Torch in Winter

There’s a simple recipe if you want to cook up a Bob Torricelli story.

Make sure that the first time you write his name it’s followed by a comma and the words who was the subject of a lengthy federal ethics probe that ended his political career in 2002.  Sprinkle in references to David Chang- the businessman who told the feds he’d plied then-Senator Torricelli with antiques, top of the line threads, and tens of thousands of dollars in cash. For some meat, quote extensively from Torricelli’s self-pitying laments, the ones where he blames his woes on some conspiracy involving John Ashcroft or Jim McGreevey or anyone else who’s jealous of him.  You might even remind readers about the day he dropped out his U.S. Senate re-election race, when he asked, dead seriously, “When did we become such an unforgiving people?” Coat it all with some of his preposterous boats- it doesn’t take much prodding to produce them- and if you need some extra seasoning, work in a reference or two to the time he threatened to excise a portion of seventy-something-year-old Frank Lautenberg’s reproductive anatomy.

The Typical Torch Story is a dish that even a sixth grade home economics student could whip up.  The main ingredient is just that cooperative. No matter what the context-and the story you are reading was originally conceived as chronicle of Torricelli’s post-Senate life and an exploration of what the future might hold for a 53-year-old political animal who can never run for office again- it never seems like a stretch to cast The Torch as the villain.

“Because he’s Bob Torricelli,” said Tom O’Neil, a Democratic lobbyist who first worked with Torricelli more than 30 years ago, “people always suspect he’s up to more that he’s up to.”

But you can’t be all of those bad things and survive as long as Torch did in the unforgiving worlds of New Jersey and Washington politics.  Make that thrived.  There was a time, just after the 2000 election, when he was the Democrats’ brightest star in D.C., the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who’d shattered fund-raising records and given his party a share of Senate control, despite George W. Bush’s triumph.  He was all over the Sunday talk shows (man, was he good at those) and it wasn’t entirely laughable to suggest Torch himself might someday land in the White House.         

He’s smart and savvy, and just as much, quick, traits that accounted for his rise in politics, even as his awareness of them hastened his demise.  He took too many chances, his friends and enemies will tell you, because he thought he could game his way out of anything.  What Torch really had- has- is testicular fortitude. 

About a decade ago, a group of Tom’s River parents were convinced their drinking water was so contaminated that kids were dying from it.  A woman named Linda Gillick, whose own son had been diagnosed with cancer, launched a group called the Citizen’s Action Committee on the Childhood Cancer Cluster.  The evidence was strong but mostly anecdotal.  What the group needed was a scientific study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish the link.  But every year thousands of groups like Gillick’s petition HHS.  A few dozen of them- maybe- get help.

Gillick is sure it was no accident when HHS agreed to study Tom’s River in 1997.  After all, she had Torricelli on her side, hounding, cajoling, pulling strings, probably threatening; whatever it took to break through the D.C. bureaucracy.

It helped that he did his homework.  Other politicians held press conferences and put out press releases demanding the study.  But Torricelli sat with Gillick one-one-one- regularly.  It wasn’t a courtesy thing; he engaged her, asking question after question, seeking to master every detail of the case.  Those meetings would have made terrific photo-ops, but Torch never told the media about them. 

“When he quit the Senate, a lot of reporters called me, because they knew he had worked with us,” Gillick said recently.  “And all they wanted was for me to say bad things about him.  But I wouldn’t do it.” She paused and added: “They never printed anything I said.”

The story you were supposed to read in this space reflected my conversations with Torricelli and about two dozen people who have known and worked with him.  When I sat down to write it, I was under no illusions about having stumbled on some born-again Torch.  It was more a question of perspective; maybe we’d just been looking at him from the wrong angle.  In that spirit, I put my story together, the gist of which I recently relayed to a reporter who used to cover Torricelli.

