I’m Ezra Klein. And this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
So in “American Crisis — Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic,” a book that looks real weird right now, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, writes, quote, “show me a person who is not controlling and I’ll show you a person who is probably not highly successful.” Those words, they were written when Cuomo was atop the world. He was the anti-Donald Trump, America’s governor, the coronavirus leader whose press conferences calmed the country and eventually won him an Emmy. And now, six months later, that same controlling nature, what others experience as bullying or domineering is behind Cuomo’s sharp fall. Right now, most of the major political leaders in New York have called for his resignation. There are three lines of accusations that have led to this crisis for Cuomo. One is that his administration hid the true numbers of nursing home deaths during the pandemic, deaths that directly implicated an early Cuomo policy. Then after Cuomo allegedly called, shouted at, and threatened New York assemblyman Ron Kim for criticizing him, there have been a spiraling series of allegations about bullying, domineering, and cruel behavior to political opponents, even to staffers by Cuomo and top aides. And then there was a series of claims by women alleging various forms of improper behavior, from outright groping and propositioning to uncomfortably sexualized comments in the workplace and hiring staffers simply for their attractiveness. Now, it’s important to say before we get into this conversation that Cuomo contests a lot of these claims. On the nursing home scandal, his administration denies a cover up. Beth Garvey, a special counsel in the governor’s office, told The New York Times that excess death data were omitted because The New York Department of Health could, quote, “not confirm it had been adequately verified.” To the allegations of bullying, threatening, domineering behavior, Cuomo’s office has denied some of the accounts, but they’ve recast others in a different light. Cuomo’s spokesman disputed what Assemblyman Kim said about their conversation. He said there was no shouting, no threats to destroy anyone’s career. But more broadly, he said New Yorkers, they’ve seen Cuomo, quote, “get impatient with partisan politics and disingenuous attacks. And New Yorkers feel the same way,” end quote. So his argument is that some of this behavior is exactly what New Yorkers want from a leader. On the accusations of sexual harassment or improper workplace behavior, Cuomo said, quote, “he has never touched anyone inappropriately,” end quote, and that he didn’t hire based on attractiveness or expect women to dress a certain way. But to the extent his workplace behavior or demeanor made anyone uncomfortable, “I truly and deeply apologize for it,” he said. But there are at this point a lot of these stories. A lot of them echo each other pretty closely. And they’ve led to a genuine crisis for Cuomo and a genuine moment to evaluate how we assess leaders, what looks like leadership to us. Rebecca Traister is a writer at large at New York Magazine and the author of “Good and Mad — The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.” She wrote an extraordinary piece reporting on the allegations against Cuomo and using them to explore some of these bigger themes in the way we’ve come to see certain forms of bullying, toxic male-coded leadership as an aesthetic template for what a leader looks like in ways that often cover up or even contribute to actual leadership failures, deficit scandals. So this isn’t just a conversation about Cuomo. It’s about what we’ve been taught to see in leaders like him, and just as importantly, what that leads us to miss in others or about good leadership. As always, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Here we go.
So six months ago, Andrew Cuomo is riding high. He’s got this book deal. He’s on the cover of Rolling Stone. You have people calling themselves Cuomosexuals. Now most of New York’s top politicians have called on him to resign. What happened in between?
What happened in between is that a new lens was put on his governorship. There wasn’t one crashing thing that happened, because so much of what has led to so many New York politicians and others calling for him to resign isn’t some new revelation. It is just a new perspective on behaviors and approaches to governance that have long been known about Cuomo. That’s one of the things that’s so interesting and difficult about this story. Let me give a slightly quicker and more simple answer to that, which is that New York’s attorney general, Tish James, released a report on the undercounting of nursing home deaths at the beginning of this year, 2021. And that created, I guess, a chink in Andrew Cuomo’s previously pretty impenetrable armor. And so you suddenly then had a little space for lawmakers to come out and talk about some of the ways that Cuomo had threatened them. And first among them really loudly was Ron Kim, who described that in the wake of that nursing homes report, Cuomo had called him at home while he was bathing his kids and threatened his job. And then in the wake of Ron Kim’s story about threats, other politicians, many of them young progressives who recently have entered the legislature in part to challenge and complicate Cuomo’s long stranglehold on New York State politics, began to voice their objections to his workplace demeanor and his threatening approach and his abusive tactics as a boss. And then you had Lindsey Boylan, who worked as an aide to him for years, publish a story on Medium in which she alleged that he had sexually harassed her, asking her when she was in his employ if she wanted to play strip poker, kissing her, calling her by the name of a woman who he had been rumored to date who he said she resembled. And then in the wake of that, you had other women beginning to come forward with accounts of the ways that he had, again, straightforwardly harassed them. A young aide, Charlotte Bennett, 25, said that in the midst of the Covid crisis when she was working for him, he had asked her about her dating life and asked her if she had ever had sex with older men, and other women coming forward and talking about the ways that he’d made them uncomfortable, touching them at weddings or at the workplace, diminishing them. And the story I reported was — wound up being on a series of broad workplace power abuses.
Let’s talk a little bit about the lens that preceded it. So on March 16, it was announced that the Bay Area in California would go into shelter in place. The very next day Tuesday, March 17 in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, he says New Yorkers should prepare to do the same. Then Andrew Cuomo himself steps in and says — and I’m quoting him here — “it cannot happen legally. No city in the state can quarantine itself without state approval. And I have no interest whatsoever and no plan whatsoever to quarantine any city.” So there was this delay, then, until he says yes. And a later study finds that cost about 17,000 lives. So his early response to the coronavirus was an absolute catastrophe. And yet cable carried his every press conference live. He was remade into this hero, like the face of coronavirus governance. At the time, I was like sitting there in California tweeting about how crazy this was. But what was that? Why did he get so much honor?
