The Mouth That Roared : Politics: No one attracts controversy and scandal quite like Alfonse D’Amato. But you won’t get any of that in his new book. What you <i> will </i> get in ‘Power, Pasta and Politics’ is the senator settling scores with anyone who’s given him grief.
The interview is going badly. After only five minutes, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) already wants to kick a reporter out of his office. He doesn’t like the questions, and he sure as hell won’t talk about ethics.
His own, to be precise. It’s a sore subject for a public official whose honesty and integrity have been repeatedly called into question over the years. Now that he’s written an autobiography telling his side of the story, D’Amato says, there’s no need to rehash the details of his $225,000 book deal.
“What are we talking about?” he snaps. “I didn’t know that because people are in office they don’t have a right to be heard, to publish. I mean, that is ridiculous. I worked two years to put this book out. Two years! And if people like it, they’ll buy it. If they don’t like it, they won’t buy it.”
Got it? The phone rings and D’Amato starts blistering his New York publisher with questions: When can he find out how many copies of his $24.95 book have been sold? Will more be printed? And what about TV coverage?
Released just in time for the Senate Whitewater hearings--which D’Amato chairs--”Power, Pasta and Politics: The World According to Senator Al D’Amato” (Hyperion) is stuffed with campaign war stories and paeans to family values. Unlike most political memoirs, it’s an engaging read. Yet the book ignores many of the unsavory revelations that have dogged the Long Island politico’s career.
Wedtech. Unisys. HUD fraud. The senator’s name has surfaced in these and other investigations, and there are persistent though unproven accusations that he is chummy with Mafia figures. For a man who has never been indicted or convicted of a crime, political scandal clings to him like a sweaty undershirt.
The irony of D’Amato chairing the Whitewater hearings is not lost on his critics. But in Washington, it almost makes sense: Who better to probe the President than a man whose knowledge of ethical proctology is second to none?
His book skirts this issue, and D’Amato, 57, clearly wants it that way. If he took the time to list every single accusation ever made against him, he complains, “it would take up a mountain” of space. Besides, he adds: “All that personal stuff is garbage.”
An aide scurries in, handing him a plate of sliced carrots, and D’Amato chomps away moodily. Then, ordering a reporter to turn off his tape recorder, he launches into a foul-mouthed tirade against his enemies in the press.
At first glance, D’Amato’s thin skin seems surprising for a politician whose clout and influence have never been greater. Besides chairing the Senate Banking Committee, he also heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a fund-raising organization that distributes millions to GOP candidates.
Scrappy and belligerent, D’Amato is a key adviser to Sen. Robert Dole’s presidential campaign. Last year, he engineered George Pataki’s bruising victory over New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. By all accounts, he is the most powerful Empire State Republican to emerge since Nelson Rockefeller.
“D’Amato’s influence is at an all-time high,” says Dan Collins, an author and journalist who has written about the junior senator. “But he’s still D’Amato. If you attack him in any way, he goes crazy. He never forgets.”
Deep down, most politicians nurse resentments and brood over slights. But they learn to keep it to themselves, to take revenge behind closed doors. At least that’s the way the game is played in the U.S. Senate, where 100 members talk in hushed, collegial tones about their esteemed opponents and would never dare raise their voices in public.
Make that 99 members.
When it comes to style, D’Amato is much closer to his small-town roots in Island Park, N.Y., than he is to the elite corridors of Washington power. He grew up in a world of nasty political combat, and never really left home.
The senator, says the Almanac of American Politics, “is nobody’s idea of a philosopher. He is loud, persistent, he pinches cheeks and puts his arms around shoulders and stands just a little too close when he speaks, he uses lushly vulgar expressions and is utterly shameless in bids for popularity.”
They call him Senator Pothole, given D’Amato’s tireless attention to constituent problems. He’s staunchly loyal to longtime friends from the old neighborhood, yet those clannish ties have often gotten him in trouble.
In 1991, the Senate Ethics Committee launched an investigation of D’Amato’s conduct. It concluded that D’Amato’s brother, Armand, had improperly used the senator’s office to lobby on behalf of a military contractor. The senator was cleared of most charges, but was found to have conducted his office in an “improper and inappropriate manner.”
In the 1970s, when he was a Nassau County official, D’Amato denied allegations that he ran a corrupt patronage program for the GOP political machine. Did county employees have to donate 1% of their salary to the party? D’Amato, testifying before a federal grand jury, swore he knew nothing.
“I’m a wonderful target,” D’Amato suggests, recounting the feuds that have marked his career. “Maybe it’s my aggressive style in fighting back.”
Or maybe it’s his mouth.
In April, D’Amato sparked controversy with a crude ethnic parody of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito on Don Imus’ national radio show. He has since apologized for his offensive statements, saying he should have known better.