“It says that he’s brilliant and has one of the quickest minds in politics,” I said.  “It also says that he can be a real prick who makes enemies easily, but that when he was in office, his personality probably benefited the state in a lot of ways.  And it concludes with the suggestion that he could re-emerge and be a perfect fit as a campaign strategist or a political analyst on television.”  The reporter thought for a second. “I wouldn’t argue with any of that.”

You won’t get to read that story.  A few weeks after I finished it, Torricelli did some writing of his own, an eight paragraph e-mail to me in which, in no particular order, he questioned my objectivity, accused me of interviewing him under false pretenses, branded me “fundamentally dishonest,” and blasted the story as a hit piece.  He hadn’t read one word of it.  

“You have clearly done exactly as I predicted,” Torch wrote.  “You simply sought out a few predictable adversaries to collect a few negative quotes and avoid even speaking with anyone with any knowledge.”

He also carbon-copied the editor of this magazine and demanded that a disclaimer appear with the story explaining that the interview “was granted through deception.”

Torch can be so irrational that I should have seen it coming.  That’s what some of his allies-turned-enemies told me, at least. “That would have been the best press he’s gotten in five years,” one of them said after hearing what I had originally written.  “It’s so typical.”

I did have a history with Torricelli, stemming from a February 2004 piece I wrote for the Web site PoliticsNJ.com.  It detailed the fund-raising role he had taken with John Kerry’s presidential campaign.  Torch had sought press coverage and my story included this detail.  He honestly didn’t see himself as damaged goods.

But, of course, he was.  The story worked its way into the national press, and when Howard Dean, scrambling to keep his flickering hopes alive, began attacking Kerry for his ties to a tarnished ex-senator from New Jersey, Kerry’s campaign was forced to distance itself publicly from Torricelli.  Torricelli was furious with me.

So when I conceived of this story- Torch in Winter was the title I patted myself on the back for coming up with- I knew he’d be reluctant to participate.    

He had been in the news a few times since returning from the Senate.  In addition to the Kerry stuff, there was his relationship with Governor James E. McGreevey.  Once foes, Torch and McGreevey forged a political alliance in early 2003 that collapsed by the fall.  The saga played out on the pages of the state’s major newspapers.

There was also The Trial of the Century, which resulted from Torricelli’s staunch refusal to admit to local cops that he had been behind the wheel when his Jeep Cherokee backed into a car in a Lambertville grocery store parking lot in August 2003.  No one believed his explanation- that his ex-wife, who’d been sitting in the passenger seat of the Cherokee, had climbed over the console while he was inside the store and was at the wheel when the accident occurred.  So Torch forced a trial in municipal court, ultimately failing to beat the rap for leaving the scene of a $700 fender bender.  It was an absurd spectacle, but the press- and the public- couldn’t get enough of it.  He was still a riveting figure.

I left a lengthy message on Torricelli’s voice-mail in early December and didn’t hear back.  So I ran my story idea past John Graham, an insurance executive and Torch friend, who agreed to act as a middle-man.  A few days later, Torricelli’s assistant called me and said the former senator would sit down with me- at nine o’clock in the morning that Saturday at his Hunterdon County farmhouse.  Torch knew the trip would take me two hours, and part of me suspected the early interview time was some form of revenge.  But he was the subject; he got to set the rules.

It was damp and foggy that Saturday morning as I inched my car along a dirt path off Kingwood Stockton Road in the Rosemont section of Delaware Township, up and over a hill, past a Christmas tree farm, and finally into the small parking area outside the three century-old house occupied by the owner of Willow Pond Farm. 

Torricelli answered the door wearing a pair of jeans, an untucked dark plaid lumberjack shirt and a pair of socks.  I’d spent the ride down alternately fighting off sleep and wondering whether he’d immediately confront me about the Kerry story.  But from the minute I walked through the wooden door, the charm offensive was on.  He shook my hand, smiled and pointed out a few of the house’s features.  We stepped into the modern kitchen and bantered about the governor’s race while he fished through the spacious fridge. 