Well, I was sitting in New York in Brooklyn in the midst of that, furious that he was getting that level of honor. But it was very familiar to me because I also lived in New York when Rudy Giuliani was the mayor after 9/11. And many of my liberal peers at that time, people who for years had understood Giuliani as a brutal right wing fascist, suddenly were like oh, but he’s really comforting in this time after crisis. People who had spent their adulthood despising this guy suddenly were like oh, but I’m so glad Giuliani is mayor. And I admit, I was perplexed about that at the time. I was 26 years old. And I was like what? What? Giuliani? But I remember that reflex. I thought about it constantly during the spring of 2020, as people were calling him the Love Gov. Again many, of my peers who had been critical of Cuomo from the left suddenly were like oh, but he is doing a really great job. And I saw what you were seeing. I saw, in fact, symptomatic of exactly this kind of power playing approach to politics. That conflicts with de Blasio, I wrote what is — it wasn’t at all a reported piece. It was a column, an opinion column about the toll of that, what I call the dick swinging contest between Cuomo and de Blasio. And that was before there was the report that found that 17,000 lives were probably cost by those back and forth delays. But it was this posturing around who had more authority. And it happened around the closing of restaurants. It happened around the closing and opening of schools. And it was symptomatic of Cuomo’s inability to surrender even the slightest amount of his grip on the performance of ultimate authority and power. He couldn’t let anybody else, including the mayor of New York City, have a say in governance decisions around that city. What was that power for? Because it was, actually, costing lives. It was about publicly establishing your might. And that was the priority, well over trying to make policy decisions, trying to make rules, trying to govern through one of the great crises of the century. And it was so evident. But we have for so long, over centuries, through generations been taught, all of us it’s — been inculcated in us — to confuse especially in white male politicians and political leaders a kind of brutal grip on power, an assertion of ultimate authority with actual effective governance or leadership or passion or commitment. We are taught to confuse brutality with leadership.
It feels like there’s a third thing here, too, which is the political entertainment complex. So it’s obviously important here that Andrew Cuomo’s brother has a prime-time CNN show and he was on there and they would do this brother-brother routine. Obviously, he comes from an important family that the media, including the paper I work for now, is centered in New York. But there’s also this issue of leadership and then actual how people use power, as you say, and then I guess what you would call the leadership aesthetic. And we conflate those. And so I wanted to get you to talk a bit about that aesthetic. What looks like leadership on television versus what is leadership?
Well, I think that what you’re getting to with the entertainment aspect of this is actually about performance. But actually, that extends before television. The performance of authority can take a number of forms. First of all, it’s getting the camera attention. And one of the things, when I reported the story on Cuomo, one of the things that dozens and dozens of people who worked for him told me was more than anything, he cared about getting in front of the cameras, that the policy sort of filled in after the events. The public performance of him as governor was the primary thing and then you filled in everything else behind that. I mean, Cuomo is, in many ways, a Democratic analog to Trump. The focus on getting in front of people’s eyeballs and asserting yourself as a leader, which, of course, is a kind of performance, you make it true by asserting that it’s true in front of as many people as you can get in front of. But it is, it is a performance of a traditionalized white masculinity and a performance of a kind of assertion of brutal dominance — dominance is the key word here — that is meant to inspire fear and discourage challenge. And the broader the audience you can reach with that, the more you can spread and disseminate this view of yourself as dominant and discourage anyone who would critique you from launching that critique.
Holding leadership and the performance of authority together for a minute, there’s one argument that these are non-correlated, that there is one thing you do to project authority and another thing you do to actually lead. And then there’s a more dangerous potential, which you talk about in your piece, that they actually are correlated, but negatively so, that that kind of performance of leadership leads to a form of leadership that is actually quite dangerous. Could we talk through the nursing home scandal? Because I think it’s a good object lesson in this. What actually happened there?
So at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, which, obviously, hit New York early and extremely hard and in a terrible and deadly way, and in those first weeks, the hospitals were full. The science was still unsure. One thing about Covid is that we have to remember that so many of these governing decisions were made. And this is probably where I actually get the most sympathetic I have ever been, ironically enough, to Cuomo or to lots of people who were making decisions through this period, because things were not yet sure. And I think that there can be an argument that sending elderly patients who had been sick with coronavirus back into their nursing homes was on its face a bad decision. On the other hand, hospitals were full. Lots of people were making governing decisions that were bad and unsure and there wasn’t necessarily another path. Now, I happen to think in New York there were other options. We had the Javits Center open and the medical boat in the harbor. There were spaces to send people that wound up not getting used. But these were very complicated dynamics. Health-care workers, where do you find the health-care workers? Where are the spaces? How do you make them safe? A million moving parts in a period of absolute uncertainty. Cuomo’s decision was to send Covid patients back into nursing homes and out of hospitals. And what happened was the wild fire tragic spread of Covid through those nursing homes, through patients and those who worked at the nursing homes. And it resulted in huge numbers of deaths. What Tish James found in her attorney general’s report on those deaths was that the Cuomo administration had under-reported the number of people who died because of their decision to send people back into the nursing homes. So that’s one aspect of this. Later reporting discovered that three of Cuomo’s top aides, including Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, actually worked to alter the data to obscure the number of those deaths. So here you get to this question of the choices made. It is made by the governor and his administration. It is the wrong choice. Then the subsequent choices are about how do you govern through having made that bad choice, a choice that resulted in people’s deaths? And I would posit that there would be one approach to governance in which when it becomes apparent that you have made a governing decision that resulted in death that you come forward and you take responsibility for that decision, because, in fact, the crucial issue is people died because of your choice. And you say we made an error. And you might explain why you made the error. We were making choices in a period where there weren’t sure answers, where all kinds of resources were in short supply. It turns out the governing choice we made was not only wrong, but that it cost life. And I, the governor, will live with the consequences of that wrong choice for the rest of my life. That’s one option. The other option is to take steps, steps that involve cover up and dishonesty, to obscure and try to disguise, and again, perform a version of your leadership in which you did not do the thing you did as leader. And he went with that second option.
