The Great Torricelli-Man of Mystery

“It is not new to American politics that the ability to raise funds gains entree,” said Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, having seated himself at the head of a table in his Washington, D.C., office. Variously–or not so variously–described as an animal, a machine, a Sherman tank in the form of a 5-foot 8-inch, 47-year-old guy from Bergen County, he actually came across, for the moment at least, more like a history professor. “It may be more accentuated in our generation, but money and politics and their inevitable link are older than this republic.”

In that case, Mr. Torricelli may best be described as the new proof of an old pudding. “He’s the Lyndon Johnson of the 90’s,” said a Democrat who knows him well. “He has used money like Johnson did, to get to the top very quickly.”

Indeed, the awesome fund-raising engine that carried the seven-term Representative narrowly to the Senate in 1996 brought him simultaneously to the Senate leadership: Immediately tapped to serve as vice chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Mr. Torricelli is said to have conditioned his acceptance of the job on his presence in all leadership meetings, which was granted. He has headed the committee since the beginning of this year. “I didn’t have to ask to be in leadership, because the caucus would want you in leadership if you were running the D.S.C.C., for its own reasons,” Mr. Torricelli demurred–without, of course, denying the basic point. Mr. Torricelli is famous for his take-no-prisoners personality, for his glitterati girlfriends, even, sometimes, for his views on issues. But he is powerful, first and foremost, for his flawless fluency in the language of raising campaign cash. An advocate of campaign finance reform, he has made the very best of life without it: In a single event last March, Mr. Torricelli claims to have raised a Democratic-record $2.5 million, and between January and March of this year, the D.S.C.C. had raised $5,562,140, rendering this the committee’s fattest quarter ever in a non-election year.

And, Gatsby-like, he hears money in the voice of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the notion of whose Senate candidacy Mr. Torricelli famously floated in January on NBC’s Meet the Press and whose odds of making the run he now placed, on a 1-to-10 scale, at “10.” Moreover, to hear him tell it, the First Lady’s odds of victory are an 11, at least.

But for the moment, he was on the subject of himself.

“I think I bring into the Democratic caucus several constituencies: the people of New Jersey, a strong relationship with organized labor, the financial community, Jewish and Italian-American communities, and the donor base of the Democratic party,” said the Senator.

No doubt, but few sources interviewed on the subject of Mr. Torricelli’s rapid rise attributed it to his rapport with the people of New Jersey. Nonetheless, the Senator’s eagerness to depict his fund-raising bona fides as only one of several factors in his ascent is understandable. In the first place, it is true that his fellow Democrats have learned that he has other selling points, such as an ability to engage the media. In the second place, the very skill that secures his place also sullies his image: Like a mortician or an exterminator, Mr. Torricelli excels at a job that is both necessary and reviled in his world. In that sense, money is not a bad metaphor for the man himself. Viewed through the glass brightly, Mr. Torricelli is the sort of figure in whom Democrats can see their future: He is not only financially flush, but also smart, suburban, moderate, oratorically gifted, unapologetically strategic; in short, an Al Gore who can make a speech.

Viewed through the glass darkly, he is the sort of figure in whom Democrats can see their recent, scandal-scarred past: a womanizing, money-minded, limelight-loving New Jersey Napoleon; in short, a Bill Clinton without the Southern candy coating. Given that the brightest and darkest depictions often come from the same people–exactly none of whom, friend or foe, wished to be quoted– it must be considered a matter of fact that Mr. Torricelli is truly Clintonesque in his complexity, and it’s a matter of taste as to whether that constitutes a compliment or an insult.

In any event, in a conversation with occasional breaks to phone-solicit jacket blurbs from William Safire and George Will for In Our Own Words , a forthcoming compilation of 20th-century American political speeches that he co-edited, Mr. Torricelli proved disappointing in his failure to demonstrate any of the scalding temper for which he is legendary.

He did not, for instance, threaten The Observer ‘s genitalia, as he had recently threatened that of his fellow New Jerseyan, Senator Frank Lautenberg, when the latter legislator interrupted Mr. Torricelli’s presentation at a Democratic retreat. He did, however, hint at the constant twilight between intelligence and arrogance, reflection and ambition, pragmatism and hubris in which his political career has existed from the beginning, and by which, one assumes, his political fortunes will be backlit until the end.

Interestingly, from a New York perspective, the arrogance was not expressed on the subject of himself, but on behalf of Hillary Clinton. To hear the Senator tell it, the First Lady would have no trouble wiping the floor with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, an assertion he based, with a somewhat surprising emphasis, upon “most importantly, the contrast in the personalities.” It is, of course, nothing new to hear a Democrat deride the Mayor as “a divisive figure who cannot work with other elected officials in either political party,” or to praise the First Lady as “an inclusive figure who is empathetic with what many people see as the principal problems of life in the state of New York.” But it is highly unusual to hear Mr. Giuliani described as less than remarkably bright. “A debate between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani would be a contrast between someone with a complete command of major Federal issues and a series of nasty diatribes from Rudy Giuliani,” said the Senator. “These are not intellectually matched people.” And what of the intellectually challenged Mayor’s ability to pull close to 40 percent in polls taken in New York City, even in the ugliest, most contentious weeks of his tenure? “Hillary Clinton will, I think, sweep some suburban areas and Long Island,” he predicted. All this is, of course, assuming that Rudy runs at all. “I think Giuliani will come to realize, despite his being a little full of himself.…” he said, “people are going to tell him this isn’t doable.”

