Pete Hamill was sometimes directly involved in politics, as when he wrote a letter in 1968 that helped convince RFK to run for president, but the writer being lionized Wednesday was a master chronicler of New York political figures.
Here are some examples of that sharp eye and dexterity from the pages of Newsday alone:
Cuomo Swept Out On A Wave Of Nostalgia
November 10, 1994
At 7:32, on the night it ended, Mario Cuomo came through the wide revolving doors into the lobby of the Sheraton New York. There was a sudden stirring, some cheers, a shout of "Mario!" The security men studied the hands and pockets and eyes of strangers. Some Japanese tourists looked baffled. Reporters arrived from the distant reaches of the lobby, scavenging for fragments of fact or rhetoric. Cuomo smiled in a rueful way, as if sickened finally by the endless peddling of his own fortune.
"We'll know soon," he said. "There are still a few hours left to vote and I hope everyone comes out."
At the elevators he paused again, and talked about the Great Republican Tide that was supposedly sweeping across the country. "I find it hard to believe," he said, and laughed. "Al D'Amato as chairman of the Banking Committee?" The TV lights were blinding now; Cuomo squinted into this hazard of his occupation, talked a little while longer, then turned away. Before the elevator arrived, he turned again and took a reporter to the side. For a few urgent minutes, Cuomo talked about the medical problems of a mutual friend. He shook his head sadly, said, "I'm sure everything will be all right." Then he went back to the elevator and vanished to a high room to take telephone calls from distant precincts and to watch the electronic arithmetic that added up to the worst defeat of his life.
"God, I hope he wins," a woman named Gloria Underwood said, standing against a pillar in the hotel lobby. "I'm not even from here. I'm from New Jersey. But he always made us feel better, not worse. He never said anything stupid."
She was, of course, right. In his more than two decades of public life, including 12 years as governor, Mario Cuomo didn't end crime, cure AIDS or eradicate poverty. But he didn't add to the general stupidity, either. A citizen could disagree with him, and many did; but the disagreement was always on a reasonably high level. He did not reduce civic discourse to an argument in a saloon.
"I wish he hadn't run again," one old supporter said, in the wide space of the Imperial Ballroom, where press and supporters had gathered to await the verdict. "But once he decided to go, you had to go with him."
In the ballroom, 41 cameras were pitched on a double-tiered platform, aimed at a stage naked except for a speaker's stand. Behind the stand a blue and red flag was adorned with the words "Mario '94." Cuomo supporters were roped off at the far end of the ballroom, drinking from a cash bar. At one point Matilda Cuomo came down to visit with reporters, her face concerned as she spoke to the cameras, urging those who hadn't voted to go out and vote. "There's still time," she said, while her eyes implied that she knew better. There was time, all right; there just weren't enough votes.
Slowly, results began drifting in. In Virginia, Chuck Robb defeated Oliver North. This was no consolation to the assembled New York Democrats for what was to follow, but it was a relief. But there were no cheers for Robb's victory. We have become a more parochial country and that was news from a distant parish. There was a large cheer when Daniel Patrick Moynihan was declared an easy winner at about 8:30.
"No matter what direction some parts of the country are going," Moynihan said, "New York is going forward."
Even the ebullient Moynihan didn't seem to believe this. The Great Republican Tide was real. Very early, it was clear that the Democrats had lost the Senate. Then, at one point, Congressman Charles Schumer came through the crowd, his eyes amazed, saying, "We've lost the House too. We've lost the House." And upstairs, Mario Cuomo was looking at the inevitable. He was winning New York City with about 70 percent of the vote; but the suburbs and upstate were going big for George Pataki.
"This can't be right," a Cuomo partisan said, looking at the huge TV screens in the corners of the ballroom. "Wait 'til Brooklyn comes in."