And so then the Tish James report comes out. And what comes out around this — and you have amazing direct messages in your story on this — is that they go full on against anybody in New York politics who criticizes him over this. It isn’t just that they covered up the numbers or altered them, but that when it comes out, they treat anybody speaking out on this as an enemy they will destroy. Can you talk a bit about that?
Yeah, and I want to say that this precedes the nursing home report. So one of the tactics that the Cuomo administration has long used, well before this year, well before this season, throughout his tenure as governor, is that he and his top aides have absolutely made calls like the one, for example, Ron Kim describes, threatening his career. Cuomo and his top aides — and this is something I discovered in my reporting — have for years used open threats and intimidation and language you can’t believe toward anybody who’s criticized him. I want to give some examples that precede the nursing homes report, just to show that this wasn’t some spasm of cruelty, but rather that this is habit of his administration. It’s part of their approach to governing itself. Several years ago, after the election of a group of young progressive lawmakers to the legislature that actually rid the legislature of a group of conservative Democrats known as the IDC, the Independent Democratic Conference, that had held the legislature later out of actual progressive Democratic hands for years, some of these young legislators were very open in their criticism of Andrew Cuomo. And one of his top aides, Rich Azzopardi, said to The New York Times, he called them fucking idiots. Members of the governor’s own party — these are young Democrats, three young female lawmakers, who the governor’s, one of his top communicative aides, Rich Azzopardi, referred to as fucking idiots in The New York Times. That’s bananas. And there was no retraction. There was no oh, I’m so sorry. No, that was the message of the administration. I mean there, are a million examples of this. The text messages between Melissa DeRosa and Alessandra Biaggi — by the way one, of the young lawmakers who was called a fucking idiot by Rich Azzopardi — in response to criticism that Biaggi leveled against the Cuomo administration about its handling of Covid, Melissa DeRosa texts her privately, saying “you’re both full of shit and a pretty terrible person. Given what a big mouth you have, I’m shocked that you knew the virus was coming from Europe and didn’t say anything.” Biaggi responds fairly professionally. And DeRosa texts back to her, “you are a bad person and you are full of shit. The fact is you are a revisionist liar and it’s disgusting. And sadly, I’m not surprised. It’s who you are.” That is the direct message being sent by the governor’s top appointed aide to a young legislator who is a member of the governor’s party. It is entirely unprofessional. It is entirely outside any professional bounds. And yet this is the way that members of the Cuomo administration were taught to treat people. And in my piece, I talked to many people who worked within the administration who told me that they were actively encouraged to develop this communicative style, that it was not only OK, but that you were encouraged to berate people who challenged you.
I remember back to the Obama administration — and this feels like a million years ago — but Andrew Cuomo was talked about as a potential 2016 presidential candidate. I remember people trying to sell me on his candidacy. And one of the arguments they always made was that Andrew Cuomo, he knows politics is a hard game. And he knows how to get things done. He doesn’t sit back, isn’t overly genteel, doesn’t allow people to walk all over him. He gets the hard knuckle dimension of politics and so he can get things done that another Democrat could not. And it was all based on this reputation, this idea that it was actually — this approach to politics was effective. Does the overall sweep of the Cuomo administration suggest it was? Did they get much more done than, say, other Democratic governors in similar situations, such that you might say, well, look, that reads badly when you say it on a podcast, but at least all these people got tremendously helped in ways they wouldn’t otherwise because of how aggressive the governor and his aides were.
So in my view absolutely not. And I have heard the same thing for years throughout his governorship in New York about his effectiveness and how much he got done. But, in fact, one of the things that Cuomo wound up doing and one of the perplexing things about how he used his power was to leave himself paralyzed. He would run as a progressive, and, in fact, was embraced in many quarters as a progressive, exactly as you’re saying, this effective progressive. But one of the bizarre things he did if you’re interested in power and how — what its uses are, right, because he did create this aura of inviolability and extending all kinds of control via the communication of threat and fear and intimidation and dominance. And what he used it toward was in snarling his own legislature, by tacitly allying with this group called the IDC, this group of conservative Democrats who themselves allied with the Republicans in the state legislature. That meant that Democrats did not have control of the legislature. And what that meant is that Cuomo could say I’m sorry, we can’t get this legislation — whether it was, for example, the Reproductive Health Act, which codified Roe and expanded abortion access for people in New York State — we can’t get that through because the Democrats don’t have the legislature. Well, the Democrats don’t have the legislature in part because Cuomo, though he always denied it, was tacitly supporting this group of conservative Democrats who were working to keep the legislature out of Democratic control. Similarly, he made budgeting choices about limiting the wealth tax that Bill de Blasio wanted to impose in New York City by capping property taxes that kept the state’s budget relatively small. So then he could say, well, I’d love to pass that progressive legislation, but we can’t pay for it. So, in fact, we have to make cuts to, say, Medicaid eligibility. The other thing that people told me when I was reporting this piece was that he simply wasn’t that invested in policy. So he could run as a progressive. And because he did convey this air of authority and competence, people who liked him could tell you “oh, but he gets things done.” What dozens of people who worked for him, including those who are focused specifically on developing policy, told me was that he just wasn’t invested in particular policy measures. He was invested in public events, where he would go and perform authority. And he often, as many people told me, would fill in policy, as one person who worked for him on policy told me, that it would be like OK, I want to go to Orange County. What policy can we introduce there? So the question of — he certainly amassed the power. But I do think this is a broader question. What is the point of having power? I think that’s a real question that has long historic reverberations and is very much in play as we move forward politically. What is the use of power?