Shelf after shelf in the sitting room where we set up shop was filled with historical and biographical tomes.  The spines looked cracked, at least from my vantage point ten feet away.

We sipped cappuccinos provided by his housekeeper (or maybe they were espressos; I’m not a coffee drinker but I didn’t want to turn down the cup I was offered; in any event, it was tasty) and we talked.  For two hours. 

We covered every topic I’d crammed into a full page of my notebook: the ethics investigation; his farm; his business life (he runs a consulting firm that helps corporate clients deal with government, dabbles in real estate, and collects $375 an hour overseeing a court-ordered toxic waste clean-up in Jersey City- the largest such project in history);  his role in a failed partnership (between Jon Corzine and Charles Kushner) that sought to buy the Nets and keep them in New Jersey; whether the Nets deal had killed his relationship with McGreevey; how he would have been different as governor than McGreevey (they had both coveted their party’s 2001 nomination); the war in Iraq; what he thinks of Lautenberg.  That’s only a partial list.

He swore up and down that he was happy with his new life, that he’d found peace and didn’t yearn for the game to which he’d given the first 50 years of his existence.  He did say that people often ask him to run for office again (and I resisted the urge to ask if these people were Republicans) but insisted his main interest now was making money.   He allowed that he saw himself as an ambassador in a future Democratic presidential administration. In true Torch fashion, though, he wasn’t looking for some tropical posting.

“Maybe to some place like Iraq,” he said.

There were signs of the notorious mea culpa-averse Torch, the guy who’s sure he could sell ice to Eskimos. With a straight face, he maintained that he’d been leading the ’02 race against Republican Douglas Forrester when he dropped out, an altogether ridiculous notion.  Quit a month before Election Day even though you’re winning and the race has become a referendum on your integrity?  Even Democrats say Torricelli was down 20 points when he pulled the plug.

He insisted on going off the record and then provided me with his own sensational conjecture why his relationship with McGreevey soured, a tale that cast Torch as the selfless hero.  I have not heard anyone else in New Jersey politics provide a remotely similar explanation.

And he was adamant that there had been one true victim in the ethics investigation- Bob Torricelli.  His only mistake, he said, was being naïve about how ruthless federal investigators can be.

“I do have this tremendous sense of unfairness,” he practically whimpered.

I don’t think I caught him off-guard with anything.  His answers were clear and focused, with most of his monologues wrapping around to the same basic points.  But even his contrived responses evidenced a quick and active mind, and when the topics veered to straight policy- like the Iraq war- he was downright insightful.  It was a civil encounter- cordial, actually.  He even introduced me to his dog, a mammoth two-year-old Saint Bernard named Daisy, and showed off some of the rare historical artifacts he collects.  Before I left, he and his ex-wife, who during the interview had sat quietly in the kitchen reading the New York Times, stood me in a corner, trying to determine if their Christmas tree would fit.

“Do you want to string some lights on me?” I asked.  We got along just fine, or so it seemed.

I drove home unsure exactly how my story would read.  What I did know was that I was in no mood to write the Typical Torch Story story.

It was late in the afternoon a few days before Christmas and I was in the NBA store in midtown Manhattan sifting through a pile of overpriced sweatshirts for a Secret Santa gift for my cousin.  I didn’t know what size to get, so I flipped open my cell phone and dialed my mother, who knows these things.  Our conversation dragged on and just as I was looking for a way to end it, I heard the call waiting beep.  I didn’t recognize the number, but happily took the call.

“Steve, this is Bob Torricelli.”

“Oh, Senator…yeah…uh…How are you?”  I tried to sound professional and hoped he couldn’t hear the 12-year-olds behind me arguing about retro jerseys.

“It sounds like I might have caught you at a bad time,” Torricelli said.

Damn kids.