Last year, D’Amato drew ridicule for singing an anti-Clinton takeoff on “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” during a 1994 Senate debate. He got in hot water last October for suggesting that Betsy McCaughey, the GOP candidate for New York lieutenant governor, could win New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s backing by “making him an offer he can’t refuse.” The “Fonz,” as he is known, apologized for that sexually loaded remark.
But it took some doing. Hours after the story broke, he denied the incident ever took place. “It is made up,” he insisted. “I stake my personal and political reputation on it. It is a malicious untruth.” Only when other Republicans called on him to come clean did D’Amato change his tune.
There has been a “growing and maturing” process in his career, the senator says, claiming to have learned from these embarrassments. Then he shifts the conversation to a more comfortable topic--his own victimization.
“I’ve been a victim of [anti-Italian] slurs all my life,” he says. “I’ve been abused. And you can’t just sit back and allow people to take shots.”
In his autobiography, D’Amato sets out to tell the story of an awkward kid who overcomes a handicap (impaired vision) and fights his way to the top. But his real agenda becomes clear by the second paragraph. The senator, never one to overlook an insult, is settling scores with anyone who ever gave him grief.
He’s still angry at teachers who put him in a slow reading class. Furious at playground bullies who made his life miserable. Contemptuous of GOP powerbrokers who sold him short when he first ran for the senate.
They all laughed when D’Amato took on incumbent GOP Sen. Jacob Javitz in 1980, but were stunned when he pulled off an upset victory. Experts wrote him off as a one-termer, yet he won a smashing reelection six years later. In 1992, trailing by 25 points in the polls, D’Amato pulled off one of the greatest upsets in modern Senate history, winning by a hair.
By all rights, he should be enjoying the last laugh. Last year, an appeals court threw out his brother’s conviction for mail fraud. More recently, D’Amato called an extraordinary news conference to announce that he is in love.
Beaming, he introduced TV gossip reporter Claudia Cohen as the woman in his life. They date regularly, he said, and the frisky senator, whose first marriage ended in divorce, couldn’t be happier.
So why is D’Amato still angry?
It’s those damn reporters. They still won’t give him a break.
The Village Voice called his new book a “357-page whine--a book riddled with misspellings and factual mistakes . . . a true piece of victim art.” New York Times columnist Joyce Purnick termed it “artful dodging” that ignores the senator’s murky ethics. Newsday columnist Sydney Schanberg, a longtime antagonist, dismissed the political memoir as “stunningly crafted fiction that probably should have been titled: ‘Alfonse, We Hardly Knew Ye.’ ”
In his defense, several political heavyweights pay tribute to D’Amato in the book’s foreword and introduction. Writes Dole: “I think Al is the only senator who has a pair of boxing gloves hanging on his office wall. New Yorkers love a fighter. And in Al D’Amato they have one who never gives up.”
Former New York Mayor Edward I. Koch, recalling his first encounter with D’Amato, calls him “a very engaging person, immediately likable, with none of the artifice or pretentiousness to which so many public officials who win against great odds succumb.” For Koch, the senator was a breath of fresh air.
Just don’t tell that to Giuliani, Colin Powell, Mike Wallace, Ted Kennedy, Sam Donaldson, James Baker, Mario Cuomo, William Kunstler, former New York Mayor David Dinkins or any of the other figures D’Amato attacks.
“I criticize some people, sure,” the senator says with a shrug. “I am what I am, I do what I do.”
Elsewhere, he complains that his children have been taunted by friends over his alleged mob ties. Denying such links, the senator says he earned every penny he’s ever made: “I had to clean toilets to pay for law school.”
The Voice pounced on that passage with glee, reproducing a 1992 FBI document in which Alphonse (Little Al) D’Arco, a former big shot for the Lucchese crime family and now a key government informer, names five organized crime figures known to “have had contact” with the New York senator.
There are also reports that D’Amato once tried to win concessions for two Mafia members--Mario Gigante of the Genovese crime family and Paul Castellano of the Gambino family. In a profile of Giuliani, Collins quoted the former U.S. attorney as saying that D’Amato had suggested lessening Gigante’s sentence for extortion and dropping one of the charges against Castellano in a murder indictment. Giuliani, appalled, refused.
In explaining these overtures, D’Amato has said he was simply making the request as a personal favor for the late Roy Cohn, a friend who represented several mob figures. Beyond that, he’s had no further comment, except to say that any and all charges linking him to organized crime are nonsense.
An aide comes in and alerts D’Amato that he has a meeting with Whitewater investigators. The senator shakes hands, hoping that a reporter will write what his book is really about: Family, service and traditional values.
“It’s like my Grandpa Alfonso used to say,” D’Amato adds, referring to the dedication of his book: “In America, everything is possible.”
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