Before we get to what is the use of power, I want to get to the third lane of accusations around him right now. There are, I think, seven women who have made various allegations against Cuomo. You’ve written about and reported out some of them. What’s the general pattern here? How should people take the gestalt of this?
Well, there are a couple of different approaches, because there are some accusations that have been made that definitely do fit into the straightforward understanding of sexualized harassment — the accusations made by Lindsey Boylan, by Charlotte Bennett. And then there are a lot of other stories that are being very powerfully told by women who have worked for Andrew Cuomo that I think some people are trying to sort of jam into that model that we have in recent years become better at understanding as systemically harmful and discriminatory, the model of sexual harassment. I think that there are some who are trying to evaluate these kinds of behaviors using only that scale. And I’m not sure that that scale is sufficient here, which is not to take away from the seriousness and power of those people who are describing sexual harassment. Rather, it is to say that Andrew Cuomo’s workplace behaviors and the culture that he encouraged in his administration was one in which power was abused in a huge number of ways. And some of those ways involved the gendered means of diminishment, discrimination, diminution, objectification. And that could take a million forms — not referring to the women who worked for him by name, instead calling them by nicknames, which is really actually a signal not only of disrespect, but deeply unprofessional and gendered sexist behavior. There’s also this pattern that was described to me by multiple women and men who worked for him that he hired typically young women, tended to be white women, who fit certain aesthetic molds. And there is a woman who spoke to me about being hired by him after having met him for two minutes at an event, where she understood from the start that she was hired because of how she looked. He had met her, sort of touched her weirdly uncomfortably in a dance move at an event where she was working, told her she’d soon be working in state government. And then sure enough, his team tracked her down within a couple of days and asked her to come in for an interview. And she understood from the start that it could only — it wasn’t because of her professional background. He didn’t know anything about her qualifications. It was because he liked how she looked at a party. And there were multiple sources who told me similar stories. Once those young women got there, they were told explicitly or implicitly that they were to dress in certain ways, to be wearing high heels, to look good when the governor was around. There was pressure from senior female staffers to dress expensively and in certain kinds of tailored ways. Now, this works in two ways. One, it’s discriminatory in that if you’re hiring women who only look a certain way, there is a whole range of employees who are not being brought aboard or into your administration because they don’t fit that mold. So that’s an example of discrimination. Then the women who you do have working for you, the message is being sent to them all the time that they are there not for their intellectual or political or policy contributions, but because they fit an aesthetic model, and that, in fact, part of their job is to fit an aesthetic and physical description that has nothing to do with the work of governing New York State. So that is screwy, discriminatory, and an instance of misconduct on multiple levels at the same time. Then you have the level of abuse, screaming at people, which was an office norm. And it wasn’t just Cuomo. Lots of people explained to me, people who both worked for him and who worked alongside him, about the culture in which that getting on the phone and screaming at someone, lots of people told me about how it was a regular sight in the office to just have somebody come out of an office having been yelled at looking red faced or crying because they had just been just screamed at by Cuomo or one of his top aides. One person who had been in the administration for a long time told me it’s how you’re groomed to do the job. If you need to publicly shame someone, that’s OK. If you need to berate someone in front of their peers, that’s acceptable, and that it was understood to be a question of either you win or you lose. And you always wanted to be on the winning side, the yelling side, not the yelled at side.
One of the things I really appreciated about your story in this respect is that it’s a story about how a toxic leader creates a toxic workplace. You have this very telling anecdote from somebody who gets yelled at by her boss. And she reflects that that kind of screaming at somebody didn’t seem temperamentally authentic to her boss. She just realized that is how everybody is screaming at him. And so now he does it to her. And I kept thinking about the Trump administration reading the story, because there is this weird feature in it where you would see his aides go out on television and just get torn apart, basically. They wouldn’t know what they’re talking about. They would just be angrily yelling at a host while all their lies are being shredded on television. But you would always hear later that he loved it. He loved the fight in them. And so then you begin to realize reporting on the administration that that was how fights are being resolved internally, too. There’s no separate process by which good evidence resolved to fight internally to the administration. The way Trump acted, which is just dominance plays, and as long as you’re yelling loudest, you’re winning was the way people began to realize you won his favor. So it’s the way they began to go on TV. So it’s the way they began to act inside the administration. And so it was the way the administration began to run. And so this strikes me as more difficult than just a story about Cuomo. It strikes me as a story now of an administration that reflects a way of gaining favor, and thus a way of acting in the world, that over time becomes really toxic and corrosive.
