At the close of the “Week of the Putz,” it was Alfonse D’Amato who was struggling with a bad case of tsuris. And with recent polls trending in the wrong direction, he may soon also want to plotz.
In fact, as the junior senator droned on and on and on about Chuck Schumer’s attendance record during Saturday night’s televised debate from Schenectady, a viewer could not help but consult The Joys of Yiddish for an appropriate term to describe the 61-year-old Republican’s ongoing meltdown.
The book, author Leo Rosten’s 1968 dictionary of terms from Adonai to Zohar, became required reading for New York reporters and campaign consultants after D’Amato called his opponent a “putzhead.” Rosten, a Manhattanite who was 88 years old when he died last year, was deprived of the great honor of seeing his definition of putz–“vulgar slang for ‘penis’ “–take on such gravitas.
In fact, Rosten’s book virtually overflows with terms that might well be applied to D’Amato himself. Shlemiel, shmendrick, shmegegge, shmo, shmuck, and shnook come to mind (and that is just under the letter S). Sure, the Republican is a nudnik and a tummler. But page 14 offers a marvelous Yiddishism for the fading Fonz: he is a textbook alter kocker, a “crotchety, fussy, ineffectual old man.”
Saturday evening, D’Amato gave a remarkably shrill, repetitious performance in his first face-off against his Democratic challenger. Luckily for the incumbent, the TV audience probably was tiny, owing to the 7:20 p.m. start time (the 3 a.m. slot must have already been booked for a Ron Popeil infomercial). Refusing to answer any question posed to him by the hapless moderator from WRGB-TV, D’Amato would only repeat his spiel about Schumer’s missing House votes. At one point, after being asked about his abortion stance, D’Amato rambled on about the horror of gun violence. In a prochoice state, a prolifer like D’Amato always finds it easier to talk about Uzis than uteruses.
In his nasal whine, the U.S. senator came across as a daft automaton.
By the time Sunday afternoon’s WNBC-TV debate was done, D’Amato had taken a weekend oh-fer. Where he was slightly bested by Schumer Saturday night, the Fonz got rolled Sunday. While most TV viewers were watching the Jets trample the Falcons, the Brooklyn congressman dominated a low-energy D’Amato. The Pothole Senator, Mr. Brings Home the Bacon, looked small and tired. More often than not, D’Amato sat quietly staring at his shoes while Schumer ripped into him and his 18-year Senate record.
Maybe he was just exhausted from what had to be his worst week on any campaign trail. With many voters already questioning his honesty, D’Amato went and got caught red-handed in a lie. This surely was not part of consultant Arthur Finkelstein’s grand scheme, and the Maestro of Muck has been unable to divert attention from D’Amato’s miscue. Perhaps this is some type of karmic comeuppance for the duo’s demagoguery over Robert Abrams’s 1992 “fascist” remark, a charade that included D’Amato turning on the crocodile tears at that year’s Columbus Day parade.
But who’s crying now?
The “putzhead” comment (not to mention D’Amato’s mockery of portly congressman Jerrold Nadler as “Jerry Waddler”) has triggered the type of sustained negative press coverage that D’Amato has not encountered in years. For instance, when he and campaign staffers asserted that Schumer had tried to inject religion into the Senate race, newspaper reporters challenged the campaign to back up this allegation. When Team D’Amato could not cite a single example to buttress their allegation, several reporters prominently noted this in their copy. To even the most casual reader, D’Amato looked reckless and loose with the facts.
It certainly did not help D’Amato’s relations with the media when campaign officials issued a press release repeating their boss’s lie about the “putzhead” crack. Hung out to dry by the Fonz, D’Amato flacks are now suffering from a credibility gap with the very journalists who they would like to focus on something
other than D’Amato’s record of slurs.
