COVID-19; Ch. 2: Cuomo, Oprah, and my friend “Jim”

Chapter Two in a Series.

March 25, 2020

Whew!  Never before has anything I’ve posted on this website’s Front Page generated as much comment—yes, most of it critical—as has what I published just last Friday, my essay analyzing Governor Andrew Cuomo’s lack of empathy as he addresses the coronavirus. 

Unlike some, I appreciate critical feedback.  It informs me that you, my Enfield constituents, are thinking.  And the more you think and the more you respond, the more I reexamine and refine my own opinions; the more I reset my own mental and emotional clock to match the reality of the hour.

If you pray, pray for our health; our strength

One point I must make clear at the outset:  Nothing I’ve written or will write here should ever imply any diminished need to protect oneself against the risks of COVID-19.   Nor do I suggest we refuse to comply with government authorities when they advise us to distance ourselves from others or to limit our activities so as to contain the disease.  We need to protect ourselves and also one another.

We all know more about COVID-19 now than we did a far-away fortnight ago.  Routine actions we took then—and that includes my candidate petitioning door-to-door—we should never attempt today.  Maybe we shouldn’t have undertaken them then, either.  How long this socially-distanced, self-isolated new normal will exist I cannot predict.  No one can.  Sorry, Mr. President, at least in New York, our quasi-sheltering will not end by Easter.  It may not end by the Fourth of July.  Cornell could still teach students remotely this autumn.

Comply we must.  Adjust our behavior, we must.  Yet, nonetheless, I ask:  Why do beer and liquor stores remain open?  And even though Walmart sells groceries, why can we still buy clothes and other junk just across the aisle?  Even in times of crisis, Albany can be arbitrary.  Government!

To those who chided me in my critique of Andrew Cuomo and his lacking Oprah-centric empathy, I stand my ground.  Nonetheless, I fear you missed the point.  I’ll take responsibility for not having employed language to its maximum effect.  Maybe this second attempt will prove better than the first.

My principal complaint centers not upon the mission, but rather the messaging.  As words flow from the White House, through Albany’s State House, and then down to our county’s own Courthouse complex, the stream of caution I hear remains clinically-sterile, sternly autocratic, and always lacking a pulse.  Where, oh where, is the feminine compassion to accompany masculine authority?  Where, oh where, is the heart, the empathy of an Oprah?

Gaining public acceptance—long-term acceptance—of draconian limitations on daily life requires a leader to distinguish his messaging so as to convince and not just compel.  You can compel compliance at the point of a gun.  But you have not convinced your prisoner in the worthiness of your purpose as you march him to the gulag.  He will flee if given the chance.

My most trusted consultant and companion is a media-savvy PR pro.  She’s the one I always turn to and ask, “Am I right in what I’m saying?”  She has told me that what’s lacking in America right now is, in her words, secondary messaging.  It’s the softer side of governmental dictation.  Don’t just tell me what I need to do, but also tell me why.  For example, even though the statistics show COVID-19 kills only about 1.4 per cent of its victims, why does the particular virulence of this disease, as well as its stealth method of transmission, pose such a threat to our society, to us?  Why do raw numbers understate the danger?  “Flattening the curve” needs to become more than just an inexplicable slogan. 

Better yet, I’d argue, let’s put a human face upon the problem; preferably the more human faces the better.  The media usually shines at this task.  Here, too often, too lazily, the Fourth Estate has fallen flat.  A Trump news conference, a Cuomo briefing, or a panel of TV talking heads, do not substitute for people, real people.  And only real people will bring the problem home.  Only then will viewers say, “Hey, I get it!”

Sunday, March 22nd, Governor Cuomo held a news conference.  He attempted to relate.  But to me, he didn’t.  To some who’ve admonished me, our Governor comforts them with his words.  To them he’s intertwined blunt-spoken truth with gut emotion.  But sorry, I’ve missed those moments.  Instead, I see a Chief Executive with the demeanor of an authoritarian school headmaster; an elected leader lacking one warm bone in all of his body.  I observe a commander whose management style manifests itself by barking orders at a wall.  And though he’d refuse to admit it, I believe Andrew Cuomo relishes every minute of his every opportunity to wield the full police power of the Empire State.

Perhaps, for me, it’s Cuomo’s in-your-face Gotham abrasiveness (if I may cast aside, for the moment, social distancing).  I suspect Cuomo’s demeanor plays much better from Yonkers southward than it does in kinder, gentler Enfield.  It may also explain why Cuomo lost virtually every rural upstate county in 2018 to a Republican whose name I don’t even remember.  (Yeah, Marc Molinaro; bet you forgot too.)

Some object when I describe Cuomo as the “eat your peas; spare the rod, spoil the child” kind of father you’re glad you never had.  This quote from that Sunday statement:

“This is not a short-term situation.  This is not a long weekend.  This is not a week.  The timeline, nobody can tell you, it depends on how we handle it, but 40 percent, up to 80 percent of the population will wind up getting this virus.  All we’re trying to do is slow the spread but it will spread.  It is that contagious.  Again, that’s nothing to panic over.”

