POLITICS MAY 3, 2013
Late Monday night, the New York Times posted a story that has set off voluminous chatter in the New York political class. A year ago, HarperCollins announced it planned to bring out a biography of Gov. Andrew Cuomo by Fredric U. Dicker, the New York Post columnist ritualistically (and not inaccurately) referred to as the “dean of the Albany press corps.” But instead, according to the Times, the publisher is “backing away” from that book now and plans instead to publish a political memoir by Cuomo himself, to be released in 2014—“a full and frank look at his private and public life,” according to a HarperCollins announcement released mere hours after the Times story went live. The Times reported that HarperCollins was worried about a “conflict of interest” if it were to publish both books.
To certain observers—particularly those whom you reach by first dialing 518—this had all the drama and mystery of wondering who shot J.R. When the story dropped, Times political reporter Nick Confessore, who used to cover Albany, tweeted, “I can’t really do justice to the layers of exacted revenge being described in this story. It is Pure Art.” Liz Benjamin, a veteran statehouse reporter who hosts the daily New York politics show "Capital Tonight," told me that figuring out exactly what is going on is “the parlor game of the day.” A former New York political operative I contacted who had not seen the story began to read it and stopped himself to remark, “It’s so much fun. I can’t believe I missed out on this.”
They and others were reacting to what appears to be a decisive plot point in one of Albany’s most melodramatic sagas. Dicker had strongly supported Cuomo during his first two years in office. When Dicker’s book was announced, a Cuomo spokesperson said, “The governor and his staff plan on cooperating with Mr. Dicker’s book.” Around the beginning of this year, though, Dicker turned on Cuomo after Cuomo advocated strict gun control measures and seemed to oppose fracking: Dicker called the gun-control bill "divisive" and accused the governor of being "paralyzed with indecision" over the latter. Dicker is extremely well-sourced and tenacious as a reporter, but also unabashed about injecting his own opinions into his work as a columnist and radio host. The Times recently described “Dicker’s distinctive brand of journalism” as “old-school beat reporting, searing commentary, and a sizable dose of showmanship.”
The simplest reading of the story—call it the “revenge scenario”—is that Cuomo went to Bob Barnett, who is ritualistically (and not inaccurately) referred to as Washington’s top super-lawyer, and then to HarperCollins, where he big-footed Dicker’s book—which would be Dicker’s first, according to Amazon—by offering up one of his own, and that he did this out of some combination of fear and spite after Dicker had turned on him. According to multiple sources, members of Cuomo’s staff had already given Dicker interviews for the book.
However, a closer look as well as conversations with nearly a dozen plugged-in observers (including operatives who work or worked in New York politics and reporters on the Albany beat, several of whom declined to speak for the record for fear of alienating Cuomo and Dicker) reveal that the story may not be so simple. There is a locked safe containing Cuomo’s true motives for deciding to write a book, this book, for HarperCollins—and, potentially, Dicker’s decision not to—and few people seem to have the key.
“It’s a divorce, and it’s been acrimonious,” said Professor Douglas Muzzio of Baruch College, who hosts a television show on New York City politics and follows state politics closely as well. “Dicker, who clearly was in a sense Andrew Cuomo’s pipeline in the media out there, since the fracking and the gun control has gone after the governor.” Muzzio added, “The most influential journalist in Albany against Andrew Cuomo, the most successful governor in a long time. It’s Roger Clemens versus Roger Clemens, and both of these guys are on political steroids.”
Stories about this governor are not like stories about most governors, because many believe that Cuomo is strongly considering a 2016 presidential run. Releasing a book two years before a national campaign is, of course, practically a requirement. Conspicuously, Dicker’s most recent column, published Monday morning, reported that Cuomo has “quietly told associates” that he wouldn’t run if Hillary Rodham Clinton does. Maybe that column broke the enraged Cuomo’s back?
When people talk about these events, they don’t skimp on the fact that HarperCollins and the Post, where Dicker is state editor and where his column runs, are both owned by News Corp. (Rupert Murdoch is known to be a fan of Dicker’s.) An editor at a different publishing house speculated, “In this case, I am certain that some high-up editor got the submission and it went right to the top, very quickly.” The editor also noted that, unusually, the acquiring editor’s name hasn’t been released.
But there is also evidence that more is here than meets the eye. Dicker, for one, denies that the simple explanation is the correct one. Addressing the dueling book deals on his radio show Tuesday, Dicker said, “In fact, as I’m sure the governor would concede if he talks about it, it had nothing at all to do with the things that have transpired”—a reference to their break. “Completely separate and not even relevant in a discussion of it,” Dicker added. “At some point, maybe I’ll say more, but right now that’s all I can say.”
Reached by phone this week, Dicker declined to comment further. Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment.
