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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 will get in 'Power, Pasta and Politics' is the senator settling scores with anyone who's given him grief.

August 17, 1995|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — 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.

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