A Political Grappler Has His Day Sen. Al D'amato Is On Top Now - Not That He Has Everyone's Vote Of Confidence.

Posted: August 20, 1995

WASHINGTON — Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's autobiography begins with a tale that sounds straight out of Revenge of the Nerds.

The setting is Newark, N.J. The characters: 7-year-old Tippy, a dweeby kid in glasses afflicted with crossed eyes, and Johnny, the neighborhood bully.

Johnny picks on Tippy, taunting him, calling him "Four-eyes," even threatening to kill him.

Until one day Tippy grabs a stick and whacks the bully behind the knees.

"I was amazed at how easily he went down," D'Amato wrote.

Now, if this were any standard object lesson, it would end with Tippy extending his hand to his fallen enemy, and the two of them striding off into the sunset to play stickball.

But this is the story of Alfonse D'Amato, the man who's spent his 15 years in the Senate slinging mud, making fun, singing his satirical version of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" on the Senate floor during budget debates (". . . and in that bill, he had some pork . . ."), and basically being a walking, talking exemplar of what more delicate types might call "feisty."

He writes: "Now that I had him down, I liked it. I screamed, 'What do you say now? What do you say now?' as I continued to poke him. 'Are you going to leave me alone? Do you promise, do you promise?' The kids gathered around. They thought I was crazy, and I probably was."

Fairy tales end when the frog turns into a prince.

But this is Al D'Amato's book, Power, Pasta and Politics: The World According to Sen. Al D'Amato. It ends with the frog turning into a GOP senator

from New York. And if you believe that we never really outgrow the playground, then Alfonse Marcello D'Amato is still fighting the battle that began fiftysomething years ago - sneaking up behind all those who have called him names and hitting them and hitting them and hitting them some more with an increasingly large and powerful stick. No hand extended. No quarter given. This is Senator Al, baby, who's slipped his head out of the noose more times than his enemies can count to emerge triumphant: a kingmaker in his home state, a power player in the country's capital, a man to be respected and some say even feared - the nerd ascendant, having his revenge at last.


"You're all crazy!"

This is the senator's assessment of his young staffers' plea that he

purchase an office dog. "Dole has one!" offers a secretary in a gauzy black miniskirt.

D'Amato, who has just breezed into his office's reception area from a Senate vote, merely rolls his eyes and hustles through the door, trailed by two reporters from Time magazine and a clutch of assistants carrying documents and garment bags and myriad faxes and manila folders and overnighted letters that need the senator's attention immediately.

It's been like this all month, the secretary confides - ever since her boss released his 300-plus-page memoirs.

These have been good times for D'Amato. Fifteen years after he whisked his Senate seat out from under Jacob Javits, and four years after he was cleared of influence-peddling charges by the Senate Ethics Committee, the Republicans are in charge of Congress, and the junior senator from New York has hit his stride.

In 1994, he helped oust New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo and replace him with George Pataki. He saw his brother Armand's conviction for mail fraud overturned by the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He fell in love with Claudia Cohen, ex-wife of a millionaire cosmetics magnate. And he received a $225,000 advance from Hyperion, the Disney publishing company, for his book. In typical D'Amato fashion, he revealed that unlike some colleagues in Congress, he wouldn't be passing the bucks to a favorite charity. "I've still got college loans to pay," said the father of four.

This summer, it seems you can't escape D'Amato. There he is, leading the Senate's probe into Bill and Hillary Clinton's Whitewater dealings, glasses at half-staff on his nose as he pokes and pries at past and present Beltway insiders. There he is, on Charlie Rose. On Late Night With Conan O'Brien. On Larry King Live and on Dateline NBC. In New York City, signing books alongside his pal Howard Stern.

Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, says D'Amato's blossomed. Commentators marvel at his new composure; the whiff of gravitas surrounding the brawling, snarling kid with the plangent Long Island accent thick as rush- hour traffic, and a vocabulary laced with "babes" and "big guy" and garnished with exclamation points and imperatives, pounded fists and pointing fingers.

All of this is giving D'Amato's critics fits.

For the people who've followed all the convoluted allegations against the senator, from accusations of paying bribes to allegations of asking state prosecutors to let mobsters out of jail, the New D'Amato is a fiction, and the biography is soft-serve dross dressed up as hard facts, more notable for what it omits than what it covers.

"I know I'm in the position of the kid telling the adoring throng that the emperor has no clothes," says Mark Green, New York City's public advocate and D'Amato's opponent in the 1986 Senate race. "But he is the most unethical senator sitting in the body today - and the evidence is voluminous."

"He's a sleaze," pronounces Newsday columnist Sidney Schanberg, a longtime D'Amato foe. "He's an embarrassment. But he does have real power."

It's Friday morning, approaching noon. The Senate is in recess and the senator is in the front seat of a Lincoln Town Car careering toward National Airport and a shuttle plane that will whisk him home to New York. The interview was slated for 11 a.m., but there was a Senate vote that ran late, and then the guys from Time, and now the only time the senator can spare is his 15-minute drive to the airport, during which he answers questions - and his car phone - and barks at his driver to hurry up, get in the fast lane, slide through that red light.

The phone on the dashboard chirps. He answers it, accepting birthday wishes

from the caller. OK! Where were we? The book.

"I wanted to say it my way," he continues. "The heartaches and the triumphs."