One alternate theory has it that Dicker no longer wished to write the book, or did not wish to write the same sort of positive take on Cuomo that he intended to when he started it. “There’d been rumors for awhile flying around the capital that [Dicker] was having difficulty with the book—I dunno what that means, [whether] sourcing [or] writing,” Benjamin, the "Capital Tonight" reporter, told me.
And a minority in Albany wonder whether this is all smoke and mirrors. This line of thinking posits that Dicker’s book would have more credibility if Dicker was not seen as the supportive figure that he was during the outset of Cuomo’s term (Dicker and Cuomo’s relationship actually goes back nearly three decades, when Dicker was starting in Albany and Cuomo’s father, Mario, was governor). In this reading, a generally supportive book written by a more independent author could be good for both Dicker and Cuomo—who are reputed still to be in contact even after their rift a few months ago (since which time Cuomo has not appeared on Dicker’s radio show, instead going on a rival broadcast).
The explanation for Cuomo’s behavior also could be innocent. Cuomo certainly has reasons for wanting to write a book that have nothing to do with Dicker, and it is conceivable he had independent reasons to do it for HarperCollins—it may even have just offered him the largest advance. And while it is always tempting to question the Murdoch Effect whenever the conservative media baron is involved, it is not obvious what his political incentive for quashing Dicker’s book in favor of Cuomo’s is.
These events resonate with Albany-watchers because at least one aspect of it is familiar. Dicker, as everybody I spoke to mentioned, is a chronic sufferer of Honeymoon Syndrome. He always welcomes new governors (both Cuomos, George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer) with open arms. For example, Dicker called David Paterson “an old-style, back-slapping politician whose common-man touch may make him the greatest governor since the best of the 20th century, Al Smith,” at the beginning of Paterson’s brief, undistinguished tenure. Then, historically, Dicker becomes a one-man opposition when the governors buck his line. “He starts out positive with a lot of people, and it’s just a matter of time before he turns,” said Benjamin. “And that’s his M.O.” Cuomo must surely have been aware of this pattern. And he must have been similarly aware of Dicker’s positions on gun rights (Dicker's a supporter—a gun collector, in fact) and fracking (he is for it), what with the weekly newspaper column and daily radio show. So why is this happening only now?
Meanwhile, it is not clear what the fate of Dicker’s book is. HarperCollins—which is publishing Cuomo’s book on the same imprint, Harper, that Dicker’s was to be on—would say only that it still has a contract with Dicker. According to the editor at a different house, it is likely that Dicker would be able to shop his book elsewhere if HarperCollins voided his contract. But, the editor added, “Harper is very brutal on the contract-voiding side—for example, while most publishers tend to be pretty lenient about delivery dates, especially when an editor has regular contact with the author, Harper will often straight up cancel a contract and demand the advance back if a book is even a day late.” Further complicating matters is that Vanity Fair journalist Michael Shnayerson is working on another Cuomo biography, for Grand Central Publishing.
The thing that struck me about the revenge scenario is how petty that would be of Cuomo. It beggars belief that a politician so close to the national stage—and one whose tidy three-act narrative depicts an early rise (he was a Cabinet secretary before he was 30), mid-career setback (he lost the 2002 gubernatorial primary and went through a divorce), and then maturity followed by triumph—would actually do this. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be the first time a prominent, successful politician has done something impulsive and incredibly petty.
Were it to emerge that the revenge scenario is accurate, it still wouldn’t be big enough to, say, torpedo a national campaign. “This Cuomo/Dicker thing is just another example of Albany being a mini-Washington when it comes to pettiness,” said Tom Precious, who covers Albany for The Buffalo News. “I’ve never been able to determine why Fred’s on-again, off-again opinions of governor after governor has been such a fixation for lawmakers, lobbyists, and some in the press corps. In the end, who cares beyond two floors in the Capitol?”
However, if there is one undeniable fact about Fred Dicker, it is that you don't want to make him angry. Dicker, whom longtime New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said is “the best-sourced reporter in Albany,” has a reputation for being able to make news. In 2007, for example, he got the ball rolling on the so-called Troopergate scandal.1 This proved a political nightmare for then-Gov. Spitzer (the attorney general at the time, who investigated Spitzer, was Andrew Cuomo).
With Dicker’s reputation in mind, Muzzio, of Baruch College, echoed Precious’s sentiment with a crucial caveat: “No matter what Fred Dicker’s actual power or the power he imagines himself to have, unless he can dig up real skeletons, his power is limited,” he told me. He added, “I don't think this reverberates nationally, unless of course [Dicker] comes up with something that is devastating. He has done that before. But the question is: Does Andrew Cuomo have [a skeleton]? He’s been scrutinized in the past, and has successfully passed all that scrutiny. There may be nothing there. And if there’s nothing there, Dicker’s influence is geographically and media-limited.”