Brooklyn came in; it wasn't enough. From New York to California, the great white majority was voting against the cities. When they cited crime as their motivation, they meant blacks or Latinos or illegal immigrants. When they cited taxes, they meant welfare. When they endorsed the death penalty, they meant frying or gassing the feral gun-toting young. It would be foolish, and wrong, to dismiss the right-wing tide as simple old-fashioned racism. But it certainly wasn't an expression of tolerance or pluralism.
"They're fed up with Cuomo," one old reporter said, as Pataki maintained his two-point lead. "They're fed up with a lot of things."
That was true in New York State; it was true around the nation. During the long, numbing campaign, the country seemed like a vast scrap yard of rusting ideas. Another prison is not an idea. The electric chair is not an idea. A half-million more cops will not lead to a healthy, productive post-industrial society. But almost no candidate came forward with intelligent ideas that recognized the complexity of life in this country. Every promise implied a return to the past, to a country where everybody worked, and taxes were spent on schools and highways and libraries, instead of being consumed by welfare. To a country free of machine guns and drugs, AIDS and teenaged mothers. To the golden illusions of Ronald Reagan. Make no mistake: The most powerful force in American politics is not anger, it's nostalgia.
In the Imperial Ballroom, as time moved on without a verdict, most people braced for disappointment. Fewer and fewer of the faithful still though Cuomo could win. The crowd at the cash bar thickened. But there was no music because nobody had hired a band. And there were no balloons, no concocted exultation. Then, abruptly, the TV screens announced that it was over. After a while, Cuomo came down to the ballroom to stand behind that lonesome podium, flanked by family and supporters. He congratulated Pataki, and then silenced the scattered boos of his own partisans.
"No, please, please, no, no . . . George Pataki is the next governor of New York. We will all respect him. We will work with him . . ."
He seemed tired of the ancient rituals, the utterance of the usual calls for healing, the demand for public grace. He performed them anyway, like an archbishop whose faith was eroding. Then it was over, for Cuomo, for the remnants of New Deal liberalism, for the politics of embrace and compassion. All of that is gone now. The 21st Century beckons. The country will now have to live with men and women who have promised to take us back to the future.
Why Not Hand Our Problems To the Highest Bidders?
December 14, 1994
With the millennium at hand, and the Great Republican Crusade about to sweep the country clean, the key word is privatization. The Republicans insist that they want to get the government off our backs. That means turning over as many government services as possible to the private sector. Local governments have already begun this glorious process of liberation. In New York, Mayor Giuliani wants to sell Kennedy Airport, and if that works, the Brooklyn Bridge can't be far behind. Clearly, this wonderful trend should be extended to the entire nation. A few suggestions:
1) Sell the welfare system for $ 1 to any bidder, foreign or domestic, who will take it. Nationally, this system contains much real estate: office buildings, run-down hotels, shelters. But it's also a potential source of inexpensive workers, particularly after the Republicans scrap the stupid child-welfare laws.
All 14 million welfare recipients, male and female, adults or children, would become employees of the new entity. This new corporation would provide low-cost work teams to various city governments to replace high-priced municipal workers dismissed in the Great Downsizing. It could provide agricultural workers to replace the deported illegal aliens. Some employees could be shipped overseas. The money would roll in.
2) Sell all public housing. Obviously, people like Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley could do a much better job of running these developments than a group of faceless bureaucrats. They would insist on the payment of rent. They would provide better security. They would evict riffraff. And eventually they would afford every resident the chance to attain the American dream: buying a condo.
3) Sell the armed forces. With the Cold War over, and taxes so unpopular, the military is a luxury we can no longer afford. The U.S. Marine Corps is as anachronistic as the cavalry. The Army could be sold to a private corporation that could then rent its services to the people who need it: Saudia Arabian despots, various dictators who could then get rid of their own armies, Mexican billionaires. It could become the modern equivalent of the Swiss Guard.
