Torch Gets Burned, But What About Al?

It is fair to assume that if Robert Torricelli ever faced an opponent who had been severely admonished by the Senate ethics committee, the airwaves would resound with commercials proclaiming his rival’s disgrace in the most indignant terms. The senior Senator from New Jersey proudly calls himself a “fighter,” which is one way of describing the harsh, mudslinging style that marks every Torricelli campaign. He has already attacked his Republican opponent, a wealthy executive whose company manages prescription-drug benefits, for gouging consumers-even though he has provided no evidence whatsoever to support that accusation.

By his own standards of invective, then, Mr. Torricelli deserves to be considered untrustworthy, corrupt, arrogant and deceitful. His excuses are ridiculous; his apologies are insufficient. His refusal to disclose his testimony before the ethics committee, and his insistence that the evidence against him remain sealed, arouse yet more suspicion. He has hardly begun to cleanse himself of the petty grifting that mocks his professed commitment to public service.

And yet it’s hard not to wonder where the angry Republicans who now demand his resignation were the last time a Senator like the New Jersey Democrat was in the dock. That was 11 years ago, when the legendary sleazebag Alfonse D’Amato emerged from a long, mysterious probe by the ethics committee with a written rebuke. An exhaustive search of the record reveals no calls from his Republican supporters for Mr. D’Amato to step down. Instead, the grabby, gabby New Yorker moved on to ever-higher positions of trust within his party. His peers selected him to run their national Senate campaign in 1996 and to chair the Whitewater investigation of the Clintons’ ethics.

Compared with Mr. D’Amato’s behavior at the time of his embarrassing ethics episode, Mr. Torricelli is a portrait of contrition. Back then, the New York Senator flashed a thumbs-up in reaction to his escape from real punishment. He staunchly resisted every suggestion that he release his own testimony before the committee. Weeks later, he mailed a newsletter to three million constituents-at taxpayer expense-proclaiming that “the Senate Ethics Committee has found that I did nothing wrong.”

That was untrue, of course, since the committee in fact found that he had “conducted the business of his office in an improper and inappropriate manner” to benefit his lobbyist brother, Armand D’Amato. Among the problems facing the Senate investigators was that nearly half of the witnesses called to testify about their dealings with Mr. D’Amato claimed their Fifth Amendment privilege instead.

No doubt there are and will be citizens who invoke the Fifth in the federal courthouse in Central Islip, Long Island, a $190 million monument to justice that, however ironically, may soon be emblazoned with Mr. D’Amato’s name. That’s right: The Alfonse M. D’Amato United States Courthouse. If that seems unbelievable, check with any member of the state Congressional delegation, nearly all of whom have endorsed the proposal. (The co-chairman of the Suffolk County Bar Association’s federal court committee has lodged a protest, denouncing the designation as “disgraceful” because of the former Senator’s ethical lapses-but nobody in authority is listening.)

What does this digression have to do with the Torricelli case? His Senatorial reprimand was somewhat more severe than that meted out to Mr. D’Amato, but otherwise their cases are remarkably parallel. If anything, Mr. D’Amato’s career of shilling for mobsters, greasing campaign contributors and taking favors from shady characters was more disturbing than the TV set, the earrings and the other expensive gifts glommed by Mr. Torricelli.

That was a long time ago, and ethical standards have improved everywhere-except possibly within the Senate itself. There, it’s considered permissible for a powerful lobbyist to seek million-dollar donations from companies such as WorldCom to build the Trent Lott Leadership Institute, a monument to the then majority leader who in turn performed favors for the generous donors. No one would even imagine opening an ethics investigation of that incident. Perhaps someday a distinguished lecturer at the Lott Institute will discuss the Torricelli probe, and how his miserable misconduct illustrates the perils of thinking small.

In the meantime, the low ethical standard prevailing in our bipartisan political culture is unlikely to force Mr. Torricelli to quit before November. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have done much to raise that standard-with only a few exceptions, such as Russ Feingold, Paul Wellstone and John McCain.

If Mr. Torricelli were a better man, he might have emulated Mr. McCain, who survived a similar ethical scrape to become an outstanding spokesman for public integrity. Unfortunately, that kind of transformation seems beyond the grasp of the Torch. More than the big-screen TV and the costly earrings, it may be his inability to understand the depth of his offense-as Mr. McCain eventually did-that finally provokes his betrayed constituents to snuff his flame.