I called him back an hour later from the more sterile confines of a midtown hotel lobby.  I had sent my story to my editor that afternoon; I only hoped Torch wasn’t going to hit me with some earth-shattering revelation that would necessitate a rewrite.  

When we connected, it took me a few minutes to discern his purpose.  He was worried that I’d talked to two people: Jamie Fox and John Lynch.

Fox had been McGreevey’s chief of staff, supposedly the one who had frozen Torricelli out of the administration in October 2003.  It was a juicy plotline because Fox had been Torch’s confidante for nearly two decades, even serving as the point-man in Torricelli’s backroom bid to wrest the 2001 Democratic gubernatorial nomination for McGreevey.  It was well-known that Torricelli and Fox had become enemies. 

“I think I told you during the interview that I haven’t spoken to Jamie for years and that I gave him a negative job reference,” Torricelli said.  A somewhat polarizing figure, Fox had just secured a $236,000-a-year golden parachute from the McGreevey administration to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  Torricelli told me that he knew for a fact I had conversed with Fox.

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I’d never told Torch whether I’d been in touch Fox, and even if I had been, wasn’t it only logical that I’d talk to his former right-hand man?  I assured him that I was aware of his falling-out with Fox long before I’d embarked on the story, but told him I didn’t think I should be telling him who I had and hadn’t communicated with.

“I would never ask a reporter to share that information with me,” he responded.  “But I just want to make it clear that Jamie Fox and I have not had any relationship for quite some time now.”

Lynch, a former state senator and a major force in state Democratic politics, was a somewhat different matter.  I had talked to him the day before- but only to get his response to a charge Torch had leveled during the interview.  Lynch rarely takes calls from the press, but when I left a message at his office explaining why I wanted to talk to him he promptly left two voice-mails on my cell phone.  I explained to Torch exactly why I had called Lynch and exactly what he had told me. 

That was about it.  No shouting, no accusations; I don’t even think we even talked over each other.  There wasn’t much I could say, I figured, besides that the story was written and that I thought it was fair.  Not that he would have expected to hear anything else. 

A few days into the New Year, Richard McGrath, Torricelli’s former communications director, phoned me.  An amiable guy, McGrath said Torricelli had made a few calls and was a little worried that I’d only talked to his enemies.  I emphatically told McGrath this was not the case and even walked him through the basics of what I had written. 

“I’ll be honest,” I said.  “There’s some rough stuff, but I mean it when I say it’s not a one-sided Torch-as-the-devil story.”

I heard from McGrath again a few days later, this time by e-mail.  It was a heads-up- his old boss wanted to e-mail me something.

“I’m not sure what Torch is up to,” was the only explanation McGrath provided, but still I was nonplussed.  I write about politics every day, and since I seemingly had gotten along with Torch during the interview, I wondered if he might be sending me something on an unrelated matter- maybe a tidbit about the governor’s race or something.

A few hours later his missive popped up in my inbox, an occurrence that immediately rendered necessary the dreaded rewrite. His logic went something like this: I had talked with Lynch and he was convinced I’d talked to Fox, and my research hadn’t included conversations with two individuals he had described as friends of his during the interview; therefore, I was out to get him.  But his investigative work was shoddy; he had no idea I’d talked to Linda Gillick, for instance.

After the third or so reading, I laughed.  The e-mail was positively delusional, and it validated so many of the negative things that are said about him.  Why did he do this to himself?  I zipped through several possible responses, and even toyed with correcting his grammatical errors and sending it back.  Eventually I settled on a few lines that simply informed him I wasn’t looking for a fight and that I’d be happy to discuss the story with him- after he’d read it. 

He never wrote back.  A week or so later Graham told me Torch might give me a call, not to apologize but just to talk things over, but he never did.

“Here’s some advice for life,” Graham said.  “Whenever you write a letter and you’re really angry and emotional and worked up about it, put it aside and wait until the next morning.  Then if you still feel that way, send it.  The problem here is that Torricelli didn’t sleep on it.”