The Cunard Line could take over the Navy, offering rides to kids, weather reports to television stations, gunrunning services to foreign governments. The Air Force could be sold to some great private sector outfit like USAir or TWA, and be run by hard-nosed bottom-line veterans of Pan Am and Eastern Airlines. In the unlikely event of war, the federal government could make its own deals with these private military companies. Payment with certified checks, of course.
4) Sell the State Department. Most Republican observers insist that President Clinton has no foreign policy anyway. So if there is no foreign policy, why not just sell the State Department? The ideal bidder would be some large multinational corporation - Sony, Citibank, Universal Pictures - that could use all those experts on that boring foreign stuff. The headquarters building and foreign real estate could be transformed into malls or car showrooms. The White House could get all it needs to know about the world from Compuserve, USA Today and the New Republic.
5) Sell the CIA. Again, with the Cold War long behind us, why should the government keep pouring billions into this outfit? Sell it to some hot young guys who read Forbes. Let them change the name to the Capitalist Intelligence Association, and have the analysts devote their considerable talents to market research. It would be much cheaper for the federal government to buy a daily report from this corporation than to support thousands of intelligence bureaucrats. Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover managed to govern without a CIA, and they oversaw a much nicer country; ask Strom Thurmond.
6) Sell the national parks. Who needs mountains and forests and rivers and streams? What good do all those deer and fish and rabbits provide the U.S.? Get rid of them. Get rid of the park rangers, with their disgusting bloated salaries. Let the ranchers graze. Let the builders build.
The Republicans are apparently determined to destroy our existing cities, those descendants of Sodom and Gomorrah. That means that all the Disgruntled White People will need new places to live. Why should some bear have a view of Yosemite? Did a moose ever meet a payroll? Did a spotted owl? Get the government out of the land business and cede the open country to the splendid patriots who gave us Love Canal and Three Mile Island.
7) Sell the interstate highway system. Obviously, leaving these roads in the hands of the federal government is some dirty, underhanded form of socialism. Let some courageous American enterpreneur take over the roads, collect tolls and bank some dinero. That would turn a massive tax consumer into a taxpayer. There would be no speed limits, of course, so all the state troopers could be removed from the public teat. There would be no need for competitive bidding on maintenance; the contracts could go to friends, relatives and cronies, the people who made America great. Job creation! Profits! Lower taxes! Nirvana, baby.
8) Abolish all regulatory agencies. A vigorous capitalism must be unfettered. But thousands of bureaucrats are now regulating stocks, bonds and securities, banks and insurance companies, the food and drug industries, airlines and railroads, bus and truck companies and other enterprises. The Wall Street Journal editorials are right: capitalists need to get the government off their backs, and this should be done swiftly.
The bottom-line theory is this: Life is hard. If you're dumb enough to buy stocks from a swindler, too bad. Try the racetrack next time, or Vegas, or Lotto. If your banker goes south with your money, start over. We must trust the market. The market is holy. The market is always right. If too many people die from contaminated food, the food companies will fail. Airlines that crash too often will go out of business. If you get killed on the job because of unsafe conditions, hey, be happy you had work until the moment of your death. If the rivers, beaches and lakes are poisoned, buy a pool and switch to chicken. We live in a tough, competitive world. We have to be tough. And free.
9) Sell the nation's prisons. This is obviously a major American growth industry. Let some enterprising Americans make money from it. They could effect enormous savings immediately by cutting out namby-pamby luxuries: gymnasiums, libraries, educational services, drug treatment programs, pay phones. Meals could be cut to 800 calories a day, with hardtack and coffee for breakfast.
Television rights to live executions could go for small fortunes. There would be a huge market for videos of the State's Greatest Hits: final moments in the hot seat or the most desperate struggles while being given lethal injections. As more and more prisoners are killed, the empty wings could be rented out for orphanages.
All of the above would lead to a leaner, more efficient government. Most of all, taxes would be drastically lowered without adding to our deficits and therefore every single American would be happy at last. Even Jesse Helms. Let us begin.