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Three Governors

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books and culture

Three Governors

Andrew Cuomo’s auto-hagiography makes an illuminating read in conjunction with recent biographies of his predecessors—including his father. January 26, 2021
Politics and law

American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, by Andrew Cuomo (Crown, 320 pp., $30)

Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man, by George Marlin (St. Augustine’s Press, 422 pp., $35)

Black, Blind, & In Charge: A Story of Visionary Leadership and Overcoming Adversity, by David Paterson (Skyhorse, 192 pp., $25.99)

After a heady two weeks on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list in early November, Andrew Cuomo’s American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic quickly fell back to earth. Word must have spread that the governor’s self-aggrandizing account of New York’s pandemic management was far less “riveting” than promised by the publisher’s blurb.

By year’s end—after Cuomo had again banned indoor dining in New York City, sparred with Mayor Bill de Blasio yet again, and launched a shambolic vaccine rollout—the governor’s book was hovering around a (still-respectable) rank of 14,000 out of the millions for sale on Amazon.com. According to the website’s algorithm, shoppers viewing American Crisis were also likely to order books by Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Stacy Abrams, and MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Joe Scarborough.

Cuomo’s sober briefings during the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic won him plaudits across the political spectrum, but American Crisis apparently has found its fan base among doctrinaire liberal Democrats confirming their priors—the kind of readers who might underline such Cuomo pearls as “I have learned something as I have gotten older: the truth wins out.”

Others are bound to be disappointed. The main “lesson” Cuomo aims to deliver is that the Trump administration did a terrible job, thereby adding to the challenge New York and its governor faced as the epicenter of the nation’s novel coronavirus pandemic. Readers will search in vain for phrases such as “on second thought,” or “if I had it to do over again.”

As the Empire Center’s Bill Hammond pointed out last summer, “New York’s pandemic has been a cautionary tale, not a success story.” Yet the closest Cuomo comes to admitting error is having “never successfully communicated the facts” about the enormous death toll in New York State nursing homes—estimated at more than one-fifth the 25,000 Covid-19 deaths in New York by mid-summer.

On March 25, the state Health Department had issued a directive to nursing homes, stating in part: “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to [a nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.” Cuomo, however, writes that “New York State never demanded or directed that any nursing home accept a COVID-positive patient,” and says the controversy over nursing home deaths was cooked up by Republicans to “distract from . . . their botched federal response.” He doesn’t mention that his fellow Democrats in the state legislature were also concerned enough to hold hearings on the issue, even as the governor was composing American Crisis.

The Health Department directive wasn’t the sole factor in the nursing home Covid spread; transmission by staff also appears to have played a major role in compounding the problem. But more than anything, the nursing home Covid-19 story has been kept alive by the governor’s own thin-skinned defensiveness, his resistance to independent inquiries, and his continuing refusal to release a fuller nursing home death count, including residents who died after being sent to hospitals.

In much of the book, Cuomo uses the pandemic as a launching pad for general political bromides (“hyper-partisanship and demagoguery are destroying democracy”); agenda-setting on unrelated issues (“from the start, I said I stand with the Black Lives Matter protestors . . . but I had been unequivocal that we need to translate protests into meaningful action”); and above all, Trump-thumping (in June, he bets his daughters that “Donald Trump is going to lose the election in November and claim voter fraud is the reason he lost” and that Attorney General Bill Barr will unsuccessfully sue to have the Supreme Court overturn the result—not far off the mark, it turned out, except for Barr’s involvement).

Like Cuomo’s daily Covid briefings, the book includes some odd personal riffs. For example, the governor wants us to know that his younger brother, CNN anchor Christopher Cuomo, has been able to indulge an “irreverent” sense of humor only because he “has never been in public service nor had to deal with the scrutiny of having every action examined by a hostile press corps.” Nonetheless, adds Andrew Cuomo: “I am funny. Many people don’t know that I’m funny. But I am. Actually, I am very funny. But you are not supposed to be too funny as governor.” Good to get that cleared up.