His conversation ranges, free-form.

The 1992 Republican convention? D'Amato grimaces. "Democrats don't have family values? When my parents were Democrats, didn't they have family values? We should encourage freedom - economic freedom, the freedom to compete, to believe, but don't pit people against each other."

His 1995 imitation of Judge Lance Ito on Don Imus' radio show, complete with derisive Japanese accent? "A stupid thing," he says. "A ridiculous, horrible thing. I should have known better."

Gays in the military? "It shouldn't have been Clinton's first issue out, but gays have been in the military for years. It's the same argument as segregation. You should judge people on their conduct, not their sexual orientation, or the color of their skin."

But why write the book? Was it, as he joked in another interview, payback?

"It's not payback. It's setting the record straight. It was an opportunity to tell my story in my words. Now, do I cite people who've attempted to impose double standards? Yes. But it wasn't just to take on people. . . . It was my pranks. My chocolate chip cookies." (In college, D'Amato was sick of having his care packages pilfered, so he had friends whip up a batch of Ex-Lax-laced treats, and fed them to his buddies on the track team. It's one of his favorite anecdotes, and it shows up in just about every D'Amato profile from the '80s on.)

But why include the comment he made to former New York City comptroller Liz Holtzman - "Liz, you are as ugly on the inside as you are on the outside" - after she taunted him about his convicted brother?

"Look," he begins, "if a person comes and is hurtful and mean and nasty. . . . .Yes! I said it! I did it! She's specialized in character assassination over the years. . . ." He glares into the back seat. "What would you have done? If someone had insulted your family? Tell the truth!"

The car swerves into the airport. D'Amato leaps onto the sidewalk, trailed by his assistant. He extends his right index finger - the only digit that's not crammed with luggage or papers or birthday gifts - and attempts an approximation of a handshake. "Thank you," he says sincerely. Then he's gone.

There are some things missing from D'Amato's book.

The 1970s, for one thing. His family, for another.

D'Amato recounts his formative years, growing up in Island Park, N.Y. He calls it a small, homey community populated by working- and middle-class

families. He doesn't point out - although his critics are quick to - that in May a federal court ruled that the town had violated federal civil rights laws

because during D'Amato's tenure as town supervisor, and during his first Senate term, it rigged the award of federally subsidized housing to exclude minorities.

After graduating from law school, D'Amato got his first job the old- fashioned way - his mother asked the boss for it.

"There was a job opportunity for me with the Nassau County Attorney's office," D'Amato says, "and she asked if Joseph Carlino could put in a good word for me with the Nassau County attorney. He agreed, and I went to work for the county as a law clerk in September 1961."

From there, D'Amato's rise in local politics was swift and - as portrayed in the book - uncomplicated. In 1965 he became chairman of the Island Park Republican Party, under the watchful eye of party chairman Joe Margiotta, who was later convicted of extortion - a fact that doesn't make the book.

D'Amato lavishes chapter after chapter on his colorful grandparents, especially his maternal grandfather, Alfonso Cioffari, and his plainspoken mother, "Mamma D'Amato," who was transformed into the middle-class Everywoman for D'Amato's 1980 campaign commercials, and with whom D'Amato is pictured on the book's back cover.

But his own children show up only incidentally, as political window- dressing. He doesn't mention where they are now or what they're doing. His ex-wife, Penny, from whom he was separated in 1982 and whom he divorced earlier this year, is mentioned on a grand total of seven pages. Bob Dole, by contrast, gets 19 mentions in the index. And D'Amato's relationship with Claudia Cohen isn't mentioned at all.

Critics say that warm family anecdotes are the least of what the senator left on the cutting-room floor.

Newsday's Schanberg has been chronicling D'Amato since the late 1980s, and says the senator's M.O. is simple - if you do for him, he'll do for you.

So to what does Schanberg ascribe the success of a man who's weathered years of accusations and life under an ethical cloud?

"He has true gutter-rat instincts," Schanberg said. "And people who are ruthless often win their battles, because other people aren't prepared to climb into the gutter with them."

"I think," says Mark Green, who ran against D'Amato in 1986, "that if amnesia were a book category, this would be a best-seller."

Green has a theory about why D'Amato keeps winning: "Give him credit where it's due. He's hardworking, he's cunning, he has a lowbrow brilliance in delivering what some people think is good government."

Green gets to his feet, looking for a quote from his book Who Owns Congress? He finds it, and tells the story of Boies Penrose, a 350-pound Republican who served in the Senate from Pennsylvania in 1897 to 1921. Penrose explained his political philosophy to a group of businessmen this way: "You send us to Congress, we pass laws under which you make money, and out of your profits you further contribute to our compaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money."

"Al D'Amato," Green concludes, "is a skinny Boies Penrose."

And perhaps he keeps winning because of the short attention span of American voters, and the relatively dry nature of past allegations against him. There's no smoking bimbo on the order of Gennifer Flowers in D'Amato's closet; no illegal nanny; no 17-year-old alleging that a politician talked dirty to her.

For now, the senator is riding high. He's politely yielding his time on the Senate floor, and earning compliments from Democratic colleagues for his command of the Whitewater hearings.

"Everybody either loves him or is afraid of him," says Schanberg. "They used to joke about him, but they don't do that anymore."

comments powered by Disqus