The most enduring lesson that Karl Rove taught the American people during his term as George W. Bush’s top adviser was to always find out who the candidate’s brain is before you elect him or her. For instance, if voters had fully understood that the swaggering, brush-cutting cowboy they elected was under the total sway of a dumpy balding guy with glasses who dropped out of college and believed William McKinley was America’s greatest president, they might have thought twice.
Had voters been more attentive, they’d have noticed that this pudgy little man was always at Bush’s side, whispering in his ear the same way Nancy Reagan used to do for husband Ronald (“We’re doing everything we can!”).
Rightfully, this kind of political cheating should be barred under Federal Election Commission rules. OK, that may be too severe. Outlawing such advisers might unrealistically narrow the field, leaving us with the zany likes of Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, who clearly gets no advice from anyone. But what’s needed is some pre-election disclosure of influence peddlers.
Right now, with the race for the White House well underway and a score of candidates vying for nomination, we have an opportunity to take a careful look at those who are positioned beside the candidates’ ears. The tutorial begins with a look at Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani’s chief whisperer, a man named Anthony V. Carbonetti.
You ask: “Who?” And that is exactly the point. The essence of a good candidate whisperer is to stay in the background, at least until after an election. Carbonetti, 38, is the guy with the beefy build, dark hair, usually wearing a gray suit, standing slightly to the right of America’s mayor.
Giuliani observers will argue that he needs no one else’s brain because his own is so well-developed. But even Rudy’s admirers will admit that Carbonetti, whose greatest passions are aroused at a casino blackjack table, is a major influence on the man who may someday soon be deciding whether to take out Tehran with a tactical strike. We thus ignore him at our peril.
Like Rove, Carbonetti has been with his man since the beginning, helping to guide the former federal prosecutor’s first successful run for office. Before that, Carbonetti had not been especially busy. At 24, he had dropped out of Boston University and was working as a bartender at the Cityside tavern on Commonwealth Avenue, serving drinks to former school pals. This résumé immediately qualified him to serve as deputy field director of Giuliani’s 1993 campaign. It helped that his father, Lou, was a boyhood friend of the candidate’s. Even more helpful, Rudy’s dad and Lou’s dad were tight buddies from the old neighborhood.
When he won City Hall, Giuliani installed his young aide in a little office with the title of “Director of Appointments.” Actually, Tony Carbonetti was mostly engaged in disappointments, since his chief task was to smoke out Democrats with city jobs and fire them. He spent his days on the phone, ending careers as fast as he could dial.
The Carbonetti clan’s own municipal fortunes were on the rise. Giuliani named Carbonetti’s father as the $90,000-a-year director of his community assistance unit. He promoted Carbonetti’s mother, JoAnna Aniello, to ever-higher posts at the city’s Housing Authority, ultimately giving her a $162,000-a-year commissionership on his way out the door as mayor.
All went swimmingly until it was revealed in the newspapers that Lou Carbonetti had failed to list $150,000 in debts from a failed business on his financial disclosure forms. Curiously, he also held two different drivers’ licenses, one of them suspended. The senior Carbonetti had to quit city government, but the mayor found his old friend a new $80,000-a-year post running a Brooklyn development organization. Unfortunately, this job also went off the tracks when Lou Carbonetti pleaded guilty to felony charges for lying to city investigators about his profitable dealings with the group’s vendors.
Tony Carbonetti was also forgetful in disclosing his finances, and he was found to have neglected to list $11,000 in defaulted loans from his abbreviated student days. Giuliani’s top deputies, all ex-law-enforcement officials, said this didn’t matter because they knew all about the old loans anyway.
What mattered was that Tony Carbonetti, as his boss would say, was very, very good at what he did. He moved steadily up the ranks, becoming the mayor’s chief of staff in 1999. He proved himself by his delicate handling of such tasks as parades for the Yankees, the big Garth Brooks concert in Central Park, and the Princess Di memorial service. He also took care of it when Nancy Sinatra demanded a statue of her father in Times Square (“Dear Tony,” her gushing handwritten notes read).
When he needed a break from these onerous chores, Carbonetti went gambling. He had learned his lesson and was careful to list his winnings on his financial forms. There was Bally’s Hotel, $5,000; TropWorld, $20,000, Trump Plaza slots, $5,000; and much more, indicating enormous betting expertise. He also took a trip to Las Vegas with another City Hall aide who owed his job to his father’s mayoral ties. Russell Harding later pleaded guilty to stealing $400,000 from the taxpayers for junkets including the Las Vegas jaunt. City and federal investigators were especially curious about Carbonetti’s involvement, but no charges were brought.
It wasn’t all fun and games, however. In the spring of 2001, the mayor called on his faithful aide to handle one more firing—that of his wife.
Giuliani was in the process of separating from Donna Hanover, his spouse of 16 years, who was still living in the mayoral residence at Gracie Mansion with their two children. For some reason, she had strenuously objected when Giuliani brought his new girlfriend to the mansion. Despite the estrangement, she said, she was still the city’s First Lady and thus entitled to a certain level of respect.
Carbonetti was now dispatched to handle this most delicate of situations. His solution has been enshrined in the city’s Municipal Archives, where is found this memorable memo he sent to the mayor’s wife on May 22, 2001:
“In light of the quite public parting of the ways between Donna Hanover and the Mayor, it is obviously disingenuous and inappropriate for Donna Hanover to continue to act as First Lady or in any other way as a representative of the Mayor.” Making sure there were no misunderstandings, he continued: “Donna Hanover will no longer serve as First Lady, and my office will designate spokespersons, as appropriate, to act on behalf of the Mayor.”
It was this type of forceful action that Rudy Giuliani must have been thinking of when he wrote these words in his book Leadership: “Looking back, I believe that the skill I developed better than any other was surrounding myself with great people.”
After all, even Karl Rove never fired a First Lady.