Absolutely. It’s so interesting that you say that about Trump, because I think all the time about the Kavanaugh hearings and the performance of fury from Lindsey Graham around the time of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that she’d been sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh as a teenager. She, of course, understood that if she raised her voice, her testimony would be delegitimized instantly. But what was happening with Kavanaugh and on the Republican-led Judiciary Committee was that Lindsey Graham had, I don’t know if you remember, but exactly as you described, this kind of rage fit, where he screamed about the injustice happening and how wrong this was. And it was so clear at the time that he was doing for Trump. It was for an audience of one. It was ceding to this long-held belief that the louder you yell, the more you establish that you are in charge. And there is no repercussion. You make it true. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You perform these behaviors of ugly, brutal, abusive dominance. And when it wins you the favor of those in power and reinforces the notion that there’s nothing that those who have less power than you can do to object, then it just further pushes you and others to behave in the same way. That was also something that was true about Harvey Weinstein, long before the remarkable reporting about his serial predation and sexual violence. I mean, I knew as a young reporter, I covered the film industry. I have been made to think very recently about how this particular experience probably — I didn’t think about it while I was reporting, though I did make the comparison between some of Cuomo’s public behaviors and Harvey Weinstein’s. Weinstein was known as a brute publicly for years. He ran Miramax, an extremely powerful independent film company. He won a ton of Oscars. He was understood to be one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. And he was. And at the same time, he had a reputation for violent anger. One of the things that someone made me think about just earlier today talking about Cuomo and this story and my perspective on it is that I actually had the experience as a young reporter of being screamed at by Harvey Weinstein in public, called a cunt and told that I’m everything that’s wrong with this town, for asking him a question about a movie he wasn’t distributing. It was a professional interaction at a book party. And this was in 2000, the night before the election in 2000. And I was a young reporter. And he screamed at me and berated me and called me a cunt. And then I was there with a colleague, a male colleague. And my colleague calmed him down. And then they got into it again. And Harvey put my male colleague in a headlock. And this was an absolutely public event. And there were reporters there and cameras and photographs of this happening. And it was completely inappropriate, completely unprofessional. It was literal assault. He put my colleague in a headlock on the street on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. And I lived that experience. That was incredibly formative for me, because A, Harvey did have so much power that to this day I’ve never seen a photograph of that, though I’ve written and talked about it many times since. And B, it was reported. And it was spun his way so that I was the disruptive person who’d entered his party and been pushy. Even though he’d put my colleague in a headlock, I was the one who was pushy. But it was an experience of wow, there’s nothing you can do. This man — I’m a 25-year-old reporter and this man called me a cunt at a cocktail party, screaming in front of 200 people and then took my colleague out and put him in a headlock and physically assaulted him. And it doesn’t matter to anyone. That’s just what power is. [MUSIC PLAYING]
I kept thinking reading your piece, and particularly reading the it’s Harvey being Harvey, it’s Andrew being Andrew idea, of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs a couple of years back, which just described Jobs as a person who was on the one hand just unbelievably terrible on a human level to the people around him, to his family, to people who worked with him. But there was also this idea that the cruelty he would often inflict on people was part of what made his products great, part of his discernment, part of his confidence, part of his ability to pull features out of something, part of his ability to insist on only the best. And I remember right after that, there was this little vogue for people in Silicon Valley to be more Steve Jobs-esque in their public persona in that way. And I always thought in Isaacson’s biography that was supposed to be critical of him. But it got absorbed into his mythos. And I wonder if we’ve just been convinced in a bunch of these different cases — which are distinct, but nevertheless have some of this in common — that certain kinds of cruelty are just the cost of great leadership.
Absolutely, but certain kinds of cruelty coming from certain kinds of people. Something that I have written about before, and I’ve written about it at length with regard to MeToo in the fall of 2017. And I think this is one of the costs of a long history of having understood white men as fully human in a way that we don’t understand other people as being fully human. We have been able to imaginatively integrate when it comes to white men their weaknesses, their faults, their failings, their cruelty as part of their complex humanity, because white men have been presented to us in our literature and in our culture and through the ways that we’ve configured family and politics and law, white men have been presented to us as fully human, containing contradiction and complexity. And so we can integrate what we understand to be the cruelties of white men right alongside what we also have been led to understand as their genius, their talents. White men can be simultaneously malevolent and sympathetic to us. So often, conversations are like oh, but I can’t help but feel for him. Right, I experienced this, too. And so I think that’s crucial to understanding how we have come to be able to rationalize cruelty and harm done by powerful people, to rationalize that cruelty and harm as linked somehow to whatever talents we’ve also celebrated in them, or in some cases imagined them to have. And I don’t think that that same combination is typical in many other kinds of leaders, whether in business or in politics. Often, if you get women or people of color who behaved with this degree of cruelty not in service of — it’s not like women in the Trump administration doing it in service of Trump or women in the Cuomo administration doing it in service of Cuomo or women in Harvey’s company doing it in service of Harvey, I think when you get women and people of color enacting harm and being cruel, you don’t often get to the part about oh, but they’re really geniuses.
This makes me think of early on in Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign, there were a series of stories about how Klobuchar was cruel to staff. I take this very seriously. I mean, there were real issues there. And at the same time, one of the things going on with Klobuchar is that if you adjusted for the lean of a state, she appeared to be the most popular senator in the country. She over-performed her own state’s partisan lean by more than any other member of the Senate. So she had a real claim to a unique level of political talent, a unique ability to win in the kind of places that Democrats really needed to win. And one thing you never saw in that whole conversation was, well, maybe Klobuchar’s toughness on her staff or meanness or whatever you wanted to call it is intrinsic to what is making her so uniquely effective among her colleagues, right? It was understood, and I think correctly, by the way, as a problem for her campaign, something you might worry about if she took the White House, and something that shadowed, particularly in the political press, because it was a little bit hard to report on, the way her run, certainly at the beginning, was reported on, which is different, as you’re saying, than this way with Andrew Cuomo or some of these other men. Their cruelty is understood as somehow wound up or bound up in their greatness and often ends up being a kind of aesthetic standard for greatness, hiding a sort of mediocrity behind it.
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. And I thought the coverage of Klobuchar was necessary. I’m somebody who believes that we actually should be reporting on these behaviors as deeply problematic and at odds with an impression of good leadership. I think it is almost always at odds with, right? And then there are separate questions about was this person good at their job? I think that the coverage of cruelty and power abuse in my mind should always complicate appreciation for whatever this person’s accomplishments or talents or the impressions of their competence. But you are right that what we did not see with Klobuchar was any sort of excusing of this behavior as well, of course, that’s how she’s got to where she is, right? We did see feminist defense. I mean, there was a sense of, which I disagreed with, we shouldn’t say these things about a woman. And I don’t think that quite hit it. I think what you’re talking about actually hits it more. It’s not that we shouldn’t have these stories. It’s that in the same way that coverage of Klobuchar I think complicated the assertion that she was great at her job, I think that coverage of these kinds of cruelties and abuses should always, in the case of white male leaders too and Black male leaders — and I think coverage of power abuses should always complicate and put into question assumptions about people’s competence and talents and claims to genius.
