The most comforting show on television right now is not This Is Us or The Great British Baking Show. It’s the daily coronavirus briefing broadcast every morning by New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
Since the COVID-19 shutdowns began, Cuomo has regularly appeared in front of cameras to provide the latest statistics on the outbreak, as well as the steps that he and state government officials are taking to address the crisis. None of that sounds like a recipe for great, or even mildly interesting, television. But because we live in such supremely odd times — and because the president of the United States is a babbling falsehood machine — these daily briefings have become indispensable. At a moment when Americans are desperate to see someone take control of this awful situation, the governor of the nation’s hardest hit state has stepped into the role.
The presentation of each press briefing is efficient and tailored to the socially distanced moment. Cuomo and everyone else on the dais sit six feet apart, as do the journalists in the room. The air of the whole operation says: “Do what I say, as well as what I do.” When he isn’t wearing a suit, he’s in a button-down shirt or tailored polo with the New York State seal emblazoned on it. If Americans need a dad right now, Cuomo is dressing like a father in Great Neck who just got back from Home Depot and announced that he’s going to fix the damn dishwasher himself.
The sudden appreciation of a politician who has often inspired the opposite sentiment, especially among New Yorkers, is a surprise in and of itself. Jezebel writer Rebecca Fishbein wrote a recent column with a headline that summarizes how many are feeling: “Help, I Think I’m in Love With Andrew Cuomo???” The governor responded by calling Fishbein to tell her to hang in there, because that’s exactly what America’s Coronavirus Dad is supposed to do. Even the New York Times is an admirer: Earlier this week, Times reporters Jesse McKinley and Shane Goldmacher called him “the politician of the moment” and dubbed his daily briefings “must-see television.” In the 1990s, must-see TV meant Seinfeld and Friends. In 2020, it’s a press conference in which a governor talks about ventilators.
There are a bunch of reasons for that. Every day, Cuomo is sharing crucial information that people crave. He’s a regular presence at a specific time, which helps viewers establish a routine while they’re stuck in isolation. But on a deeper level, the briefings are compelling because of how Cuomo approaches each broadcast like a storyteller. He doesn’t get behind a lectern and spit out information in a flat monotone, like other leaders in other parts of the country have been doing. Unlike the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings, which are rambling, plotless affairs led by a commander-in-chief with little command of anything, Cuomo’s briefings are structured and polished, yet personal. At Tuesday’s briefing, for example, he introduced two generals from the National Guard, then added a little dad joke with a gentle smile: “I’m Private Cuomo, but I’ll be your governor today.”
The governor has been in government long enough to know what people need to hear at a time like this, but he also seems acutely aware that what he’s telling us is hard to digest. On Thursday morning, he kicked things off by talking about facts. “Facts can be uplifting, they can be depressing at times, they can be confusing at times, but they can be empowering,” he said, before digging into sobering details about the number of overflow hospitals New York needs to build. Of course, we all know that facts can be uplifting, depressing, confusing, or empowering. But by starting from a soft place, he was able to transition to a harder one in a way that felt less harsh.
Cuomo has made his briefings more personal by talking about his family: how he’s concerned for his elderly mother, or how he used to feel cooped up in his apartment when his kids were young. (This morning, he related to parents again by noting that children are facing national adversity in a way they haven’t before, but that doing so may build character.) He genuinely seems to care about his family and other families, which should be a given. But when other politicians are suggesting we should sacrifice our grandparents for the sake of getting the economy up and running — a proposal known as The Volunteer Pop-Pop As Tribute Plan — those givens no longer apply.
Publicly, he has displayed the gamut of emotions most of us are experiencing privately in our homes. He has expressed concern. He’s gotten angry. “What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?” he asked of the federal government during Tuesday’s briefing. “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.” He’s even gotten a little mushy. During Wednesday’s briefing, he talked about how the density of New York City, which makes it especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19, should still be seen as a positive: “Our closeness is what makes us special … It is also that closeness and that connection and that humanity and that sharing that is our greatest strength, and that is what is going to overcome at the end of the day. I promise you that.” Does that sound like something President Bartlet might have said in a really treacly West Wing episode? Sure. But we need a strong and sturdy cornball right now.
If you’ve ever taught children or raised them, you know that they depend on routines to feel safe and protected. Our routines have been destroyed by the coronavirus pandemic, and so has our broader sense of safety. That makes all of us, even the grown-ups, feel as vulnerable as little kids do. We will cling to anything that suggests someone has got our backs, and anything that provides a sense of consistency.
Andrew Cuomo has been providing both. He is honest and direct in what he says in these briefings, but he also drops in uplifting messages about what to take away from the unreality everyone is plodding their way through each day. Day by day, he’s making an incomprehensible disaster a little easier to understand. Is he Mister Rogers? Um, no. Very hard no. But he’s the closest thing we have.
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