And now, for the first time in a decade, when reporters have recounted his sorry history, they are making sure to include a comment initially reported in The New Republic in 1986. The magazine noted that D’Amato once referred to public housing residents as “animals.” During Saturday’s debate, moderator Liz Bishop asked D’Amato about his “many unfortunate remarks,” including the recent Schumer-Nadler gibes, D’Amato’s imitation of Judge Lance Ito, and “referring to people living in projects as animals.” After Bishop asked, “Is this acceptable behavior in a U.S. senator?” D’Amato would only deny that “putzhead” was a slur before launching into another diatribe on Schumer’s recent missed votes.
While the Post‘s coverage of D’Amato has been surprisingly sharp–the daily included the “animals” remark in a sidebar about prior D’Amato utterances–one of the paper’s chief D’Amato cheerleaders has been trying to provide cover for the tabloid’s beleaguered candidate. Editorial page editor John Podhoretz–now to be known simply as “The Poddler”–was present at the breakfast meeting last week when D’Amato dissed Schumer and Nadler. One of 40 Jewish community leaders being hosted by developer George Klein, Podhoretz did not bat an eye when D’Amato went into his shtick. “D’Amato was looking right at me when he called Schumer a ‘putzhead’ on Tuesday morning over breakfast,” The Poddler proudly wrote in the Post. “I didn’t storm out of the room.”
He also did not disclose his presence at the breakfast–in print at least–until Friday, three days after D’Amato’s remarks and two days after the story broke. It seems likely that if Post political reporters like David Seifman or Fred Dicker were present at Klein’s breakfast, the D’Amato slur scoop wouldn’t have appeared in Jewish Week. Along with his Friday column (which was headlined “I was there–and D’Amato was right” and ran on page 5), The Poddler’s editorial page that day carried another piece supporting the Fonz. Jackie Mason and Raoul Felder, the Evans and Novak of the Friar’s Club, delivered an absolution addressing the crucial question of “When is a putz a schmuck?”
Podhoretz is not the only D’Amato acolyte concerned about the fate of the Island Park padrone. To members of the Republican-Conservative establishment–pols, lobbyists, businessmen, journalists–D’Amato is the Sun King, the capo, the rainmaker. In
Yankeespeak, he is the straw that stirs the drink. That is why the desperation and anxiety level is surging a week before Election Day among pols like Joe Bruno, Mike Long, Charlie Gargano, and Bill Powers, and reportorial dreck like Steve Dunleavy. This is a scaly, creepy crew that reminds you of the patrons of the Star Wars bar (though with little of that intergalactic charm).
With a week to go, it is probably foolish to predict that the D’Amato Gang’s luck has finally run out. But that being the case, here is a prediction: the D’Amato Gang’s luck has run out. Come November 4, our long national (well, state, at least; perhaps regional) nightmare will be over. The Fonz has finally worn out his welcome and will be sent packing,
18 years after he rose to prominence by
slagging a dying man–Jacob Javits. And as most D’Amato watchers will attest, it has pretty much been downhill since then.
We do not know where D’Amato will hang his hat when his third, and final, term concludes. Since ex-wife Penny kicked him to the curb long ago, we do not expect the ex-senator will return to Island Park. As for future employment opportunities, we are sure a number of corporations will give him a board seat. Maybe there will be an offer of a partnership at a Manhattan law firm. Of course, outside of twisting arms, bullying people, and raising campaign cash, it is unclear what job qualifications D’Amato possesses.
Turned out of office, the Fonz will quickly learn the most bitter of lessons: to successfully sell your Senate vote you must first have a Senate vote. For Senator Shakedown, this will be one of the more traumatic adjustments he will face. It is like losing your favorite appendage.
You see, we are pretty confident that New Yorkers have finally come to this realization: if not now, when? Give the Fonz the go-ahead for years 19 through 24, and will 30 be far behind? By then, it will be 2010, and D’Amato will be only 73. He already votes like Strom Thurmond, so why shouldn’t D’Amato also emulate the old guy’s longevity?
It has taken far too long for most voters to realize that Alfonse D’Amato has been responsible for that stink. One can choose to ignore the odor or try and do something about it. It seems you would have to be meshugge not to try.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 3, 1998