The book contains at least one jaw-dropping inaccuracy that probably reflects its rush to print (no doubt with staff assistance, though it is neither acknowledged nor credited). In describing the widespread violence and rioting that followed the release of the George Floyd video last May, Cuomo writes that in Albany, “people burned down the Capital City Rescue Mission, which provides food and services to the homeless.” In fact, the mission—located a few blocks down the hill from Cuomo’s Executive Mansion—is still standing. It did not burn down because it was never set on fire. (When a local newspaper pointed this out, the governor’s office cited “widespread reports we received from multiple sources that night” which “turned out to be not accurate.”)

Perhaps the kindest way to sum up American Crisis is that those who like and admire Governor Cuomo will like and admire his book. A broader, if much smaller, audience of Empire State politics and history buffs will find more to interest them in a pair of books about two of the state’s other recent Democratic governors.

George Marlin’s Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man is the first posthumous political bio of the “complicated, endearing, brilliant, pugilistic and exasperating” figure who served as New York’s 52nd governor from 1983 through 1994—and whose most tangible legacy is his eldest son, the 56th. David Paterson’s Blind and In Charge: A Story of Visionary Leadership and Overcoming Adversity is the quirky, unfiltered memoir of the former Harlem legislator who succeeded the disgraced Eliot Spitzer as governor just in time to grapple with an economic meltdown and fiscal crisis during a notably rocky tenure from 2008 through 2010.

Like his successor in the governor’s office, Paterson also was the son of a prominent New York Democrat. Starting in the 1960s, the late Basil Paterson was a state senator, failed lieutenant governor candidate, deputy New York City mayor, and New York secretary of state before settling into a three-decade afterlife as a politically wired labor lawyer. With David Dinkins, Percy Sutton, and Charles Rangel, the elder Paterson rounded out a quartet of Harlem pols known in their heyday as the Gang of Four.

With those connections alone, David Paterson might have walked effortlessly into higher office. But Paterson was afflicted from infancy with severe and irreversible optic nerve damage, leaving him with near-zero vision in one eye and extreme nearsightedness (far below the legal blindness threshold) in the other. Despite his father’s strong identification with Harlem, Paterson was raised in Hempstead, Long Island, where his mother insisted on moving the family so the visually impaired David could attend classes in quality schools with sighted children.

That well-meaning effort at mainstreaming also led to what Paterson describes in his book as “the biggest mistake that was made in my early education”: he was never taught braille. For Paterson, reading is a time-consuming and arduous process requiring him to hold documents within inches of his “good” eye, aided by a thick magnifying lens. As a public figure, Paterson would adapt to his disability by memorizing important speeches and ad-libbing the rest. He proved to be good at it—fast on his feet, more engaging and articulate than most of his Albany contemporaries.

His father’s connections certainly didn’t hurt, but Paterson credits his political rise mainly to “conspiracies of improbability,” starting with his victory in a special election to the state Senate in 1985, when he was 31. Well-liked among colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Paterson became the Senate’s Democratic minority leader in 2003 as the result of a backroom coup, enabled by his timely bluffing of a few fence-sitting senators anxious to back the winner. Three years later, Paterson was tapped as Spitzer’s running mate in the 2006 gubernatorial election. And in March 2008, he found himself in the governor’s office when Spitzer was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had been patronizing prostitutes.

“My overriding thought about Spitzer’s departure and my elevation to the role of governor is that it’s the best benefit I ever got from sex—and I wasn’t even there,” Paterson writes.

His timing couldn’t have been worse. On March 17, 2008, the day Paterson was sworn in as governor, the news was dominated by the collapse of Bear Stearns, an early harbinger of the coming global financial crisis. By mid-summer, state revenues were in freefall and Paterson was imploring the legislature to help him slash the unsustainable budget he had inherited from Spitzer.

To his lasting credit, New York’s accidental governor tried to be proactive in dealing with the unprecedented fiscal crisis, even presenting his first executive budget a month early, in December 2008. But the legislature remained uncooperative and other distractions abounded—not least of which was Senator Hillary Clinton’s move to a Cabinet post in the new Obama administration, which meant that the governor would soon be handing some lucky Democrat the ultimate political plum: appointment to a safe U.S. Senate seat. The previously reclusive Caroline Kennedy immediately made her interest known, beginning a six-week comedy of leaks and errors during which her unreadiness for the spotlight became painfully obvious.

