Since you ask, I’ve spent the last several weeks pursuing a
project that will manifest itself between two hard covers sometime in late
November. As this sort of work requires a certain intensity and focus, I’ve
been following Henry David Thoreau’s short guide to a happy life-I’ve been
skimping on newspapers, periodicals and other chronicles of the day’s events.
(“To a philosopher, all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and
read it are old women over their tea,” Thoreau wrote. Geez,
and this guy didn’t live long enough to watch cable television.) I’m not sure I
would recommend such an existence to paid subscribers of this publication, but
I confess I have emerged from the Walden of long-term research with a more
philosophical attitude toward what others consider vitally important. So rave
on, ye pundits of the airwaves and Op-Ed pages, ye masters and mistresses of
the ephemeral and transient-ye shall no longer inspire acid to creep into my
Actually, on second thought ….
In preparation for my return to this space, I did what all
self-respecting, buzz-seeking, postmodern Op-Ed-ers must do to remain hip and
relevant: I watched television. In the course of this reimmersion into what’s really important-at least to some of the great
tea-drinkers of the day-I happened upon a campaign advertisement for City
Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Mr. Hevesi has always struck me as quite capable, but
for reasons that are not quite clear, the tag line for the Comptroller’s
advertisements reads like a list of the subway lines that have been diverted
from the Manhattan Bridge.
Not particularly memorable, although it at least serves a public purpose in
reminding us that the Sixth Avenue
line just ain’t what it used to be. No doubt this is not the intended message
of Mr. Hevesi’s ad campaign.
The man behind this curious strategy is Hank Morris, a
famous political consultant. Under Mr. Morris’ direction, Mr. Hevesi has been
campaigning hard for many months and has spent millions of dollars, and yet he
hasn’t broken 20 percent in the polls. This is a startling development for a
man who has won election to citywide office twice.
Mr. Morris appeared before the city Campaign Finance Board
on Aug. 6 to explain why he was charging Mr. Hevesi no money for his vaunted
services as a campaign guru. He presented himself as just another humble
volunteer on behalf of his longtime friend, Mr. Hevesi. Mr. Morris regards
himself as a good deal more clever than the average
campaign guru, and he thought he had found a way around the rules that govern
the city’s admirable system of public campaign finance. Last May, Greg Sargent
reported in this newspaper that Mr. Morris was telling big-shot contributors
that he would work on the cheap in order that he might spend more money on
those television ads that seem like public-service announcements for the
Transit Authority. Since all four Democratic Mayoral candidates have agreed to
keep their spending capped at $5.3 million, it follows that the candidate who
can keep expenses low will have an advantage over his rivals.
Members of the Campaign Finance Board found this arrangement
somewhat irregular and rejected Mr. Morris’ claims to altruism. The rules of
the game demand that candidates pay fair-market value for the goods and
services they receive, lest anybody gain the financial advantage that public
campaign finance is supposed to alleviate. “The distinction [that Mr. Morris
tried to make] was not tenable,” Father Joseph O’Hare, the C.F.B.’s chairman,
told me. “Now I’m just a simple preacher man, but the other board members are
lawyers, and we’re all in agreement on this.”
At first, Mr. Morris stuck by his position-and, in doing so, he put at risk the public dollars that were supposed to
flow into the campaign’s treasury. Mr. Morris vowed to find the best litigation
firm in America to hound Father O’Hare into submission-a threat the Hevesi
campaign wisely withdrew, perhaps on the advice of those who argued that it’s
one thing to make indecipherable political advertisements, and it’s quite
another to tangle with an eloquent, white-haired Jesuit priest with a record of
civic activism few politicians can match.
This whole business could have been avoided if Mr. Morris
had taken advantage of the out that Father O’Hare and the C.F.B. generously
afforded him. If the C.F.B.’s smell test requires that a candidate pay
fair-market value for a consultant’s services, and if the candidate in question
(Mr. Hevesi) has performed poorly despite many advantages, could not the
consultant (Mr. Morris) have argued that he is, in fact, getting fair-market
value-i.e., $0-for his services?
These are the kinds of insights one gets when one has been
away from headlines and deadlines for some time.