A Dim Bulb Takes On Senator Pothole

A collector of both political and New York trivia, I used to bore my wife by pointing out, whenever we walked home from Chinatown via Lafayette Street, “There are the offices of John Zaccaro,” and “There is the building where he rented space to the distributor of Whips and Chains and Smut .” When we walked up Mulberry Street, I would note the Ravenite Social Club (from discreetly across the street), and give a thumbnail sketch of Aniello Dellacroce, that other sometime Zaccaro tenant. No need to do it now: Senator Alfonse D’Amato will be leading the tours himself.

There is an element of chronological unfairness in all this, like Gary Hart being immolated for making the beast with two backs with Donna Rice. Now he would give a lugubrious press conference about it, with his wife at his side, and win the New York primary. Times have changed for crime as well as sex. What makes Geraldine Ferraro stand out now is that she did not deal with mobsters herself. In the Age of Innocence, no one had thought of holding coffees in the Ravenite Social Club. Mr. D’Amato, the guardian of Republican virtue, has tried to establish such a link by pointing out that Ms. Ferraro received a birthday party and a speaking engagement from one Arthur Coia, a labor leader who is allegedly mobbed-up. But what labor leaders aren’t crooks these days? Consider the teamsters. Any Democrat who wishes to address with the working man must fight his way through a phalanx of criminals, especially if they are reformers.

But the 1984 campaign deserves to be remembered for reasons other than mud. (Charles Schumer and Mark Green can start reading the column now-all the nasty low-road bits are over.) I followed that race closely, which was a test case for my conviction that American politics is interesting. If that season of Stage 4 sleep was interesting, then anything can be.

Geraldine Ferraro was a dim bulb. She picked a fight with Ronald Reagan on religion and politics, and did it so incompetently (“the President walks around calling himself a good Christian, and I don’t for one minute believe it because [his] policies are so terribly unfair”) that Mario Cuomo had to rescue the issue for his party. John Cardinal O’Connor, in my opinion, then worsted Mr. Cuomo, but that was diamond cutting diamond. Ms. Ferraro was solid paste. She actually lost a debate with George Bush-a feat equaled only by Michael Dukakis. What is the proof that she lost? The comments of her own cheerleaders afterward: Jimmy Carter called it a “toss-up,” Ms. Ferraro said she went “toe-to-toe” with the Vice President. If a politician says she went toe-to-toe with her opponent, it means she was stepped on.

When questions about her husband’s business dealings first arose, and he was stonewalling (wisely so, as it turned out), Ms. Ferraro gladdened feminists everywhere by saying, “You people married to Italian men, you know what it’s like.” She better know what it’s like-she’s running against another Italian man now.

Her debut shows that she is back in her old form. In her first days of campaigning, alluding to Senator Pothole, she gave it as her judgment that senators should aim for some higher distinction. Nice work, Ms. Ferraro. Now for 10 solid months, Senator Pothole gets to say, ” I got you a contract to build an overpass/ a green card for your illegal immigrant cousin/ a national park for the old-growth rain forests of western Long Island, and she says she’s too good for that? Whaddaya wanna vote for her for?” And he will have a point. Why should New York want a second do-nothing Senator, and one who isn’t an intellectual?

Will she cite as proof of her smarts that she co-hosted Crossfire with Pat Buchanan? A feeble test. Anyone who doesn’t need to be watered can look good in a host’s chair for eight-minute sprints between commercials. Senate campaigns, like Presidential campaigns, are triathlons. Ask Pat Buchanan, who has made one or two campaign stumbles.

As a Representative, Geraldine Ferraro was a down-the-line liberal, no disgrace to her office, a perfectly competent warm body. She made history because of her sex and her hair color. She was their Susan Molinari.

But consider her opponents and peers. Wilbur Ross had better have deep pockets. His wife, Betsy McCaughey Ross, won’t be able to raise much money from anybody else, now that Ms. Ferraro has repossessed the woman slot. Mark Green is famous chiefly for losing races for higher office, like a white Al Sharpton. If Charles Schumer doesn’t wear a large “Hi! I’m –” sticker over his jacket pocket when he campaigns upstate, everyone will mistake him for the local high school English teacher. Or he could bring his clip file of quotes from The New York Times . That will make waves in Seneca Falls.

Look finally at the junior Senator and the wreckage he has made of conservatism and the Conservative Party. There is not an issue, from abortion to Whitewater to Swiss gold to teachers’ unions, that he has taken up for any reason other than a poll, or the opportunity for high-profile group-stroking. When Bob Dole lost the 1996 election, the Senator lost interest in Arkansas banking practices. The man who ran on the Right to Life line became the patron of pro-choice Republicanism-the most formidable one since the haute WASPs, Gov. Christine Whitman of New Jersey and William Weld, the former Governor of Massachusetts, stumbled or dropped out. He is right about teacher tenure-would that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani follow his footsteps-but the minute the focus groups lose their focus, so will he. The Conservative Party, which used to become indignant over Republicans like Senator Kenneth Keating, is now in the pocket of this protean opportunist.

The 19th-century English observer James Bryce famously wrote that great men do not become President of the United States. Why do they not become Congressmen? The journalists Peter Brimelow and Edwin Rubenstein offered one reason: Adjusted for inflation, Congressmen’s pay is about what it was in 1909. You pay at Gilded Age rates, you get Gilded Age statesmen. Given a choice between Washington, D.C., and Redmond, Wash., which would a bright young wonk pick? Politics gets the leftovers, those motivated not by the cool high of money, but by the grosser aphrodisiacs of vanity and power.

If you would see the proof, look around you.

A Dim Bulb Takes On Senator Pothole