By Frank Blechman
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has emerged in news coverage of the corona-virus pandemic as one of the most trusted, most credible, even most likable public officials. Those who have known him for a long time are surprised. While almost always viewed as a smart guy, he in the past came off as too confident, too know-it-all, too arrogant to be likable.
Has he changed or have we changed? My short answer: a little of both.
Cuomo understood from the beginning of this crisis that media, particularly the New York media, would portray him as the “anti-Trump.” Rather than fight this, he decided to make the most of it.
- When Trump would go off on a tangent, Cuomo would stick to the facts.
- When Trump made wild predictions, Cuomo would refuse to make predictions. He explicitly said, “We have to wait and see.”
- When Trump said everybody had all the supplies they needed, Cuomo pointed out the shortfalls.
- When Trump assigned blame, Cuomo avoided blame.
- When Trump tried to argue about the economy, Cuomo focused on the human impact of illness and death.
Cuomo showed his humanity. He talked about his family, and how the new routines were hard on a personal level. When his brother got sick, he showed his anxiety. And we liked his acknowledgement that he could not know it all. We liked his fallibility. We related to him as someone who was struggling through this, just as we are.
And that got to the crux of it: Cuomo showed his humanity. He talked about his family, and how the new routines were hard on a personal level. When his brother got sick, he showed his anxiety. And we liked his acknowledgement that he could not know it all. We liked his fallibility. We related to him as someone who was struggling through this, just as we are.
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This experience reminds me of a story from 40 years ago. Former President Jimmy Carter says that his great epiphany came in the middle of the Camp David peace summit of 1978. He staked his reputation on his effort to bring together Menachem Begin (Prime Minister of Israel) and Anwar Sadat (President of Egypt). The two countries had been at war since Israel’s founding in 1948, and had fought three bitter battles in between (1957, 1967, 1972). Each side agreed to meet for a few days at the presidential retreat, but neither side liked it. After opening statements, both sides concluded that this was a waste of time, and packed to go home. Carter was distraught. His vision of Middle East peace, and of himself as a great peacemaker, was falling apart.
First, Carter went to see Begin. He begged him to stay another few days. “Do this for me, your friend,” he pleaded.
“No,” Begin replied, adding, “things are too unstable. I need to get back to Israel.”
Carter tried again, “Do it for me, the president of the United States, your most powerful and important ally.”
“No,” Begin said again. “this is dangerous for me.”
“Well, then,” Carter implored, “stay for the sake of public opinion.”
“Absolutely not,” said Begin.
Discouraged, Carter left Begin and went to Sadat’s cabin. He tried the same three arguments. “Do this for the most powerful country on earth. Do this for me, your friend. Do this to look good.” Sadat summarily rejected them all.
Carter thought, “Well. We failed, but we tried.” He went back to his cabin and had his staff bring him the photograph they took of all participants on the first day. He autographed a set for Sadat, his team, and his family, and the same for Begin. He writes notes “… at least they tried.”
Carter pulled out the pictures and went through them. They talked about their families, their children, grandchildren. They laughed. They cried. Begin agreed to stay one more day.
Defeated, he goes back to Begin. They sit down one last time, awkward because Begin is determined to leave and fearful of some stiff-arm tactic Carter might try to make him stay. Instead, Carter pulled out the pictures and went through them. They talked about their families, their children, grandchildren. They laughed. They cried. Begin agreed to stay one more day.
Carter went to Sadat and presented his set of photos. They talked about their children and grandchildren. They laughed. They cried. Carter told Sadat that Begin would stay one more day if he would. Sadat agreed to stay one more day.
Ten days later, they reached a preliminary agreement, came down off the mountain, shook hands in the Rose Garden, and changed the course of Middle East history.
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Carter says that he learned that all the power of the United States, the presidency, and the bully pulpit are not enough to achieve some goals. He could not get Sadat or Begin to stay and risk everything for him, for rewards, or by threat. But when he showed his humanity and engaged them, their love of their children brought out their hopes for the future, and created the common bond that kept the talks going.
Humanity builds relationships and trust that make all the rest possible.
Hearing Carter tell that story, I relearned that great leaders are not necessarily great strategists, great tacticians, great motivators, or great dealmakers (although they may be some of these things). They are, at least the ones I have met, great human beings. Their humanity builds relationships and trust that make all the rest possible.