Once Kennedy withdrew from consideration, Paterson bypassed better-known Democrats (including then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo), ignored Michael Bloomberg’s advice to appoint himself, and instead filled the seat with an obscure upstate freshman congresswoman, Kirsten Gillibrand. Her selection, Paterson admits, was influenced partly by Representative Gillibrand’s sympathy with his resentment of the Saturday Night Live skits in which Fred Armisen impersonated New York’s governor as a bumbling, lisping Mister Magoo character.

Meantime, there was no love lost between the nation’s first black president and New York’s first black governor. Paterson, who had endorsed Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, recalls that he resisted pressure from the Obama campaign to jump on the Illinois senator’s bandwagon before New York’s junior senator had formally withdrawn from the race. This, Paterson says, led Obama to treat him with continuing “vindictiveness” for the rest of his gubernatorial tenure. (By contrast, then-President George W. Bush had surprised Paterson with a warm congratulatory phone call on the day the new governor was sworn in.)

Approaching his third year as governor, Paterson was targeted by a concerted and persistent whispering campaign including wild (and he assures us, untrue) rumors of illicit liaisons and even drug use in the executive mansion. He also had become the subject of an ethics probe related to his acceptance of six free tickets to a 2009 Yankees World Series game. More seriously, Paterson and a senior state police official were accused of trying to quash a domestic violence charge against a senior aide. At the governor’s request, this led to an independent inquiry that ultimately exonerated him. But the damage had been done: weeks after denying reports that he was about to resign, Paterson in late February 2010 announced that he would stay in office but not run for a full term.

Paterson was not only the first black governor of New York but also the first legally blind person to hold such high office in any state for more than a brief interim period. He never received the full measure of public respect and acclaim this might otherwise have earned him, and this memoir explains why: he was hobbled by his own admitted lapses in judgement and unreadiness for the job that fell to him. Unfortunately, Blind and in Charge is less a formal narrative than an unfiltered (and lightly edited) stream-of-consciousness transcript that bogs down in score-settling and sour grapes as it moves deeper into Paterson’s troubled tenure as governor.

Nonetheless, while he is widely viewed as a political failure, Paterson was among the most consequential New York governors of the last 50 years, in at least two respects. First, he set the precedent that a lieutenant governor who moves up to the governor’s office can appoint his or her own successor without Senate confirmation. Paterson’s 2009 choice of Richard Ravitch for the post was a smart one: Ravitch had been a key advisor to Hugh Carey during the 1970s fiscal crisis, he was credited with guiding the financial and physical restoration of New York City’s mass transit system, and he had no desire to run for lieutenant governor once the term ended. (Speaking of sour grapes, however, Paterson clearly hasn’t forgiven Ravitch for promoting a budget-process reform plan that the governor viewed as overly indulgent of the legislature.)

Second, and more important, Paterson shrewdly made effective use of his constitutional budget-making powers to force-feed spending cuts to a recalcitrant legislature, via “extender” bills required to keep government functioning after a new fiscal year began in April 2020. It was a crucial breaking point at a fateful moment in the fiscal crisis touched off by the Great Recession, and it set the stage for Andrew Cuomo’s generally restrained, on-time budgets over the next nine years.

If Governor Mario Cuomo had adopted Paterson’s approach to the budget deadlocks in which he became bogged down during his third term, he might have won the fourth term that eluded him. Instead, after a near-record expansion of state spending during the economic boom of the late 1980s, the elder Governor Cuomo grappled unsuccessfully with chronic deficits and chronically late budgets following the 1990-91 recession, which was especially severe in New York.

George Marlin, the senior Cuomo’s latest biographer, is an investment banker and historian who served as Port Authority executive director under Governor George Pataki. He outlines a familiar Cuomo origin story—the eldest son and grandson of hard-working Italian immigrants, an academic over-achiever victimized by the anti-Italian prejudices of Manhattan’s white-shoe law firms, a workaholic father of five who never took a vacation while building his practice as a Court Street lawyer in Brooklyn.