Needless to say, it is in Mr. Torricelli’s interest that Mrs. Clinton take the plunge; he made no bones about the attractiveness to him, as the Senate’s fund-raising chief, of the First Lady’s status as a “self-funded candidate.” And it would hardly be cricket of him to accentuate her negatives, which may, indeed, turn out to be nothing compared with those of the Mayor. It is, in fact, inconceivable that someone of Mr. Torricelli’s political acumen fully believes what he told The Observer about Mrs. Clinton’s prospects. But, given the knocks that the First Lady and her closest confidants have, fairly or unfairly, taken in the past for being insular, self-impressed and averse to criticism, it would be interesting to know how far off the mark Team Hillary would believe such optimism to be.

It would also be interesting to know how many of the characteristics Mr. Torricelli ascribed to Mr. Giuliani would be ascribed by others to Mr. Torricelli. “I think my principal personal quality is a very fierce independence,” he said, with some easily cited justification: As a Congressman, he was quick and strong in his support of the Bush Administration on the Gulf War, and he infuriated the Central Intelligence Agency by taking up the cause of Jennifer Harbury, the widow of a Guatemalan guerrilla whose murder had been ordered by a colonel on the C.I.A. payroll. In the Senate, Mr. Torricelli has been sufficiently bullish on such measures as tax cuts and tax-free savings accounts for medical and educational expenses that New Jersey-based conservative Jude Wanniski once dubbed him a “Jack Kemp Democrat.” And, at the moment, he was agitated over Attorney General Janet Reno’s handling of Chinagate.

“This is the compromise of virtually our entire modern nuclear arsenal to a nation that is a potential adversary and is developing ballistic missiles that can reach North America,” he told The Observer . “It is a very real problem. In the pursuit of this case, there were some extraordinary legal misjudgments, and it appears those misjudgments reached all the way to the office of the Attorney General.”

‘Most Brutal Boss’

Most people, however, seem to think that Mr. Torricelli’s principal personal quality is a very fierce ferocity. “We are forced to survive in the daily hand-to-hand combat of American politics,” he acknowledged, and admirers and detractors alike describe a senator who survives with a guerrilla verve that would give Ho Chi Minh pause. “He is by far the most brutal boss on Capitol Hill to work for,” said a former underling. “His treatment of staffers is just a couple of notches below the Serbs’ treatment of the Albanians.” That is, one presumes, an exaggeration, but to speak to a healthy sampling of Torricelli alumni is to come away with the impression that ideal job applicants possess a partiality to being called a “fucking moron” and a preference for getting all their love at home. “I worked for him for years, and he never asked me a personal question,” said one former staff member. “Not even, ‘How are you?'”

By contrast, Mr. Torricelli has intensely personal relationships with the two advisers who seem to count: Jamie Fox, his longtime chief of staff, and his former wife, Susan, a powerhouse fund-raiser whom he divorced in 1989 on the delightfully, even if not consciously, politic grounds that she disliked living in his suburban district. Perhaps the strongest comment on the Senator’s current priorities is that both confidants now work for the D.S.C.C.

Of course, ferocity can be a very good quality when it comes to matters of public advocacy. But it can also be a corrosive one, when it comes to matters of personal pique. Over the years, Mr. Torricelli has evidenced a proclivity, truly remarkable in a figure of his ambition, for periodically cutting off the nose despite the face of his political image; seemingly to fight for the sake of fighting, no matter how much bad press it ensures. Last year, during the Senate hearings on the campaign finance scandal, Mr. Torricelli had the misfortune of linking his alarm at the anti-Asian bias he scented therein to the alienation he felt, as an Italian-American, at the Estes Kefauver hearings of the 50’s, which were held when he was a newborn. Instead of scolding himself for having misspoken, Mr. Torricelli scolded the media for having noticed.

“Thousands of Asian-Americans during those hearings were disenfranchised,” he told The Observer . “Some will never again contribute to political campaigns. That kind of racial stereotyping is very cruel and dangerous.” At least, in this instance, the Senator does make a larger point beyond the sense of being slighted. That is not always the case. In 1986, a small weekly newspaper called The Palisadian took the then-Congressman to task for a supposed flip-flop regarding Teterboro Airport. Rather than stop at a mere letter to the editor, Mr. Torricelli sued the publisher, thus incurring a raft of scathing freedom-of-the-press editorials from larger publications. In 1994, he nominated 10 candidates to West Point despite the fact that there were no slots available for his Congressional district. Unfortunately, the mother of one of the nominees called the military academy to find out what was up with her son’s application, only to be informed that her son effectively had no application.

