Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his intention to resign. Because Cuomo gave himself two weeks to wind down his duties before handing over the reins to Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, he remains in office, though obviously hobbled by his impending departure and his sexual harassment of multiple women that led to it. Yet even as Cuomo still occupies the Governor’s mansion, speculation has begun about his possible rehabilitation. Virtually no one believes Cuomo has a future as a candidate for statewide office. That does not mean, however, that he has no future. In this column, I consider Cuomo’s possible next steps alongside the post-scandal careers of other disgraced politicians and celebrities.
A Life Behind the Scenes
No one is perfect. A substantial number of people commit seriously antisocial acts. Even so, all but the most heinous criminals—who end up serving lifetime prison sentences or are executed in jurisdictions that permit capital punishment—eventually are afforded the chance to build productive lives. Persons formerly incarcerated face serious challenges in doing so. They often have difficulty finding housing, employment, and a supportive social circle that does not lead back to a life of crime. Yet it is in everyone’s interest to provide opportunities for one-time criminals to build productive new lives. Movements like the one to abolish former-felon disenfranchisement reflect both compassion and society’s pursuit of its enlightened self-interest.
Facing multiple criminal investigations, Andrew Cuomo may one day find himself incarcerated and then eventually an ex-prisoner. Even if he faces only civil liability, he will encounter challenges in rebuilding a life. However, Cuomo’s fame, skills, and fortune will ensure that he will never have to worry where he will find his next meal. Accordingly, while it is useful to remember that the post-scandal challenges of disgraced politicians and celebrities are a subset of the more substantial challenges faced by the more numerous class of formerly incarcerated persons, the subset is sufficiently distinctive to warrant separate treatment.
High-profile individuals who fall to scandal usually can ensure a relatively soft landing. For example, before resigning from the bench in 2017 amidst allegations of sexual harassment and abusive treatment of former law clerks and others, Alex Kozinski was one of the best-known and most highly-respected federal appeals court judges. Although he no doubt misses his former life, he still has and uses the means to earn a good living as an attorney, including by practicing before his former court.
Yet people accustomed to the spotlight rarely settle for a comfortable life behind the scenes. Junk-bond pioneer Michael Milken served prison time and paid over half a billion dollars in fines for violating securities laws. He nonetheless retained and rebuilt a great fortune but was not content to enjoy his riches in quiet, instead seeking out public appearances, a pardon (which he received from President Trump last year), and, to his credit, philanthropic opportunities.
An even more dramatic and more directly relevant comparator for Andrew Cuomo is Eliot Spitzer, who also resigned the governorship of New York. Spitzer had patronized prostitutes and engaged in financial legerdemain to cover it up. He could have left the public eye and stuck to managing and enjoying his family’s enormous financial empire. Yet almost immediately after resigning the governorship, he began writing op-eds and barely two years later was co-hosting a television show on CNN.
How Low is the Bar?
It is not especially surprising that people who enjoy and are accustomed to public attention would continue to seek it, even after committing scandalous acts. Nor should such public figures be forever banished from public life. Milken’s post-criminal philanthropy advances the common good, just as the public benefits whenever any former criminal builds a life as a law-abiding citizen.
Nonetheless, the speed with which our institutions—especially the media—seem to forgive and forget suggests that we are living in a post-shame society. One would have thought that before disgraced public figures could re-emerge, there ought to be some period in which they express contrition and stay out of view.
Television networks seem especially forgiving of sports commentators. A few years ago, the Fox Sports postseason panel of four baseball experts included both Alex Rodriguez—just a few years after he had served a season-long suspension for illicit use of performance-enhancing drugs—and Pete Rose—who was permanently barred from baseball for gambling on games while a manager. Marv Albert, who received accolades upon retiring from announcing basketball games just a couple of months ago, was fired by NBC after he pleaded guilty to assault charges stemming from his having bitten a sexual partner without her consent, only to be re-hired less than two years later.
The Value of Shame
Readers may be wondering how I can be so naïve as to be surprised that the public so quickly moves past the misdeeds of athletes, politicians, and other public figures. After all, Donald Trump—whose repeated racist, sexist, corrupt, and authoritarian statements and actions form an essential element of his appeal to roughly a third of the country—held the highest office in the land for four years and retains control of one of our two major parties. Though exquisitely sensitive to slights, Trump never apologizes for his own aggressions. He is capable of feeling anger but not shame. Why then should we expect shame from less exalted characters?
The short answer is perhaps we should not expect shame, but we would do better if there were more of it. Even apparently insincere expressions of remorse serve the salutary purpose of communicating to the wider society that what the actor in question did—whether sexual harassment, sexual assault, or fomenting insurrection—is contemptible. That is one reason why Andrew Cuomo’s use of sexist tropes to blame his victims (as Professor Sherry Colb explained here on Verdict last week) is so harmful.
Unlike Eliot Spitzer, Andrew Cuomo may have difficulty quickly finding a gig with CNN, if for no other reason than that the network is already under fire for the cozy reception that Cuomo’s brother Chris afforded Andrew over the last couple of years. In addition, in the near term, Andrew Cuomo might need to focus his energy on the criminal charges that could be brought against him.
Meanwhile Cuomo retains control of $18 million in campaign funds, which he can distribute to other politicians, who would deny but nonetheless feel some obligation to come to his aid in some way. Even apart from his war chest, sooner or later, Cuomo will re-emerge as a public figure, if not on CNN then on some other platform. If our media and the society they reflect had any decency, that event would occur later, not sooner. Because they do not, we can expect to see Cuomo again quite soon.
I would say shame on the forum that rushes to give Andrew Cuomo a soapbox, if only such a thing as shame were still possible.