In 2002, Andrew Cuomo ran for governor of New York State.
He was the ambitious son of the legendary three-term governor Mario Cuomo, and was, like his father, a pugnacious and scrappy pol with a tongue both silvery and sharp.
It was just months after the 9/11 attacks, and New Yorkers were still fragile and grieving.
One day on a campaign bus, Cuomo declared that his opponent, incumbent Governor George Pataki, was a mere bystander to the heroic leadership of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the days after the terrorist attacks.
“He stood behind the leader,” Cuomo said. “He held the leader’s coat.”
Cuomo had politicised a tragedy, and the reaction was swift, brutal and bipartisan.
He was forced to abandon his campaign in humiliation, and his political future looked bleak.
Eighteen years later, New Yorkers are no less uncertain.
In my Greenwich Village neighbourhood, the bars are padlocked and restaurants leave goodbye-for-now letters in their windows.
The best bakery on Bleecker Street closed this morning, no longer willing to imperil its workers and customers over loaves of rye.
When I walked our dogs last night, there were no traffic noises on Seventh Avenue – just the squeals of rats hiding out underneath parked cars, scurrying forth for dinner amid the kerbside trash.
I tell myself I should call the city about the rats, but I figure they’ve got more pressing problems.
Into these dire straits strides Governor Andrew Cuomo, long recovered from his 2002 faux pas but never as powerful as he is today.
He is the new Giuliani, leading the state through the coronavirus crisis with a steadiness that is dazzling the country.
His daily virus updates have become appointment television – an unscripted mix of administrative mechanics, bleak facts, tactical anger, heartfelt empathy, improvisation, family lore, local boosterism, soothing wisdom and epic competence.
These daily messages – secular sermons, really – are in vivid contrast to the day’s later programming: The White House Coronavirus update led by President Trump.
In those events, Trump mirthlessly and mindlessly cheerleads, touting unproven drugs one day, insulting reporters on another.
He is bathed in the adoration of his hired hands, particularly from the obsequious Vice President Mike Pence, who has an uncanny sense of when the First Ego is in need of a deep tissue massage.
Trump is a man of limited tools in a fight like this, lacking as he does in any empathy or imagination.
And to be fair, trying to buoy Americans in tough times is not easy.
But his pep talks are vague and Orwellian. He acknowledges no setbacks or failures.
He sees himself as a modern-day Churchill, unaware that before the stirring “never surrender” stuff, Churchill had unflinchingly delivered to Britons the grim truth of the Dunkirk debacle.
Trump said on Monday he wants the country back to business by Easter.
If you look at his words carefully (always perilous), it’s clear it’s a desire, not a deadline.
He was already backing off that claim by Tuesday night, promising to at least keep listening to his medical experts
Cuomo could use his daily pulpit to savage Trump – his incompetence, his ignorance, his selfishness, his volatility.
But he doesn’t.
Instead, he gently prods him, laying out each day what New York needs.
That Trump has often failed him is obvious to any viewer.
But Cuomo pulls his punches, criticising “the federal government” rather than Trump by name.
On Wednesday morning, he took note to compliment Trump by name, noting how responsive he has been.
Does Cuomo get everything he wants?
He has begged for 30,000 ventilators, but received only 4000 from the feds.
He was furious, but bit his tongue when it came to Trump.
Cuomo has learned – the hard way –that it can be more effective to coo than to criticise.
He knows the way to Trump’s federal wallet is through his ego, and complimenting Trump (while still maintaining your dignity) is the way to save his state.
We are going to fight every way we can to save every life that we can.
That’s what it means to be an American and that’s what it means to be a New Yorker. pic.twitter.com/1cREWGx9t9
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) March 25, 2020
So far, Cuomo’s snake-charming is working.
“It’s hard not to be happy with the job we’re doing,” Trump crowed on Wednesday, telling reporters Cuomo was “happy” with his co-operation.
But history shows Trump may soon sense his comeuppance and take it out on New York and its governor.
Or he may act out on what he already knows: That the hardest-hit states are places that didn’t vote for him, so why should he care what happens to them.
In times of crisis, that shouldn’t matter.
But this is no ordinary president.
But until that reckoning, let him keep holding Cuomo’s coat.
Just don’t let him know what he’s carrying.
Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America