Easy for you to say.  You’re the Governor.  For all we know, you get tested daily.

I look not at today’s New York, but at that grim ever-more-likely shuttered Empire State of many tomorrows.  At this writing, our societal standstill remains a novelty; sort of an extended vacation that’s in ways kinda’ fun.  No school bell.  No alarm clock.  But what if enforced social distancing drags on?  What if it lingers not just six weeks, but rather, six months?  Without empathetic secondary messaging, how tightly will we adhere as a community, a state, or a nation?

Sometimes, in efforts to gain compliance, stark realities are best left unstated.  Put bluntly, my fear is this.  Crude self-interest will eventually overtake charity, especially when compassion from our leaders has vacated the public square. The self-centered, brutally realistic citizen—I’ll speak his words—takes Cuomo at his literal self, and responds with equal callousness and calculation:

“Forty to eighty per cent of us—I only remember Cuomo’s high number—will get this disease.  And TV tells me half of those put on ventilators die anyway.  It’s sick now or sick later.  Granny may be lost regardless.  Flattening the curve is too scientific a term.  I could hunker down and do as my Governor says.   But then I’ve lost my job, maybe my house, along with my life savings.  Why not spin the wheel; take the chance; party and prosper.  And by the way (take note, Democrats), I’ll vote Trump.  He wants life back to normal.”

Also, from Cuomo’s March 22nd speech:

“Dealing with hardship actually makes you stronger.  Life on the individual level, on the collective level, on the social level.  Life is not about avoiding challenges. Challenges are going to come your way. Life is going to knock you on your rear end at one point. Something will happen. And then life becomes about overcoming those challenges.”

Those are the words of John Wayne, not Oprah Winfrey.  Suck it up, soldier.  True, COVID-19 may kill your wife.  But look on the bright side.  You’ll be a better man after you leave her graveside.

A new Cuomo Executive Order Monday actually commanded that:

“Non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason (e.g. parties, celebrations or other social events) are canceled or postponed at this time.”

I call it the “Birthday Party Ban.”  But here, at least in theory if not in practice, Executive Order 202.10 could be applied to that poor guy’s funeral reception.  In the aggrandizement of power, the threshold to the home stands as no barrier.  Andrew Cuomo’s Constitution holds no Fourth Amendment.

Okay, Bob, how would you perform better?   Allow me to enter the story of me and my friend “Jim.”  That’s not his real name, but the story is true, not some concocted, politically-spun fiction.

Jim lives in Enfield.  He’s well past 90.  I met him last year as I campaigned for office.  Jim likes to sit and talk at length.  I enjoy our chats.  But Jim’s got medical conditions that put him at special risk from COVID-19.  I visited Jim this month shortly before our petitioning prematurely ended.  Jim signed for my candidates.  I wished I hadn’t stopped by.  Back then, doctors had yet to assure us that the asymptomatic could carry the disease.

Earlier today, about ten days later, I phoned Jim, just to make sure he’s healthy.  He told me he is.  I cautioned him to be careful, not to go out in public, or to invite strangers in.  Jim told me our food pantry delivers essentials.  Neighbors and friends, he says, help too, all at a safe distance. 

I told Jim that if he gets a fever, develops a cough, or loses his taste or smell, to call his doctor.  He assured me he will.

Jim gave me a button at our last visit.  It states:

“No wonder I feel so tired— I’m older now than I’ve ever been before.”

Jim’s got a sense of humor.  I’d hate to lose him.  And I keep that button pinned to my jacket for the duration, just to remind me to be careful.  His life and others (as well as mine) remain at risk.

Each of us has a Jim in our lives; someone elderly or at risk; someone we should look out for in this time of turmoil.  Take control.  Call off that birthday party yourself, rather than give Cuomo the opportunity to bust down your door.  Tell the grandkids (or grand folks) to hold off their visits until the storm has passed, regardless of how many months it takes.  Tell them you don’t want this visit to be the last they’ll ever make. 

Why can’t Andrew Cuomo say words like that?  Why can’t Donald Trump?  Why does it only come through the lips of a rare breed of leader, exemplified best today by Joe Biden?   Everyday stories immersed in convincing pools of empathy.  Tough-love for tough times traversing first and last through Oprah’s heart.

Stay safe.


Update; March 26, 2020

This day, one day after I posted the above commentary, Governor Andrew Cuomo held another in his regular, daily, news conferences to outline New York’s latest efforts to combat COVID-19. This day, Cuomo’s tone was more relaxed; he acted less combative; the setting was subdued; our Governor actually wore a suit.

At last, perhaps, Cuomo gets the message. It’s as though he read my words, which of course, he did not.

I will always give credit where credit is due. Today was a start. / Bob

March 29, 2020:

Want a contrasting opinion? The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd offers hers. (Sorry, folks, I don’t see it.)

Previous chapters in this COVID-19 Series are available on separate pages of this archive.