As Cuomo rose to prominence, Marlin writes, “he couldn’t resist being a Queens County ‘in your face’ street fighter who sought the support of conservative ethnic voters in the outerborough neighborhoods” while also embracing big-government liberalism. Cuomo first gained public visibility when he represented the Willets Point scrap metal dealers whose property Robert Moses had tried to condemn as part of his World’s Fair project in 1964. He beat Moses in a case that went all the way to the state’s highest court, and a few years later, he represented working-class homeowners in Corona, Queens, facing the loss of their homes to make way for a public-housing project favored by the Lindsay administration. Lindsay then asked Cuomo to mediate a fight with middle-class residents opposing a large low-income housing project proposed in Forest Hills, Queens.

Both disputes, Marlin notes, produced “split the difference” compromises that positioned Cuomo as a champion of outer-borough neighborhoods against elite social engineers. Cuomo capitalized on the favorable publicity by winning a Random House publishing contract for his Forest Hills Diary, complete with a preface by his friend Jimmy Breslin.

After an unsuccessful 1974 primary race for lieutenant governor, Cuomo was appointed by then-Governor Hugh Carey as secretary of state. A few years later, with the city virtually bankrupt, Carey endorsed Cuomo as the candidate most likely to block the early front-runner, Bella Abzug, in the 1977 mayoral primary. But in a pattern that would repeat itself later in his career, Cuomo’s hesitant approach to entering that race cost him the services of the brilliant political consultant David Garth, and he was trounced in the primary runoff by the client Garth had signed on with—Congressman Ed Koch. Abandoned by Carey and running as a third-party candidate, Cuomo did better in the general election, but on the whole his foray into mayoral politics had been a disaster. Cuomo, Marlin writes, had “tried to be St. Thomas More and Niccolo Machiavelli at one and the same time.” It wouldn’t be the last time.

“Early in his career and then later as governor, Cuomo was an indecisive micromanager,” Marlin writes. “Except for his son, Andrew and a very few close aides, he didn’t really trust anyone and constantly second-guessed his hired media gurus.” Or, as a key labor union backer would put it, Cuomo was like “a guy who owns a department store and cleans its windows himself.”

Cuomo was politically reborn as Carey’s lieutenant governor in 1978, and when the incumbent governor didn’t seek reelection four years later, Cuomo avenged his mayoral primary loss by easily defeating the heavily favored Koch in a primary. Coming two years into Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration, with the economy struggling to emerge from a severe recession, the 1982 midterms turned out to be an exceptionally strong off-year election for Democrats across the country. Yet against this background, Marlin points out, Cuomo won an unimpressive 51.5 percent against a millionaire conservative newcomer, Lew Lehrman, who spent heavily but lacked the enthusiastic backing of the Republican establishment.

The new governor began to burnish his own reputation with the publication in April 1984 of his gubernatorial campaign diary entries. By then, he was a rising national figure whose support was coveted by contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Having shared with reporters his mother’s comparison of Walter Mondale to polenta, Cuomo coyly withheld his endorsement of Mondale until the front-runner had given him the keynoter’s slot at the San Francisco convention.

The resulting speech was a tour de force. Cuomo mocked Reagan’s vision of America as a “Shining City on a Hill,” saying that the country was actually a “Tale of Two Cities” characterized by “more homeless than at any time since the Great Depression in 1932; more hungry, in this world of enormous affluence . . . more hungry; more poor, most of them.”

Democratic delegates loved it, though Cuomo’s gloomy picture was contradicted by the reality of Reagan’s dawning economic boom—which was also boosting New York State’s bottom line. The president was reelected by an historic landslide, carrying every state except Mondale’s native Minnesota, including 55 of New York’s 62 counties and the Queens congressional district of Mondale’s vice presidential running mate, Geraldine Ferraro.

Two years later, many of the same New York voters who had voted for Reagan would nonetheless reelect Cuomo as governor by the biggest landslide in New York’s history up to that time. But even at the peak of his popularity, amid growing national acclaim and facing no serious political opposition in his home state, the elder Cuomo could be thin-skinned and argumentative. His sense of humor was expressed largely through personal needling, and his frequent news conferences became prolonged exercises in sophistry. Confronted with a difficult or discomfiting question, Cuomo typically would reply with another question, or simply filibuster. One thing he rarely did, unlike most politicians (including his son, the current governor) was to spew data and statistics. His arguments were almost invariably subjective, turning on leaps (or twists) of logic, and thus seldom could be debunked with mere facts.