I found the Klobuchar thing really complicated in a way that I think reflects on this, because it was a very good example of the double bind female leaders face. Part of Klobuchar’s reputation is that she’s Minnesota nice, the nicest member of the Senate. So then when you begin having a lot of stories that, well, to the people who are working for her, she’s often not been nice, there’s a real direct way that that strikes at the reputation. But you don’t really see male politicians out there trying to gain a reputation for being the nicest politician in the Senate, right, the kindest politician in the Senate, the most nurturing politician in the Senate. Instead, there’s a sort of domineering approach to authority, which you see with the Trump, you see with Cuomo, which can absorb a lot more of this internal chaos and cruelty, because it fits, which I guess brings me to this question, which is how does society’s image, its traditional soaked-in-the-generations image of what strong leadership looks like make life harder for women or nonwhite leaders?
Well, in the ways that you just described. So it is interesting around Klobuchar, that there is a degree to which if we have generations and centuries in which we have appreciated this expression of white patriarchal political brutality as synonymous with strong leadership, and if you are a person who is not a white man who wants to be a leader and appreciated and understood as such, then one path that you might think is natural and have absorbed as natural is to replicate some of those behaviors, that that is what it means to be tough and a tough boss and to get engaged in hard-knuckle politics and to be able to fight in there, right? And that the same way that those behaviors are encouraged and replicated within an institution, it’s also encouraged that they be replicated if you’re going to work in tandem with that institution or compete with it, that you have to engage in some of those same tactics. And so yeah, I think there is a degree to which those kinds of behaviors have been encouraged for women, even with the knowledge that that is a poison pill, because if you are a woman who is caught doing that on her own behalf, nobody’s going to think very well of you. And it is going to — it is going to redound more negatively to you, because there aren’t established frameworks whereby female aggression and dominance and power plays are understood to be natural, right? Again, we associate all these things with old and antiquated views of what masculinity is supposed to be. And it’s the opposite of how we have been taught over generations to value femininity and women. So on the one hand, there is the message sent to women in politics, and I think in business and in professional life, that if you’re going to compete with the guys, who are all busy being appreciated as geniuses while screaming at their staffs, then you’d best get tough and start screaming at your staff to establish that you’re not some meek pansy, right? But then once you become the woman who screams at your staff, again, in service of your own power, not as a subordinate to a male boss, then you’re going to get the reputation for being a cold bitch and a mean woman. And that is not going to be immediately and reflexively linked to, well, that’s how we understand female geniuses, absolutely not. It’s the inverse. It’s how we understand malevolent femininity.
I also just worry that we systematically underrate some of the core talents and capabilities you need to wield power well, particularly in government. So I did this profile of Hillary Clinton back in 2016. And it was all about this question of why was there this unbelievably large gulf between what you heard from people who had worked with Hillary Clinton, worked against Hillary Clinton, Republicans in the Senate who worked with Hillary Clinton, the level of talent they would talk about on her behalf, the level of expectations they had for her future, and then the public perception of her, which was a stiff wooden campaigner, bad on the stump, unclear how she got where she is except for her husband. And one of the takeaways I really came out from that piece with is that we have just been taught to look for leadership in a kind of confident public communication style. And then all these other ways that, both in the literature and then just in reality, female leaders, but also just good leaders have to lead, which is coalition building and making people feel heard and listening to critics, and all these things that have to happen behind the scenes and are really, really important for getting things done, they’re just completely undervalued in the way we pick and then the way we assess leaders, and that it has a systemic overall deteriorating effect on our governance. One of the odd things right now is Joe Biden had this whole career where he was just like the most stereotypically male political figures, endlessly confidently talking about stuff that he often didn’t know that much about it in public. Then he’s gotten older. His real talents have emerged to be coalitional, at making people feel listened to, at being able to find the center of his party and hold people together. And it’s leading to a much more successful presidency than I think the Joe Biden of 2008 would have had. But I don’t know how well we’re learning the lessons of that.
I think in some ways, writing about Cuomo, it’s almost too difficult to look at Hillary in comparison, because one of the things you see, if you just look at the outlines, is that Hillary’s reputation in public, her negative reputation was as a hard-driving bitch, cold, mean, and power hungry. I mean, that’s the right-wing view of her. I think a left-wing view also has the power hungry part in there, and also probably cold and mean. I think you and I in our reporting would both say this with some confidence — Hillary was not a mean boss. That’s not how people who worked with her described her. And yet she still managed to have this horrible reputation as brutal and power hungry. And then you have somebody like Cuomo, who is brutal and power hungry, whose reputation has been for competence. And I actually can’t think of a contrast that makes some of these inequities clearer.
Sounds like you have a lot a lot of strong feelings about how Hillary Clinton got treated, which is not to say she’s a perfect politician, just to say that I think she got treated extraordinarily unfairly. She wasn’t just good to her staff. She was a nice opponent. What she did when she came to the Senate with Republicans, who had said the most slanderous things about her, the way she — it’s going too far to say debased herself before them. But the way she came to them wanting to learn from them, wanting to build bridges to them, the things they would then say in the aftermath, like Trent Lott — I don’t have this quote in front of me — but there are these quotes from Republican senators being like we basically treated her like the devil, then it turns out she’s really a nice person. I actually think this is partly why people ended up calling her power hungry, because the amount of discipline it takes to be kind to your opponents is actually a lot more than it takes to be kind even to your staff. And she did it. And yet you couldn’t win, right? To do that would still just show how hard you were trying. And what I always thought was it showed how hard you were trying to govern.
We as a culture, we don’t like governance that way. It’s not the performance of power we often want to see. Although it’s not like if Hillary Clinton, or another person I sometimes think of in the same vein, Cory Booker, who really has to project a constant kindness and is a kind person, I think, but every time he gets impassioned, you see these photos of him as an angry Black man ricocheting around right-wing media. I mean, if either of them you know actually tried to wield power the way a Cuomo or a Trump does, there would be no chance. And on the other hand, when they try to be disciplined, it gets them this reputation as calculated.