Enter the Bergen Record . Instead of dousing the small fire that resulted, Mr. Torricelli poured gasoline on it, blaming his staff, the academy, and even the disappointed teenager, and thus causing the local press to print such sentences as “U. S. Rep. Robert Torricelli lashed out at a high school senior …”

In the 1980’s, as he was marching in a New Jersey parade, a few spectators heckled him as a liberal. Mr. Torricelli stopped and confronted his critics, who then got literal in their protest of his opposition to the flag-burning amendment: According to a then-staff member present on the scene, “One of them tried to set his tie on fire.”

But perhaps the best Torricelli-tantrum story is the one that has him cursing out border guards as he returned to Turkey from a 1993 visit to Kurdish refugee camps with his then-girlfriend Bianca Jagger, who was told that she needed a new visa. Mr. Torricelli was reportedly sufficiently profane for Turkish officials later to complain to the State Department about his use of “ethnic slurs.” Mr. Torricelli denied using profanity, later telling the Bergen Record, “If I didn’t, I should have,” and citing the incident as an example of Turkish discouragement of human rights activists working on behalf of Kurds.

The story is vintage on three counts. It turns a criticism of him into a criticism of somebody else. And it combines two of the Senator’s most buzzed-about features, his short fuse and his long list of lady friends.

“Whenever Bob is in a car, there are always at least four people,” said a former staff member. “Bob, the driver, the woman, and someone to dial the phone.” Much has been made of the fact that “the Torch” has been passed from Bianca Jagger to Patricia Duff and, it seems, one or two others along the way. But though it’s “the woman” who gets the attention in such a scenario, it’s “the phone” that bears watching. Recently, a former Bergen County Republican chairman admitted to helping funnel $11,000 in straw donations to Mr. Torricelli’s campaign to help David Chang, a major Democratic donor from New Jersey, meet his fund-raising goals for the Senator’s 1996 campaign. The Torricelli camp denied all knowledge of any wrongdoing, and indeed of any such goal of Mr. Chang’s. It has also denied previously published allegations that Mr. Torricelli voted against flood-control dams out of concern for a donor’s office park … that he exerted undue influence to help a major donor get a business set up in El Salvador … that his efforts to get an Iranian opposition group removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations had anything to do with that group’s generosity … and on and on.

Now, to be sure, the greater one’s power, the more numerous one’s enemies, and the more donors one courts, the more donors who can seem more influential than they in fact may be.

Still, in exactly the same way that the Senator’s set of strengths and weaknesses fits him snugly into this political time, the string of smoke-without-fire stories that spools through his career is the same stuff that spools through his environment. One can’t help but ask the same question of him that one asks of the system he has so thoroughly mastered: When rabid desire for money spends so much time flirting with the rabid desire for access, how can anyone believe that they never end up in a motel?

‘The Balance’

Growing up in comfortable Franklin Lakes, N.J., Mr. Torricelli was the sort of kid who painted the telephone red, white and blue. Although his father, Salvatore, did run for some local offices, it seems to have been his mother, Betty, a school librarian enamored of the New Deal, who pointed him toward politics. He took the most direct route imaginable. Having been president of his class at Rutgers University, Mr. Torricelli was still at Rutgers Law when he took a job as deputy legislative counsel to then-Gov. Brendan Byrne. A post as counsel to Walter Mondale brought him to Washington during the Carter Administration. “At the age of 27,” Mr. Torricelli once told The New York Times with his signature humility, “I had met most of the prominent world leaders.” In 1982, he defeated a three-term Republican incumbent to take his seat in Congress, where he quickly began to make the alliances that serve him to this day, particularly with Representative Richard Gephardt.

For such a one-track mind, Mr. Torricelli has a fondness for the word “balance.”

“You become a dreamer of no consequence or you become so focused on the fight that you lose the purpose,” he said. “The balance has to be maintained.” He was responding to a question, often posed about him, as to whether, when such times came, he would ever sacrifice his political self-interest to some greater good. Or, as it is sometimes put more broadly, what, in the end–what grand plan or project or philosophical aim–will all this fighting and fulminating, dealing and dialing, ultimately turn out to be for?

“Everybody sees it as being just about Bob,” said a Democrat who had spoken enthusiastically of the Senator’s strong suits. “He needs to put all that energy into something that is designed to do more than advance Bob Torricelli’s interest.”

Of course, to hear the Senator tell it, he is at his most pure when he is at his most political.

“Impeachment shook the foundations of the Republican majority in the Senate and now the fight over gun control has weakened it appreciably,” said Mr. Torricelli, who prides himself on traveling the country to personally recruit Senate candidates. “The American public has taken another look at the Republican majority in the Senate and I don’t think they like what they see.”

Then again, maybe what’s pure is his ambition after all.

“If there is a return to a Democratic Senate, this institution could be dominated for a generation by some of the people Bob Kerrey [the Senator of Nebraska] or I have now recruited,” he said. “It is an enormous responsibility that would allow me to affect this institution long after I’m gone.”