Schumer, who as head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee required candidates to respond to negative attacks within 24 hours, immediately apologized for the remark (which, his spokesman stressed, was said under his breath to the person sitting next to him, fellow Senator Kirsten Gillibrand).
How to respond to an impolite remark that’s thrown into the public domain is a lesson Schumer learned when he was running for Senate in 1998 against Republican Alfonse D’Amato, who told a group of Jewish supporters in a closed-door meeting that Schumer was a “putzhead.”
D’Amato did not admit and apologize for what he said, providing Schumer a valuable opportunity.
From The Washington Post at the time:
The place was Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. D’Amato was smiling beatifically for TV cameras and holding the hand of Janet Franquet, a Long Island woman who survived breast cancer. Thanks to the senator’s relentless efforts, she received insurance coverage for breast reconstructive surgery.
“Senator, did you call Congressman Schumer a ‘putzhead’?” a reporter asked, as D’Amato’s smile sagged into a stare of sick disbelief.
Since that moment – through noisy denials, angry admissions, repeated refusals to apologize, a gleeful round of Schumer attack ads and two testy television debates marked by etymological disputes over the pejorative dimensions of Yiddish insults – polls have found that four out of five New Yorkers are aware that D’Amato did indeed tell a closed-door meeting of Jewish supporters last week that his opponent is a “putzhead.”
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