Advice From Alfonse: Shame Is Overrated

The renaissance of Alfonse D’Amato should inspire every politician who senses the approach of the last hurrah. Unlike his pal Ed Koch, who spent years honing the razor repartee and comic timing of a Vegas headliner, Mr. D’Amato never seemed likely to achieve postpolitical celebrity. His voice was too shrill, his style too suburban, his reputation too seedy to support a charming shtick. He had the chutzpah without the charisma.

But that desperate character made his final appearance on Election Night 1998; since then, Mr. D’Amato has completed a miraculous transformation into an urbane king of cool. The longtime denizen of Long Island discos is now seen regularly at trendy Manhattan restaurants and saloons.

Mr. D’Amato’s elevated social status became official on March 9 when he was inducted into the media elite by John F. Kennedy Jr. At a mildly awkward press conference, the editor-entrepreneur of George magazine revealed his latest brainstorm: a “political advice” column called “Ask Alfonse.”

Snicker if you must, but the logic of this literary innovation is almost too obvious. There simply is nobody in public life who has finessed his way out of as many potentially ruinous situations as Mr. D’Amato. For a reporter who observed this statesman in his prime, it’s easy to imagine the kind of query that will reach his desk:

“Dear Alfonse: This may sound familiar. As a favor to a friend, I made the mistake of seeking leniency for gangsters from the U.S. Attorney I appointed. I also appeared in court as a character witness for a Mafia-connected contributor. What can I do to restore my law-and-order image? Just call me Mobbed Up.”

Or, “Dear Alfonse: I am a Congressional leader and my little brother is a Capitol Hill lobbyist. Like you and your brother Armand, our interests have tended to coincide. How do I distance myself from him without abandoning family values? Respectfully, Tom DeLay. P.S.-I need to deal with this before the press catches on.”

Speaking of lobbyists, Mr. D’Amato has taken a day job, too: He and Wayne Berman, one of K Street’s most prominent power brokers, have formed a new partnership called Park Strategies, with offices in Washington and New York. Like the former Senator, Mr. Berman is intimately familiar with the nexus of money and policy. In addition to his corporate lobbying and consulting, he is a prodigious Republican fund-raiser-just the kind of guy Mr. D’Amato always liked.

Naturally, Mr. Berman’s clients have benefited from the lobbyist’s close personal and financial relationship with Mr. D’Amato. Three years ago, for example, when a subsidiary of American International Group ran into trouble with the Government of Zimbabwe over its insurance business there, Mr. D’Amato sponsored an appropriations amendment to slash by half U.S. assistance to the African nation. The State Department frowned upon the proposed cut because it would have jeopardized efforts against AIDS in a country where a quarter of the adults are H.I.V.-positive, but Mr. D’Amato persisted. The profits of a Berman client were at stake. Ultimately, the Zimbabweans gave in to the insurance giant, the controversial amendment was tabled and, as Salon magazine reported, Mr. D’Amato received some generous contributions from A.I.G.

Other important Berman clients include tobacco titan Philip Morris and the Fanjul brothers of Florida, whose sugar business has required protection from environmental regulators and Caribbean exporters. Reflecting their continuing political needs, the Fanjuls and Philip Morris are among the nation’s biggest donors to both parties. They helped Mr. Berman collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for the 1996 Dole-Kemp campaign, which Mr. D’Amato co-chaired.

Meanwhile, Messrs. Berman and D’Amato are taking a traditionally brazen approach to their trade. Recently they offered a position to the former treasurer of Connecticut, Paul J. Silvester, who also lost his job last November. But according to the Hartford Courant , Mr. Silvester is slightly nervous about joining Park Strategies. It seems that late last year, when he was still State Treasurer, he handed over $200 million in state pension-fund investments to Paine Webber Group, another Berman client.

Senate rules restrict Mr. D’Amato from actually lobbying his old colleagues for a year, so for now he is dubbed a “consultant.” Will that role conflict with his journalistic venture at George ? Even in the era of celebrity media, such quaint concerns arise from time to time. Henry Kissinger faced the same question several years ago when critics noticed that his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates, represents multinational corporations doing business in the countries that he discusses in his newspaper columns and on television.

The former Secretary of State reluctantly addressed that problem with a fine-print footnote to his essays. Perhaps Mr. Kennedy will append a similar disclosure to “Ask Alfonse”-if George ‘s new star is ready to reveal just whose interests he and his lobbyist partner are promoting.