Column: Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom deliver the leadership and straight talk Trump won't

Virginia Heffernan
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom  ( Associated Press )

On Tuesday, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, spoke to the media from a Manhattan convention center that’s being converted into a 1,000-bed hospital for COVID-19 patients.

No one delivers bad news as well as Cuomo. He is a master of rue. Also bluntness. And that combination is what New York, and the nation, is starved for these days.

Not condescension. Not soothing blandishments. Not dangerous Trumpist lies that imply the sick will rise from their beds and the dead from their graves on Easter Sunday.

While Cuomo’s daily pressers communicate home truths, the delusions President Trump shares in his news conferences veer toward the sickeningly bizarre. His self-serving distortions deserve to be declared a public health hazard.

But back to Cuomo. He customarily starts with the hard facts.

“The increase in the number of cases continues unabated,” he said Tuesday, gesturing at a harrowing graph that made it clear why New York is the epicenter of the virus in the U.S. “We haven’t flattened the curve. The curve is actually increasing.”

On Wednesday, he tempered that, but just a tad: Data, he said, “suggests” confirmed cases have been doubling, but not as rapidly as every two days. On Thursday, he delivered the news that New York hospitals will soon be overwhelmed no matter what is done to mitigate the spread of the disease.

Cuomo doesn't apologize for being grim. His unvarnished talk brings to mind the words of another leader, 80 years ago: Winston Churchill. Sure, Cuomo’s Queens accent is nothing like Churchill’s Queen’s English. But the governor’s simple candor recalls Churchill’s statement about the Nazi victory over the French.

“The news from France is very bad.”

The simple truth has poetry to it.

Likewise, the news from New York is very bad. The latest count: 34,486 COVID-19 cases reported in the state and neighboring New Jersey, where many hard-hit municipalities are New York City suburbs. The states have seen 329 deaths between them.

In California, by contrast, the Wednesday count was 2,648 cases and 56 deaths. But it too is a hotspot, and the upward curve of the pandemic there could soon equal New York’s.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom favors unminced words almost as much as Cuomo. He was first in the nation to order statewide stay-at-home restrictions; he too holds frank daily news conferences.

“[On] the question of whether California will open in April, let me be sober about that. I’m not Pollyanna-ish,” Newsom said Tuesday in his Marin County accent. “Early April … would be misleading.” On Wednesday, he reiterated: "The stay-at-home orders are real.... Halfway is no way."

Truth telling can be nasty business. Cuomo is far pushier about being in the vanguard of the COVID-19 disaster than Newsom, at least so far. Maybe it’s a Queens versus Marin thing, but depending on how fast, or if, Californians bend the curve, the coastal distinction in manners may fade.

When Cuomo made it clear last week that New York would need at least 30,000 ventilators to keep virus patients alive, Washington sent 400 (later bumped up by 2,000). Cuomo snapped: "You pick the people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators."

On Wednesday, Cuomo was equally disgusted by the stimulus bill that finally passed in the Republican-majority Senate. “What does it mean for New York state?" Cuomo asked. "It means $3.8 billion. $3.8 billion sounds like a lot of money, but we’re looking at a revenue shortfall of [as much as] $15 billion.”

No one could have predicted the exact nature and trajectory of COVID-19. But perhaps we could have predicted Trump’s exact response to an existential threat — opening up a firehose of lies.

In the Greek tragedy that has been Trump’s term in office — where one act of hubris after another has imperiled American democracy and now hundreds of thousands of human lives — the president never fails to take the side of America’s enemies against its people. In this case, he seems to favor the spread of a virus over the lives of the afflicted. Especially if it might lift the Dow.

But another parallel tragedy has been the enforced cowardice of those around him, with only a few standout exceptions (notably, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whom Trump has failed to sideline so far).

Andy Slavitt, who was the head of Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act under President Obama, posted a chilling Twitter thread about Trump’s response to COVID-19 two weeks ago. He wrote that more than a million people may die in the U.S. because the Trump administration dithered, plus this: “Federal workers could not be seen contradicting Trump.”

Let’s get this straight: When actions could have done the most to save lives and lessen the huge financial hit of the coronavirus, government officials, experts in their fields, were so cowed by our unstable president and his itchy Twitter trigger finger that they didn’t speak up — even to save lives. That is a national government decompensating.

What’s left, for now, is federalism. Which is why Americans can turn to their governors — with Cuomo and Newsom in the lead — to speak the truth, mandate the shutdowns, contradict what passes for pandemic policy under Trump. As Churchill might have said, appeasing a tyrant never ends well.

@page88


For the record:
4:52 PM, Mar. 26, 2020: A previous version of this column said that Dr. Anthony Fauci is with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.