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Humility won’t rescue Gov. Cuomo’s career, but it could rescue him

In this image taken from video from the Office of the N.Y. Governor, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Albany, N.Y.
Office of the NY Governor via AP

Editor’s note: This article was originally published during an ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The New York state attorney general released the finished report on Aug. 3, which verifies the allegations. Cuomo has denied the claims.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to make one thing extremely clear: He’s not resigning. What’s less clear is if this storm will nurture any sense of humility among the political class.

On Friday, New York Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand joined the chorus of lawmakers calling for Cuomo to step down. His boorishness toward at least six women who allege sexual harassment or misconduct and his administration’s foolish attempt to cover up underreported nursing home deaths have rendered him incapable of leading, they say.

He’s not budging.

That’s not really remarkable. Like I wrote during former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, America faces a crisis of contrition. A simple — and very heartfelt — “I’m so sorry” would do more to bind the wounds of the country than all the legalese proving innocence or guilt. And for Cuomo’s accusers and the families who needlessly lost loved ones to COVID-19 because New York officials had incomplete data, it would be an invaluable step toward healing and forgiveness.

Cuomo tried to do that by issuing two apologies, but they were “straight out of a master class in how not to say you’re sorry,” writes Lisa Leopold, an English professor who analyzes the language of apologies.

“If they (the accusers) were offended by it, then it was wrong,” Cuomo said. “And if they were offended by it, I apologize.”

And in case there was still doubt in your mind, he made sure to add that he wasn’t resigning. Instead, he’s using the strategy that worked well during four years of Trump’s presidency: deny, deflect and move on once the news cycle jumps to the next scandal.

To be fair, he says he’s waiting on the results of two investigations into his misdeeds. There’s prudence in that, and we shouldn’t get lost in our rage before we have all the facts.

So, while we’re waiting, let’s contemplate a fundamental question that hangs over the Cuomo scandal as big as his ego: Why are so many leaders jerks?

We don’t need an investigation to know Cuomo hasn’t been the picture of social grace. Long-time observers describe him as ambitious and shrewd yet oft-times abusive and vain. In other words, a politician.

Politico editor John Harris asked the same question this week and offered a few answers in regard to the New York governor. First, he says, is an ageless element: Careers that live and die by public performance have and always will attract the hungry, creative and needy people who, under intense mental loads, discharge their stress when the spotlight turns off.

But, he adds, there’s value in accounting for the culture of our time. “The willingness to swagger and snarl and be combative with opponents ... is now often seen as a sign of strength,” he writes. We’ve accepted the false belief that the path to the top runs through a maze of narcissism and playground bullying.

I’ve heard tales of U.S. senators berating junior staff members to the point of tears for handing them the wrong printout. Steve Jobs was known to throw tantrums in front of his engineers. Ellen DeGeneres, effervescent on camera, has faced allegations of aiding a “toxic work environment” on set.

A glance around seems to prove the adage “nice guys finish last.” But that’s not what the research says. Leaders who practice kindness are more likely to perform better in their work, writes social scientist Arthur Brooks, and most people say they would prefer a nice boss over a 10% pay increase.

Plus, says Brooks, practicing kindness directly increases one’s own happiness. The conclusion is leaders can’t afford not to be nice.

Though it may be hard to see past the performance art that defines politics today, those leaders exist. When George H.W. Bush died on a Saturday in 2018, the lot fell to me to craft a eulogy. Having been born 29 days before he left office, I obviously needed to do some research about his life and legacy, and what I found made my day: He was a genuinely kind human being. He asked his Secret Service detail to stop at traffic lights. He was devoted to his wife and family. He filled a book with letters and notes rather than the usual post-White House memoir.

“America,” he declared in his inaugural address, “is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

If Cuomo truly is set on living out the rest of his term, the least he could do is come out the other side of this fiasco a kinder and gentler person. Humility and contrition won’t rescue a tanking career, but they can rescue a soul.