Lazio’s Cheap Stunt

Why do spontaneous gestures during political debates always seem so well-rehearsed? Because they are exactly that, scripted in the war room and practiced in a mock studio setting. In his debate with Hillary Clinton, Rick Lazio followed his instructions carefully, and responded as prompted, by self-righteously demanding that Mrs. Clinton sign some meaningless agreement about campaign finance. Most viewers understood that they were watching a cheap stunt, one unworthy of a first-class debater or, for that matter, a would-be Senator.

Hollow gimmicks may be useful when running for a Congressional seat on Long Island, but they are not appropriate in a campaign that will end with a new U.S. Senator occupying Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seat. No doubt Mr. Lazio’s handlers hoped to show that their candidate, whose desire has been called into question, is committed to running an energetic, aggressive campaign. Instead, the gesture only emphasized Mr. Lazio’s lack of gravitas. Can anybody imagine Mr. Moynihan or Robert F. Kennedy or Jacob Javits or Robert Wagner stooping to such tactics?

The sham challenge should have been brought to an abrupt end the moment Mr. Lazio stepped away from his podium and toward Mrs. Clinton. That’s when the gimmick was transformed into something more threatening. While Mrs. Clinton obviously was in no danger of becoming a latter-day Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts Senator who was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor more than 100 years ago, Mr. Lazio almost seemed to be physically challenging the First Lady-a breach of debate etiquette, to put it mildly. Tim Russert, the debate’s moderator, ought to have intervened and directed Mr. Lazio to return to his lectern. That’s the best way to deal with naughty schoolboys.

Mr. Lazio’s stunt was designed to call attention to the inside-baseball issue of soft money. Mr. Lazio says he will not accept soft, or unregulated, campaign contributions, and he sought to have Mrs. Clinton sign a pledge to renounce such contributions, too. Unfortunately, Mrs. Clinton responded by playing tit-for-tat, noting correctly but somewhat lamely that Mr. Lazio is the beneficiary of soft-money fund-raising conducted by right-wing activist groups around the country. She should have said: “Congressman, you’re behaving like a used-car salesman trying to unload a lemon on an unsuspecting customer. Is that how you expect to get things done for New York?”

Mr. Lazio can’t do anything about his boyish looks and voice. But he should have used the debate to show that he is a mature legislator ready for the big time. Instead, he relied on campus high jinks.

Watching Over the Overseers

For many years, it was a sad fact of life in New York that two-bit political hacks in poor neighborhoods regarded local schools as sources of patronage and power. All too often, district superintendents or school board members were caught handing out jobs or contracts not to educators, but to political cronies unfit for employment elsewhere. Chancellors have had to step in on several occasions to override particularly corrupt school boards, which help run elementary and intermediate schools in each of the city’s 32 school districts. In some cases, the local district superintendent-hired by the elected members of the school board-acted like a minor-league potentate, concerned mostly with the distribution of petty favors in hopes of moving to higher positions in the political world.

Thanks to a series of scandals, local school boards have been stripped of much of their hiring powers, and bad superintendents have been replaced. Now, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy wants to ensure that local district superintendents get some help in rebuilding public confidence in local schools. He has appointed five legitimate educators to serve as senior superintendents to watch over the district superintendents, who are about to be given new powers over hiring and contracting. The supervisors all have experience as district superintendents themselves, so they understand the problems and challenges from the ground up. If the system works as it should, the senior superintendents will serve as mentors for district superintendents, helping them on educational and financial issues as teachers and students are subjected to new, tougher standards.

And if a district superintendent isn’t up to the job, the chancellor presumably will have a first-hand account-and will act accordingly.

Jack Rowe

Having successfully presided over the merger of the Mount Sinai and New York University medical centers, Dr. Jack Rowe is leaving academia to become the chief executive officer of Aetna Insurance. He will leave behind a valuable legacy.

Both as the head of Mount Sinai and then as president of the combined Mount Sinai–N.Y.U. Health, Dr. Rowe demonstrated that he has the rare ability to blend the financial and management side of health care with an understanding of medicine and patient care. He also understood early on the changes that were taking place in medicine-during his time at Mount Sinai, he reached out beyond Manhattan to affiliate the hospital with clinics and private practices, thus enlarging the institution’s reach and broadening its patient population. And he showed his appreciation for the demands of consolidation during the Mount Sinai–N.Y.U. merger.

We wish Dr. Rowe the best on his new assignment, knowing that he has performed a great service to the institution he led, and to the field of medicine.