Right. And I want to be — I mean, I think we should be clear about Hillary Clinton’s kindness to her opponents when she came into the Senate. That was a strategy too, right? So there is —
Yeah, of course.
It’s just that she was like sweet Miss May, right? She came in understanding that the only way she was going to — but again, this is this question of what do you do with your power. As somebody who was to Hillary Clinton’s left, I didn’t always like what she did in the Senate in terms of her choices. But she also came in strategizing about how to get work done with people who had positioned themselves as her vulgar enemies in the years preceding her election to the Senate. And the answer for Hillary Clinton, a woman, was to not only be nice to them, but position herself as subservient to them, which goes back to this question of power and how you establish it by maintaining these kind of crazy hierarchies, right? And if you go back and think about the ways that — and at the time, there was great reporting about that. The literal little things she did to ensure that the old white bulls of the Senate would work with her, like stepping aside in photographs so she wasn’t in the middle of a photograph or pouring them tea — I am not making this up — going to, for example, Senator Byrd and asking for him to teach her about Senate rules, bringing her mother to meet him — these little signals of subservience, coming from a woman who had no need to frame herself as subservient, right? She came in there as their peer, just as a junior, a new person in the Senate, but to signal to them that they were dominant. And they ate it up. And those are the quotes you’re talking about. And it was reported at the time. We thought she was going to come in and be this diva. But, in fact, she’s been lovely to work with. So imagine the amount of work that people — and this is something, a point I make in the Cuomo piece — the amount of work and time and energy on everyone’s part that it takes to maintain and manicure these bizarro power hierarchies is just mind boggling and sad if you actually do care about governance. Imagine the amount of time spent if you’re Andrew Cuomo or members of his senior staff doing this strutting around, this performance of power, this establishing dominance via whether it’s the public events or whether it’s yelling or whether it’s the amount of time you’re burning yelling at people or whether it’s the amount of time you’re spending worrying about how they’re dressed or whether they’re in heels or whether they’ve said something critical of you or whether they’ve been deferential enough to you — imagine the amount of time you burn doing that. And then imagine on the other side, imagine the people who are spending all their time trying to navigate around these things, trying to get whatever they want to get done by dancing through these hoops so that they can get the governor of New York to take them seriously by bending to all his demands. Imagine Hillary Clinton worrying about stepping out of the side of photographs or pouring people tea so that she can get these people who are her colleagues to work with her. Imagine the time on all sides that the maintenance of these power pecking orders takes, time that could be spent working on policy and using government to make people’s lives better. And to me, that is just such a wasted time and wasted power. [MUSIC PLAYING]
I think liberals have for the past four or five years comforted themselves with the belief that they are immune to a Trump-like figure, to somebody cruel and bullying and toxic in those specific ways. And Cuomo, though now there are these comparisons being made, including here by you, to Trump, was for a minute framed as an antithesis to Trump, somebody who liked charts and graphs and would give you the data straight. What blind spots does Cuomo worship or fandom, and then some of these other players, like Harvey Weinstein, who was a major Democratic figure, what blind spots do they reveal among Democrats?
Well, I think blind spots that are bipartisan. The elevation of white patriarchy as a power norm in this country is not partisan. We have a Republican Party that definitely fights more for policies that support white capitalist patriarchy and a Democratic Party that purportedly fights for policies that would challenge white capitalist patriarchy. But the appreciation of power structures and norms that have, indeed, since the founding been built around white capitalist patriarchy extends across ideologies. And liberals are no more immune from that. I mean, look at the stories of sexual harassment in the MeToo era. Look at the places that have faced reckonings over their racism. These are not right-wing institutions exclusively. I mean, there is no partisan claim on power abuse. And there’s no partisan claim on how to bluster your way through it. One of the things about Trump is that he just kept his power. It was this question I keep coming back to, is what is the power for? Is it to just hold on to and keep and build and keep, and then the end is you still have your power? That’s Trump, right? He just held on. He was accused of rape. He’s accused of serial harassment and assault. He is openly racist. He is openly incompetent. He lies. He’s caught in his lies. And you know what he does? He just keeps his power. He just keeps his power. He just keeps his power. He’s impeached, he just keeps his power, in part because he has an institution that is willing to help him keep his power. And that’s the end of the story for him. He keeps his power. Cuomo’s indication so far is that — and then it can change every day. I think the reporting is coming very steadily. But so far, that’s Cuomo’s impulse. He keeps the power.
So I saw a new Siena College poll that found that Cuomo’s approval is at a low. But by a 50 to 35 split, New Yorkers don’t want him to resign. I heard Cuomo say or give a statement that he will not bow to cancel culture, which was an interesting invocation of cancel culture. Do you have a sense of where this goes?
