It was late October, and my old friend was very depressed: “I’m not interested in any of these guys,” he said of all the presidential candidates. “I’m only interested in one thing in this election.” His voice grew warmer: “The reelection of ‘Senator Pothole.'”

Senator Alfonse D’Amato, the only Republican victorious in a statewide election in New York in many years, is indeed affectionately known as “Senator Pothole.” He is “the fixer,” the last of the old-time pols, to whom ideology takes a distant back seat to fixing every little problem, including potholes, for his constituents. Not only his supporters, but all constituents. Democrat and Republican alike. Indeed, he is the only fixer, since his senatorial colleague. Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, opcrates on such a lofty plane of cerebration that no one would think of taking pothole problems to him. Since Al helps evervone, no one can fault him for also fixing problems for his supporters. (“I should discriminate against someone just because he supported me?”) True to form, Al appears at the functions or parades or dinners of every significant interest group. Aware of the importance of the Jewish vote, D’Amato claimed to be the best friend Israel ever had and won the implicit support of the powerful AIPAC lobby in the election.

Despite his broad support, however, everyone knew that Al D’Amato was in deep trouble in the 1992 election. In the first place, it was a Democratic year, and it was clear that Bush would lose by a landslide in New York to the triumphant upward march of Clintonian Democracy. Secondly, Al had been in severe “ethics trouble,” which in modern politics means financial peccadilloes. D’Amato was a loyal product of the notorious Margiotta machine in suburban Nassau County, on Long Island. There were whispered rumors of “Mafia,” and indeed D’Amato was once a character witness at a trial of the late Big Paul Castellano. But Al was in hotter water than that. A Senate ethics committee investigated him for two years, the charges centering around the alleged use of his phone and letterhead by his brother Armand, asking for favors from the executive branch. (“Whatsamatta? I can’t let my own brother use my phone?”) Al was vulnerable, and the best he could say was that he had been “cleared” because not actually censured by the Senate nor actually indicted in any court.

D’Amato’s first piece of luck came in the Republican primary. His only announced opponent, making his first appearance on the political scene, was Laurance (“call me Harry”) Rockefeller. I was out of town for Larry’s first press conference, but my wife told me I had nothing to worry about. (“He’s completely inarticulate, no personality, has nothing to say.”) Sure enough, Larry failed to pass New York’s stringent signature law for getting on the ballot.


The Democratic primary lineup was more formidable. Longtime Attorney General Bob Abrams was the anointed candidate of the party, but he was opposed by a glittering array, including former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, trying for a comeback, City Comptroller and former Congresswoman Liz Holtzman, and clownish black militant turned “statesman” for the occasion “the Reverend” Al Sharpton. It was the predetermined “Year of the Woman,” and the Democratic feminists in New York were torn between Liz Holtzman and Gerry Ferraro. They were also divided over faithful left-liberal Bob Abrams, always reliably “sound on women’s issues,” even sounder, in a way, than the two women in the race. Here came one of those exquisite moral dilemmas that feminists love to kvetch about; “Should I vote for an (Ugh!) man who’s sound on women’s issues? But how can anyone really be sound who is not herself a woman?” A complicated factor is that Ferraro was not quite as reliably leftist as her opponents: opposing national health insurance and favoring the death penalty for murderers.

It soon became clear that Ferraro was in the lead, crushing La Holtzman. The dour, mannish Holtzman never smiles, whereas Ferraro was displaying a warm, likable, let’s face it even “feminine,” personality. Even feminists responded better to Ferraro. Besides, Geraldine was running for personal vindication. More than 1992, 1984 was supposed to be the Year of the Woman—the first year a major party had nominated a woman for Vice-President. If Mondale/Ferraro had won, could a female in the Oval Office have been far behind? Yet, Ferraro turned out to be a profound embarrassment for the Mondale ticket. The Mondale operatives might have known a lot about politics in Minnesota; but clearly, they didn’t know a darn thing about New York. If they had, they would have known that any Italo-American who owns real estate in New York (as did Ferraro’s husband John Zaccaro) needs to be scrutinized very carefully, for there is a high possibility of some sort of alleged Mafia connection. Sure enough, by the end of the campaign, poor Zaccaro was in deep trouble. And now, many years out of Congress, Geraldine was making her comeback.

Things went swimmingly until the final two weeks. A week before the primary, the respected Daily News poll had Ferraro beating Abrams by eight percentage points, with Holtzman trailing far behind. At that point, Liz Holtzman went for the jugular. In a series of blistering attack ads, Holtzman, in her toughest prosecutorial style, revived the old Mafia-type charges; “And why did Ferraro rent a building to a professional pornographer?” Abrams, vivified, joined in the negative ads.

New York’s feminists engaged in more soul-searching; “But how can one sister be so negative against another sister?” After all, weren’t women supposed to bring a new, caring, nurturing, superior aura to politics? Weren’t we fighting to get rid of evil men and their tough-as-nails, groin-kicking tactics? Naturally, Holtzman lashed back at her critics; after all, wasn’t the point of feminism that men and women arc absolutely equal in all things? Isn’t it viciously “sexist,” therefore, to deny women the groin-kicking tactics that men habitually use in politics? Holtzman’s logic was impeccable, but in the last analysis, there was something about tough, brutal tactics used by a woman that went against the grain, something that made most people, even the staunchest egalitarian feminists, queasy. Holt/man’s killer tactics against Ferraro worked, but only to the benefit of Abrams. In the final tally, Abrams edged out Ferraro by 1 percent, while Holtzman, incredibly, plummeted to 9 percent, 1 percent below even Al Sharpton. Holtzman’s tactics turned out to be not only killer but kamikaze.

