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The New York Post ran a rather long and mostly negative feature about Andrew Cuomo over the weekend and I was quoted twice, consulted no doubt because of my reputation. If I can’t say a bad word about someone, I am congenitally speechless. I am never called for quotes when someone is writing a puff piece, which the Daily News did on Sunday, working from material served up by Cuomo aides that the Post rejected and ridiculed.
I had never met, read or spoken to the Post reporter, Maureen Callahan, but I found her meticulous and thoughtful. We must have gabbed for 45 minutes, long enough for her to get a word or two in herself. We have different recollections of both of my quotes, and I certainly wasn’t taping (she probably was), so I’d like to say what I think I told her, with the caveat that this is at least what I meant to say. It’s not that my words are so important. It’s rather that the two issues I’m cited about are rather important, especially since they relate to the current Attorney General of New York and to the Not So Secret War that is going on between him and the governor-who-is-more-oblivious-than-blind.
One quote Callahan got utterly correct. I did say that Andrew is “great at dropping stinkbombs” and that “I wouldn’t be surprised if this is how the Obama thing surfaced.” I also said, it’s my recollection, that this kind of rank speculation was off-the-record. She and I had this protracted bargaining session at the end of what was usable and not usable from me and either then, or when I actually made this reckless comment, I believe I said to her please don’t quote me about that. Feel free to quote me about things I know — some of which were critical of Cuomo in ways that echoed Callahan’s thesis (I said, for example, that he was as sharp a political mind as I had ever covered, though unattracted to the intricacies of policy) — but not the things I’m guessing at, like could he be one of the blind sources in the Paterson/Obama stories of the last week.
The reason I speculated that Cuomo might be a source was because I was actively working on a story midweek — which is when Callahan called — driven by precisely that thesis. Callahan’s colleague at the paper, Fred Dicker, wrote that story later in the week, adding up the same one, and one I was adding up at the time of my Callahan interview. Dicker printed my thesis — namely, that Patrick Gaspard, the top Obama aide who delivered the first “don’t-run” message to Paterson, worked for eight years at SEIU 1199, the hospital workers union, with Jennifer Cunningham, who ran Cuomo’s 2006 campaign for attorney general and is known to be so close to Cuomo that she may do it again for his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
I was hearing the same thing as Dicker — that the governor believed it was a Cuomo network that got the Obama dissing of Paterson on the front pages — and I was doing what a reporter should be doing under those circumstances, trying to report it. I called Cunningham, waited a day for her to return it, and when she didn’t, called one of her partners at Knickerbocker SKD, the political consulting firm where she now works. The Times story had relied on a “New York Democratic operative,” which is a description that fits Cunningham (though her firm is now Mike Bloomberg’s principal outside consultant). I pushed to see if the “operative” cited by the Times was Cunningham, and her partner told me that he didn’t think it was, but promised to get back to me.
A senior administration official was also cited by the Times and I thought that might be David Axelrod, whose media firm was paid $7 million by the Cuomo campaign in 2006, so I called an Axelrod partner I know. Since Cunningham and Axelrod’s partner ordinarily return my calls, and since Cunningham’s partner did not give me a flat denial, my thesis was still cooking right up until Dicker wrote his story. Deciphering blind sources is a parlor game all political reporters play (who’s talking to them that’s not talking to me?), and I was particularly struck by the title given by the Times to another source, namely ” a prominent Democrat who discussed the matter with a senior White House official.” That sounded to me like it could be Cuomo himself (or Chuck Schumer, whose conversations with the White House regarding recommended interventions in New York politics is already established, but who has managed to stay entirely out of this story, as good an indication as any that the ordinarily effusive senator is at the quiet center of it).
As right as I was to nose around as a reporter in this potentially fertile field, I was silly to convert hypothesis to quotation, even if I asked that it be treated as the guesswork it was. I was on NY1 Friday night — well before Callahan’s piece appeared — and made my position on the substance clear. I praised Obama for telling “dead weight” Paterson not to drag the Democratic ticket down in 2010. I cited the Politico.com piece last week that said the Obama message to Paterson wasn’t some outside intervention; the White House was doing what the state’s congressional delegation wanted it to do (I think that includes Schumer, whose chances of becoming Senate majority leader partially hinge now on his ability to elect Kirsten Gillibrand in 2010). So I believe Obama’s intervention is smart politics; the heavy-handed leaks, however, are another story. Indeed, they are a story worthy of writing, if I had uncovered anything hard to explain them. But I didn’t. All I had was inference and musing.
The other quote from me in the Callahan story is, at least as I recall it, a meshing of her question and my comment. She quotes me as saying that “these rehab periods with Andrew seem to come in cycles,” which is used to suggest that you can’t trust the version of Cuomo we’re getting now, which she does not dispute is an Andrew who has been a generally effective attorney general. I think rehab is her word, not mine. Callahan started the interview with a very elaborate statement of her thesis and it closely resembled what she wound up using from me as her nut quote (that’s what we call it in the trade). I was talking more about how we in the media treat Andrew — chronicling his ebbs and flows – — rather than saying that he was himself emerging from rehab.
I told her that I’d known Andrew since he was 24 and running his father’s earliest campaigns. I told her I’d always liked him, though you couldn’t tell it from my copy, which has been uniformly critical. I read to her from a biography I wrote of Donald Trump in 1991 (Trump: the Deals and the Downfall, Harper Collins), which contained a chapter that blistered Trump lawyer Andrew and his father, then Governor Mario Cuomo. In the postscript to the book, I wrote that it was “with some regret that I had to rake through the history of the Cuomo law firm’s conflicts of interest” because young Andrew “had dramatically changed his life since 1988, leaving the firm and devoting himself full time to running a nonprofit organization that builds housing for the homeless.” Cuomo had gone from “influence peddling” in his father’s administration, I wrote then, to “making a substantial public contribution, and at far less an annual salary.”
I told Callahan how much I think Cuomo has also grown in this job — not just as a matter of media perception. By combining her rehab thesis with my media review, the reader is given the impression that I think this is a synthetic Andrew. It could be. But having known him all these years, I believe it is not.
Research Assistance: Amanda Sakuma, Aaron Howell, Steve Percolani, Grace Smith, Lucy Jordan and Kate Rose