This is part of the fight that we’re engaged in as we try to wrestle with these questions of how we have normalized and absorbed notions of brutal power abuse and harm as a normal part of governing that we can, in fact, feel warmly about, right? That’s part of the question at hand. But in terms of what happens, I cannot predict. The thing I most profoundly hope doesn’t happen is that this window, this lens of we’re able to put on these behaviors that is a critical lens, and a powerfully critical lens, doesn’t get snatched away again. And that’s something I think about a lot, because as we’ve talked about a lot today, we go through years, decades, centuries in which these behaviors are out in the open and they’re normalized and that part of the power is that the people who engage in them get impunity. They can do it without repercussion, because even when they’re out in the open, nobody — the lens isn’t critical enough that it complicates their grip on the public’s approval and imagination. And then you get these windows where something changes, right, and where suddenly these behaviors look as bad as they are. And I want that window to stay open with Cuomo. And I know from experience that it doesn’t always stay open, right, because it’s uncomfortable and it drives us to ask hard questions about ourselves and what behaviors we’ve learned to tolerate and what forms of discrimination we’ve normalized in our own heads. And so having these periods where we look hard and critically at some of the things that we all have just permitted to exist and perhaps even found ourselves being lulled into liking, we go through these periods where suddenly we question the fact that we’ve done that. And it’s really uncomfortable. And it’s really hard. And it forces us to think about, like god, what do we have to do to actually make our governance better and to challenge ourselves and our own standards for governance and behavior? I’m so it’s very discomfiting. And so there is a temptation to close them and just go back to an easy — an easier view of the world in which oh, that guy who talks tough on television is going to steer us through with competence. It’s much more uncomfortable to fear that maybe that guy on television doesn’t know what he’s doing and is steering us in the absolute wrong direction. It’s much scarier. And so my greatest hope is that we don’t retreat back into a pose of passivity and dependence on this kind of brutal leadership, that we’re able to keep the critical, hard, difficult, and discomfiting lens on the Cuomo administration, whether that administration lasts for another week or for another two years, that we’re able to continue to look honestly at some of the harm that’s been done, both as far as workplace culture goes and as far as the governance of New York State goes.
I think that’s a good place to end. So let’s do some book recommendations. What’s your favorite book about New York?
OK, so my gut answer on that might be “The House of Mirth,” which is an incredible novel, and then the more emotional novels from my youth, definitely “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” and then more recently a book that I have come to think of as very much in line with “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” but more contemporary, though it’s written about the 1970s, as Jacqueline Woodson’s “Another Brooklyn.”
I always just find your writing just amazing on the sentence level. So I’m curious if there’s a book you reread for the sheer beauty of the prose.
Yeah, there are many. For the beauty of the writing, I mean, I would say that my go-to is actually “My Antonia” by Willa Cather, which is a book I first read in high school and found slightly boring but beautiful, and then read again in my 20s and was just totally enraptured by and then have gone back to again and again and again as a beautiful piece of writing.
What’s a book you’d recommend on either leadership or workplace culture that you think is actually healthy?
I have a couple thoughts on this. So there is a great — there’s office workplace culture, which is, I mean, that Joshua Ferris from a few years ago, “And Then They Came to the End.” I read it once and I remembered thinking that it was a very good book about workplace culture. But that probably is now 15 or 20 years old. When it comes to leadership, I mean, again, I think I mentioned this in our conversation, but another book that I read in high school that made a huge impression on me is “All the King’s Men.” And it is a real encapsulation of exactly the kind of normalization and power of this brutal white patriarchal form of governance. And then the antithesis of that, which I came to read in my later life, in my professional life as I began to go back and learn so much of the political history I hadn’t been taught as a young person, if you go and read Shirley Chisholm’s autobiography, which was actually published a couple of years before she ran for president — I think it was published in 1970, at which point she had been in the State Legis — in the New York State Legislature and in 1968 became the first Black woman elected to the House of Representatives in New York. She, like Cuomo, is an outer-borough politician. But her autobiography, “Unbought and Unbossed,” is the antithesis of that model for brutal white patriarchal political power.
And finally, what’s your favorite children’s book?
OK, so there are also two categories in my mind, because there are the books that I loved as a child that were my favorites when I was a child. And in that category, especially for middle readers, certainly Madeleine L’Engle made a huge impression on me, Judy Blume, “Anne of Green Gables.” My favorite picture books that I remembered from my babyhood and my brother’s babyhood that I assumed would be my favorites when I had kids, William Steig books, “The Elephant and the Bad Baby,” which is a British children’s book, “The Church Mice,” which is a British children’s book. And so then there’s the shift to now I’m a parent who reads all the time to my kids. And I have been at this point for 10 years. My eldest daughter is about to turn 10 next week. Some of the things are the same. I still love the William Steig books, “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” “Amos & Boris,” which is a beautiful, weird book, “Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride.” The Steig books are incredible. “The Church Mice” and “The Elephant and the Bed Baby,” all those are great. But then there are these books that I had never read as a kid that are new since I’ve been a kid, “Tar Beach” by Faith Ringgold, Julia Donaldson, who’s a British author, has written a bunch of books, “The Highway Rat” and “Tabby McTat,” that are fun to read. And then when you get to the older books, I’m completely wowed. First of all, I read “A Wrinkle In Time” to my daughters a couple of years ago. And again, Madeleine L’Engle books were completely formative to me. And it didn’t resonate for me at all. They loved it. It’s almost like there’s a spell that for me has been broken in adulthood that they completely respond to in a way that I did when I was young. So I actually have found myself not as responsive to the Madeleine L’Engle books. And the books that have shaped — I mean, and I cannot recommend them enough and I hope — you have a son, right, Ezra?
You got to read him these books, Ramona. And they’re so great.
Oh, I loved the Ramona books as a kid, too.
The Ramona books are so good. And they stand up. So I did read them when I was little. And I remember them. But weirdly, I remember Judy Blume, which I think of as sort of comparable, as more — which I think were more preteen. So maybe that’s why I remember them more intensely. But when I read the Ramona books, both my kids loved them when they were three. They would, in fact, memorize entire chapters before they could read so they could recite the Ramona books to themselves. They’d have us read them over and over again or listen to the audio book over and over again till they could memorize them so they could tell themselves the Ramona stories as they were falling asleep at night. And so those books, sort of just as a — they’re incredible. And they’re brilliant about complex family dynamics, about class, about depression. They’re really, really great books. And then these books that weren’t published when I was young that have been revelatory to me — so “When You Reach Me” is an incredible middle grade novel that I read recently with my kids. It’s incredible. And “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” which I think was published probably not long after I was a kid, but I missed it, but my daughters love it now. And “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” is an incredible novel to read out loud. And my husband, that’s probably his favorite book that we have read out loud. “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” is — it’s great.
Rebecca Traister, thank you very much.
Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]
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