Ferraro, blind-sided and bitter, called for a recount and refused to endorse Abrams, who had gone negative following the lead of Holtzman. Ferraro’s reply to the “Mafia card” was the standard victimology ploy: Holtzman and Abrams were being viciously, stereotypically, anti-Italian, demagogically playing to the prejudices of voters systematically poisoned by the anti-Italian media. Since Abrams and Holtzman are both Jewish, ethno-religious bitterness, always smoldering beneath the surface of New York politics, began to come to the fore.

The two rivals in the general election looked remarkably alike. Both Abrams and D’Amato are short, fiftyish, bespectacled, ethnic, and balding. There, however, the resemblance ends. D’Amato is brash, abrasive, emotional, with a pronounced nasal “Noo Yawk” accent. Abrams has a similar accent, but he is whiny, nerdy, terribly sincere, and terminally boring. Even his best friends and supporters admit that Abrams is boring, but they try to turn it to Abrams’ favor by equating boredom with rectitude. Abrams was Mr. Rectitude, honorable, no ethical peccadilloes in his closet. He also had won elections by landslides, but this meant little, since it was only for the low-key post of State Attorney General.

The story was that D’Amato feared running against Abrams because of the latter’s clean moral record, but the Senator brilliantly turned the new situation to his advantage. With the primary over, Abrams made his first fatal mistake: retiring for a well-earned rest and saving his TV money for later in the campaign. D’Amato and his handlers, however, rushed in immediately with a brace of brilliantly executed short ads, on TV and radio. The tactic was attack, attack, go after Abrams, and drag him off his high moral perch. Hit Abrams with moral equivalence, bring him down to D’Amato’s level, and Senator Pothole’s positive virtues would come shining through.

First, D’Amato played the “anti-Italian” card. This great lady, Geraldine Ferraro, had been traduced by Abrams’ vicious anti-Italian demagogy. Ferraro’s continued refusal to endorse Abrams reinforced this tactic, although she duly but mildly protested at D’Amato’s use of her name. Finally, at the very end of the campaign, after lengthy negotiations between the Abrams and Ferraro camps, she came out for Abrams, but her endorsement was remarkably unenthusiastic and restrained. As one observer noted: “She looked like one of those clips of hostages praising Saddam Hussein.”

Second, the moral equivalence theme. Bob Abrams was not Mr. Rectitude after all. D’Amato revealed that Abrams was many times late in paying school taxes on his country home and that he unwisely deducted a room in his New York City apartment from his income tax. Moreover, he denounced Abrams for conflict of interest, for accepting political contributions from lawyers and others doing business with the Attorney General’s office. It was a brilliant tactic. This practice is accepted by politicians everywhere but it looks unethical and indeed probably is, and these charges made hay with the average voter. The moral equivalence worked beautifully: “Hey, is what Mr. Holier-Than-Thou Abrams did any better than allowing my own brother to use my phones?”

Bob Abrams never recovered from D’Amato’s attacks. A humorless believer in his own morality and righteousness, Abrams was knocked off-kilter; his repeated attacks against “Senator Shakedown” were ineffective, since the public already knew about those old charges. Furthermore, bolstered on the personal ethics front, D’Amato was able to turn their ideological differences to his advantage. When Abrams tried to stress his support for national health insurance, D’Amato attacked brilliantly. He pointed out that this and other liberal programs mean higher taxes, contrasted these taxes with Abrams’ own nonpayments, and hammered away: “Bob Abrams never met a tax he didn’t like—except his own. Bob Abrams, hopelessly liberal.”

By mid-October, D’Amato had miraculously pulled himself up from a 15-point deficit in the polls. But he had bogged down at 4 to 5 points behind, when Bob Abrams made the second fatal mistake of his campaign. Goaded by D’Amato’s attacks and by young D’Amato hecklers at his rallies, Abrams, one late cold night at an obscure rally in Binghamton, denounced D’Amato as a “fascist.” Well! The remark was picked up by only one media outlet: the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin. But that was enough for D’Amato. “The next day happened to be the Columbus Day parade, the annual New York City celebration of Italian-Americana. At that rally, Al D’Amato played his role to the hilt. Crying, his hp quivering in this well-televised spot, D’Amato croaked: “Fascist! . . . I’m a grandfather. . . and a father. . . . ” Al couldn’t go on.

What could Abrams have meant by this dread term, other than a vicious smear against Italian-Americans, accusing them of being unpatriotic traitors to their country, followers of Mussolini? The ultimate insult, what Abrams was being accused of hurling, not only against D’Amato but against all Italian-Americans. Immediately, new D’Amato TV ads hammered away at the point, showing pictures of Mussolini and denouncing this gross ethnic insult. Pressed for a retraction, Abrams compounded matters by refusing to apologize to D’Amato himself, confining his regrets to any D’Amato followers he might have offended.

That was enough. In a final surge, D’Amato caught Abrams and won the election by two percentage points, defying all the odds and the Clinton landslide.

Why indeed did Abrams use this clearly inappropriate term? It had little to do with Mussolini. There is a certain type of New York leftist over forty to whom everyone he doesn’t like, everyone to the right of, say. Bob Abrams, is a “fascist.” Mussolini was of course a fascist. But so was everyone else. Hitler was a “fascist.” Franco was a “fascist.” Joe McCarthy was a “fascist.” Richard Nixon was a “fascist.” Indeed, almost every Republican is a “fascist.” It was that repellent mindset that burst its bonds that cold night in Binghamton and led to Abrams’ fatal slip. Would that everyone who ever uses this portmanteau smear-term meet a similar fate. In this instance, at least, justice triumphed, with Senator Al D’Amato her improbable instrument.