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THE NATION | PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE

In Endless Pursuit of Al D'Amato

November 15, 1998|Nicholas Goldberg | Nicholas Goldberg, who covers the Middle East for Newsday, reported on New York politics throughout the 1980s

JERUSALEM — Over the years, I grew attached to Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato.

Not, perhaps, in the same way his staff, family and friends did. But attached, nonetheless. For several years in the late 1980s, I investigated the New York Republican, poring through Long Island real-estate records, demanding documents from the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Freedom of Information Act, searching reverse directories and prowling the bars of his hometown, Island Park, at night, hunting for scandal, for sources, for confirmation of what I was desperate to prove.

D'Amato demanded a kind of loyalty from reporters. There were plenty like me--an army, really--who devoted substantial portions of their careers to bringing him down. Investigative reporters from newspapers big and small, who thought they were on the verge, that the next phone call would bring the scandal in. No less dogged than independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's lawyers, and backed by an army of FBI agents and D.A. investigators and federal prosecutors also engaged in the hunt, they were men with a calling, looking for the favors he might have done, the bribes, the payoffs, the bagmen.

Oh, the pain of searching for D'Amato's flaws. You knew they were there, or thought you did. But to put it all together was Sisyphean. People in a position to know told me he steered publicly funded housing to his own relatives, jobs to his friends and family. Known by the nickname "God" to villagers, he drove the entire black population of Island Park out of town. He took bribes, they said. He sought lenient treatment for mobsters, sources said. There was supposed to be an incriminating photo in an FBI file. Some stories ended up in the paper, others were false, some could never be proved. There were others that even I, desperate for a smoking gun, never believed.

When I was ready to write, I'd call him for a response, and he'd yell at me. He cursed at me in his thick New York accent. When we met in a courthouse one time, he pointedly refused to shake my hand, a snub I was deeply proud of and told to anyone who would listen.

After a while, he stopped talking to me, and he didn't take my calls for two years. When I finally interviewed him again, he shook his head and accused me of persecuting him. He said he'd give me one more chance, but I'd better behave.

In the end, however, I have to admit this: Though I was proud of what I did find, the bits and pieces of scandal that rightly embarrassed him, I never put it all together and, in my opinion, neither did anyone else. We never got anything on him that really stuck.

Perhaps we just failed to find it. Or, perhaps, he was telling the truth all along: It wasn't there. He hinted that we didn't believe him because he was an outsider, with wide lapels, an accent and an Italian surname. Whatever the reason, he was never indicted, despite all of us, and all those FBI guys as well.

He was criticized and ridiculed in the press. But voters, in the end, didn't care. His opponents in 1986 and 1992--consumer advocate Mark Green and New York state Atty. Gen. Robert Abrams--took the ethics issue and beat it and beat it and beat it to death, but got nowhere.

So you'd think I'd be happy about the recent election, in which my longtime nemesis was finally beaten, after 18 years in office, by U.S. Rep. Charles E. Schumer. But I wasn't, particularly. I was let down, and I'll bet many of my colleagues were, too. Imagine the irony for those of us who'd spent months and months on it, to watch the mighty senator brought down not by his ethical lapses, not even for his policies, most of which, by rights, ought to have appalled voters--but because he called his opponent a "putzhead."

That's what the campaign turned on: Voters were just plain tired of him, were irritated that he used an offensive Yiddish slur and were ready to give someone else a chance. In the end, they didn't care about D'Amato and ethics any more than they care about Bill Clinton and sex.

Did the system fail? It did, in the sense that the really important issues never got aired. The process has been dumbed down and Oprahfied, and candidates rise and fall over televised trivia and buzzwords. Despite the tens of millions of dollars spent by D'Amato and Schumer, the senator's 18-year record was relegated to the back burner. Instead, the two candidates battled for a U.S. Senate seat over the pathetic, warmed-over nonissue of who had missed more votes and what "putz" means according to the "Dictionary of Yiddish Slang and Idioms."

But I don't blame the voters for not taking the ethics issue seriously. We reporters never nailed it down, and that was our fault. Either it just wasn't there, or he made putzes out of us.

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