like or against those we dislike, but it is foolish to say that sometimes this is not a factor. In that final cycle, there was one presidential candidate who loved speaking to the press but never gained much from it as the candidate suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder. Who knew it was so difficult to be personable?
But Jordan shows the benefits of mastering the arts. Jordan wasn’t someone who was often quoted. His death showed how he was in regular contact with seasoned journalists every few weeks Al Hunt, and younger like Margaret Talev (and very occasionally with me.) He was part of a species that included James A. Baker III in the past and now people like Rahm Emanuel. Even in times of unruly social media, the evidence suggests the press work is working.
Jordan’s memorial service, which was broadcast live, featured legal partners and CEOs such as Ken Chenault of American Express and Ursula Burns of Xerox, who saw Jordan as a mentor. Bill Clinton recalled how concerned Jordan went back to the 1970s, even before he became governor of Arkansas, and again in the 1980s after losing his first re-election and it was not at all obvious that he had a future in who had politics. In practice, Jordan has ultimately gained a lot from being Clinton’s primary external advisor. But he paid attention even when it wasn’t obvious that there was a career-oriented reason for it.
In his remarks, Clinton hinted at the kind of criticism that often overshadowed Jordan but never resulted in major political or journalistic abolition. One was the belief that he had traded his moral authority as a civil rights activist for private sector profits. (Given the 1980 assassination that nearly killed Jordan, people can criticize if they were “behind the scenes.” He noted that his conversations with Jordan on the golf course were “not that politically correct” No doubt they weren’t, except for an occasional piece like Marjorie Williams’ ornate Vanity Fair profile from 1993This side of his character has been the subject of Washington gossip rather than Washington Exposé.
Really personable people probably don’t need good reasons to be personable. But Cuomo and Jordan both show in very different ways that there are good reasons.