Leavening it all was a sharp, well timed wit—as when he described Bella Abzug’s 1977 debating style as “agree with me or I’ll make you deaf,” or in his reply to a question about whether he’d run for president in 1988: “If you show me someone who has a fire in the belly, I’ll put seltzer in the mouth.”

The quintessential Cuomo anecdote, first recounted by journalist Ken Auletta as cited in Marlin’s biography, involved an incident in which the future governor was caught by a St. John’s Law School dean holding a lit cigarette in a no-smoking corridor. Cuomo’s rejoinder: “Did you see me smoking, Father? Is there a rule against carrying a lighted cigarette? . . . I have shoes on, and yet I’m not walking.”

In 1988, he resisted pressure to run for president himself and again played head games with his party’s presidential contenders, including then-Senator Joe Biden (warned privately by Cuomo that he was being perceived as “the dumb blonde of the party”) and that year’s ultimate nominee, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. When the 5’8” Dukakis made a pilgrimage to Albany, Cuomo reportedly kept him waiting, then showed him a hidden, pop-out platform behind the New York governor’s ceremonial desk, used decades earlier by the similarly diminutive Thomas E. Dewey. Dukakis’s reaction was stony silence.

In late 1991, Cuomo was an odds-on favorite not only to seek but also to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Yet at the last possible moment, he famously decided not to board a plane waiting at the Albany airport to take him to New Hampshire for a planned in-person filing of his candidacy.

Why didn’t Cuomo run? The usual answers include persistent but unfounded rumors about his father-in-law’s supposed Mafia connections, and Cuomo’s understandable reluctance to expose his wife and children to the intense scrutiny of a national campaign. Marlin suggests another explanation, heretofore unexplored: a drawn-out and bitter legal dispute involving a share of legal fees Cuomo claimed were still owed to him by the small law firm he had left upon taking state office in 1974. By the time Cuomo’s suit against a former law partner came to trial in 1989, it was the oldest case on the state court docket in Brooklyn—only to end in an undisclosed settlement.

The real explanation was probably simpler. Cuomo surely knew a presidential campaign would have taken him far outside his comfort zone. Even as he rose in national prominence, the governor seldom travelled outside New York, flying home to Albany even after late-night speeches on the West Coast. Seeking the nomination in 1992 would have required him to campaign on unfamiliar ground all over the country, often debating unfamiliar issues. The national media—already aware of his notoriously thin skin— would surely be no less annoying than his familiar adversaries in the Albany press corps. In the end, the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis provided all the excuse he needed to back off.

Harder to explain was Cuomo’s rejection of President Bill Clinton’s offer to nominate him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, the next to last year of Cuomo’s third and final term as governor. With Democrats then firmly in control of the Senate, he would have breezed through the confirmation process, and serving as a judge would have indulged Cuomo’s favorite pastime: prolonged intellectual argumentation. Once again, however, the governor was indecisive. Clinton finally ran out of patience and turned to the next name on his list—Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The irony is exquisite: if Cuomo had accepted Clinton’s offer and remained on the bench for the rest of his life, the Supreme Court slot recently slot recently filled by Amy Coney Barrett would have been filled four years sooner by an appointee of Barack Obama.

Cuomo himself later claimed that he didn’t accept a Supreme Court nomination because it would have “quieted” him from speaking out on public issues—though, once he left office, his unremarkable views commanded diminishing attention or public interest. The first book he published after leaving office, 1995’s Reason to Believe, was a hackneyed attack on the “new harshness” of Gingrich Republicans, dismissed even in the New York Times Book Review as “a stump speech by a politician who has lost his nerve but wants his say anyway.”

