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For a politician with a true gift of gab, Andrew Cuomo has been operating for more than three years now under some strict and self-imposed rules of the road. As described by the state's own Attorney General, they are:
One: No trash-talking allowed. Two: Let the ball do the talking. Three: Run up a big score.
These decrees are not surprising coming from a guy whose own trash talk helped sink him the last time he ran for governor, back in 2002. That April, he was on a bus packed with reporters headed for Buffalo on a four-day statewide tour announcing his run for the Democratic nomination. He was bantering with those around him—microphones set in Record mode—when he popped off about then-sitting governor George Pataki and how he had let Mayor Giuliani hold center-stage after the horror of 9/11. "He stood behind the leader," said Cuomo, spacing out the words in his rich Queens voice. "He held the leader's coat."
Even for those who agreed with him, the words clanged like a bad shot off the rim. They also sparked an electric shock of recognition: Oh, right, a lot of folks were suddenly reminded. That Andrew Cuomo. The bad-talking twentysomething who played the big-shot bully in the big office when his father, Mario, was governor. The kid they called the "Prince of Darkness." That Andrew Cuomo.
The now-ancient history is that he never made it back on the bus. A week before the primary, he pulled out of the race. This was a belated bid at fence-mending with those who were irate that he would run against H. Carl McCall, the state comptroller then trying to become the state's first black governor. It was also to avoid ignominious defeat. "Our internal poll numbers had it at 60-18," a former McCall aide says.
These days, Cuomo makes no bones about his missteps. "It was a bad comment," he told the Voice last week. "It was a mistake for me to say that."
But this sort of sudden, near-death experience is often greatly instructive for survivors. And the fallout from the Buffalo bus ride is one of the reasons why the successful reinvention of Andrew Cuomo these past three years has kept him unnaturally tight-lipped.
You don't see him spouting off on TV talk shows. You don't read wide-ranging interviews. You don't hear him commenting on the crucial issues of the day, other than those that fall squarely within the parameters of the Office of the New York State Attorney General.
What you do get is a steady drumbeat of press releases and carefully staged news events presenting The Andrew Cuomo Show: a reality-based series featuring a modern Knight Templar waging a crusade against wrongdoers and rip-off artists. The show itself gets exceptionally high ratings. But the tightly scripted performance by its star—a clearly ambitious politician—has driven some of New York's media right up the wall.
For instance: Over a year ago, Bob Hardt, the news director at NY1, posted a "Cuomo Clock" on his website, counting down the days, hours, and minutes since the sitting AG has failed to come in for a round on the station's influential Road to City Hall show. On Tuesday, the clock stood at 1,126 days.
"I have spoken repeatedly to him about coming on the show, and he has said he would," says Hardt. "But when we try to nail it down, it never happens."
Not that Cuomo doesn't talk often, and at length, to reporters. It's just all cautiously off the record. You can talk for an hour to the state's top law enforcement officer. If you come away with a quotable sentence in your notebook, you've done well.
Even his press conferences—and he averages better than one a week—tend to keep the press at bay. While he does many in-person events outside the city, his preferred mode in media-dense Gotham is to hold telephone call-ins. Reporters sit dumbly looking at the phone while some off-screen wizard selects those looking to ask a question.
A good example was last week's phone presser on cyber-scammers who dupe customers into hidden fees on their credit cards. Among the alleged culprits were some of the Internet's biggest salesmen: Barnes & Noble, Ticketmaster, and the movie ticket retailer Fandango. It was a classic episode in the crusade: The people's lawyer using innovative tools to bring big shots to heel.
The press conference also came two days after Cuomo took a hard elbow from Governor David Paterson, who insists he is running for re-election no matter how much better Cuomo does in the polls (64 percent to 31 percent), or how much fatter his campaign coffers may be ($16 million vs. $3 million). Paterson said Cuomo was hiding out in a "candidate-protection program," ducking the tough issues. A day later, Daily News columnist Bill Hammond—no big Paterson fan—seconded that emotion, urging Cuomo to "quit the fan dance."
Three dozen reporters were on the line listening to the cyber-scam announcement, but only two questions were asked, both pleasingly on-topic. Cuomo aides said they were surprised no one hit the buttons to raise an impertinent query about politics. That's a break Cuomo would never catch at an old-fashioned stand-up conference, where the press gets to piggy-back off one another's inquiries.