Last rites can't save Torricelli

Posted: Oct 07, 2002 12:00 AM
Where have I been all of Bob Torricelli's life? There he was this week, performing last rites on his scandal-riddled Senate career with an act of self-eulogy that may well be illegal in several states. And there I was, listening transfixed, amazed -- incredulous, even -- but mainly filled with regret that my first Torricelli speech would be my last. That is, having finally seen beyond the talking head emeritus to discover the real Torch -- and in him a source of hot air which, properly harnessed, could reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil -- I realized that new devotees of the one-term Democratic senator would have to reconcile themselves to losing him for good. His re-election bid is over, he said, because he just couldn't "stand the pain if any failing on my part were to damage the things and the people that I have fought for all of my life"-- namely, the one-vote Democratic Senate majority. And now we all suffer. Why? For one thing, there will be no more Great Man in the Making stories that, fantastically, sound less Joisey-colorful than "Kung Fu" TV-show philosophical. There's the one about a New Jersey governor seeing a young Torricelli in the statehouse and saying, "Bob, why are you here first and why do you leave last?" ("Governor, I'm going to do good things," Young Torch replied.) Or, better, the time Torricelli says he encountered a solitary Anwar Sadat on the Egyptian shores of the Mediterranean, and Sadat inquired: "Son, who are you? ... What is it you want to do with your life?" ("I'm Bob Torricelli," he replied. "Mr. President, I'm going to be a member of the United States Congress.") If not the stuff of dreams, this surely is the stuffed of shirts. Never mind that it came in the speech in which Torricelli resigned, or abdicated, or whatever you do to bail out of a Senate race five weeks from Election Day because the sleaze has begun to stick; it's terrific material. And so is the Democratic senator's refusal to acknowledge why he is leaving the race. "In public life," he explained, maintaining impressive blush-control, "if you actually seek more than satisfaction for yourself in the things you achieve, you will always be frustrated. I've never been frustrated, because it's enough for me." It is? Then why in God's green Garden State didn't Torricelli tell that to David Chang once the erstwhile entrepreneur, now serving a stretch in a federal pen for dicey campaign contributions to Torricelli (natch), started showering the senator with pricey baubles, fancy suits, fistfuls of cash and a wide-screen television? No matter. Better to "think about the trophies of my life," as Torricelli put it, those political triumphs "that really only I know about, but really, that's enough." Nice effect, that -- modest, intriguing -- and only somewhat decimated by his proceeding to enumerate said "trophies" in some detail: the lives changed "because of the mammography centers that I created"; the child who "will play in a park that I funded and land that I saved"; and "some senior citizen who doesn't even know my name and nothing about what we're doing today" (a Torricelli voter?) who "will live at a senior center that I helped to build." Big sigh. "That's my life," he added with the satisfaction of having just won a floor vote creating the first seven days. "Don't feel badly for me. I changed people's lives." The prevaricating, sappy brazenness of it all: How will the Democratic Party get along without him? Frankly, it won't. That is, it can't. Just because Torricelli is exiting the Senate race to avoid defeat at the hands of a Republican -- not to mention an electorate disgusted by a venal streak odiferous enough to qualify for Superfund assistance -- doesn't mean Senate Democrats are finished with him. After all, they created this candidate. They have to answer for him. It's not that Torricelli is the first U.S. senator to be brought down by a wide-screen television set or era-appropriate equivalent. What's significant about his fall from integrity is the safety net slung under him by the Democratic leadership. Once the Senate Ethics Committee, having dragged its feet on the case longer than Neanderthal Man, gave Torricelli a pass -- sorry, "severely admonished" him -- for his conduct in the Chang affair, the fix was in: Preserving the Democratic Senate majority at any cost, even by saving a senator who prized diamond earrings more than his reputation, was the order of the day. As for the voters? Fuggeddaboutit, Senate Democrats seemed to say: The people of New Jersey will never know the difference. That last bit, the contempt for the voter, is what rankles most about the Torricelli debacle. And that's something that doesn't change at the last minute with the face of the candidate.