Marlin’s thoroughly researched and knowledgeable biography will rank among the enduring accounts of New York government and politics over the last 50 years. While largely derived from contemporaneous accounts and secondary sources, it is informed by the personal experiences and insights of an author who participated in Queens street politics of the late 1970s, who ran for mayor as a Conservative Party candidate in 1993, who knew Mario Cuomo, and who ultimately served on Andrew Cuomo’s ideologically balanced economic transition team (back when the current governor was still positioned as a Clintonesque centrist).

To set the stage, the book opens with a chapter devoted to the explosive growth of New York government and the decline of its economy during the three decades leading up to the start of Cuomo’s political career in the 1970s. The book also benefits from Marlin’s access to the archives of the archdiocese of New York, a history of which he coauthored in 2017, and which figured prominently in the most intense running dispute of Cuomo’s public life.  

Mario Cuomo first came to public attention as a conventionally pro-life Catholic, and he maintained that position as late as his unsuccessful candidacy for lieutenant governor in 1974, Marlin writes. His flip to a pro-choice position came in time to run for mayor, following what even then was becoming a well-beaten path among Catholic Democrats in liberal jurisdictions. If he had been content to flip on the issue while saying as little as possible otherwise, his views on abortion wouldn’t deserve more than passing mention in a general biography. But Cuomo was the most moralistic politician of his generation, offering himself as a courageously conscientious Catholic walking in the footsteps of his hero St. Thomas More, so Marlin is justified in singling out the issue for more extensive attention.  

The abortion controversy was one that Cuomo himself chose to escalate starting in his breakout year of 1984, when New York’s newly installed Catholic archbishop, John O’Connor, questioned how Catholics could “in good conscience” vote for pro-choice candidates. Cuomo’s fullest response came in his second major speech of 1984, pointedly delivered that fall at the University of Notre Dame. The governor described himself as “an old-fashioned Catholic” who accepted the Church’s teaching on abortion while insisting that “values derived from religious belief” could not be codified as public morality unless they reflected a broad public consensus.

Even liberal Catholics pointed out that Cuomo’s position was inconsistent with his outspoken opposition to the death penalty—which, after all, was clearly favored by public consensus. Nonetheless, the Notre Dame speech also reassured Democratic Party and media elites, for whom the pro-choice position had become a litmus test.  

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Cuomo’s position on abortion—viewed from any perspective—is that it changed so little over the years that followed, even as political and legal controversies shifted to focus on restrictions short of outright bans (parental-notification requirements, waiting periods, “partial-birth” prohibitions).  Similarly, for the rest of his life, Cuomo would essentially recycle his 1984 San Francisco keynote narrative, portraying conservative Republicans as poll-driven cynics and cruel social Darwinists. 

More than a quarter-century after Mario Cuomo left office, what lingers in the memories of New Yorkers old enough to remember him is the power of his personality, his undeniable charisma, his sharp wit, and the sense that he never lived up to his enormous potential. Then again, as NFL coaching great Bill Parcells once put it, “you are what your record says you are.” And despite serving in the office longer than all but four New York governors (George Clinton, Nelson Rockefeller, George Pataki, and Thomas Dewey), Cuomo’s record was distinctly underwhelming.

Mario Cuomo had a final dramatic curtain call in the public eye on January 1, 2015, when, after a long illness, he died at 82 on the day Andrew Cuomo began his second term as governor. Five years later, he is relevant mainly to the extent he has remained one of his son’s ongoing obsessions. The print edition of American Crisis lacks an index, but a search of the Kindle version turns up 69 uses of the phrase “my father”—far more references than Andrew Cuomo makes to any individual other than the villain of the piece, Donald Trump (192 mentions).

Andrew Cuomo has just turned 63—six months past the age at which Mario Cuomo’s political career ended. The current governor has made no secret of his desire to succeed where his father failed by winning a fourth term, and in a state that has become more heavily Democratic than ever, he seems likely to do so in 2022. But surface similarities aside, the differences between the two Cuomos run deeper than any ultimate comparison of political accomplishments or won-lost records.

Late in life, talking to a New York Times reporter he knew to be writing his obituary, Mario Cuomo summed up his preferred epitaph in two words: “He tried.” Andrew Cuomo, by contrast, wants you to believe that he has already succeeded.

Photos, left to right: Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press, Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Mario Tama/Getty Images

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