Giants Of New York Politics

The mess in Albany makes me nostalgic for a time when New York politics swaggered with large men: Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Mario Cuomo. Ed Koch. Alfonse D'Amato
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Jimmy Breslin once described Rudolph Giuliani as "a small man looking for a balcony."

Breslin's caustic dismissal of "America's mayor" rebounds to memory at the sight of the current unpleasantness in Albany. New Yorkers are reluctant witnesses to an opera buffa orchestrated by several democratic state senators on the grift. They ask not what they can do for the Empire State. They ask only how much they can scarf from the state trough. Unlike the solipsistic Rudy they don't look for a spotlight. They angle for a paycheck. They'd auction the spotlight on ebay. Lilliputians indeed.

It makes a former political reporter nostalgic for a time when New York politics swaggered with large men. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Mario Cuomo. Ed Koch. Alfonse D'Amato.

In those salad days, I was Chief Political Correspondent for a local TV station. Never mind that I was the only political correspondent, my daily attendance at the words and deeds of the senator from Mensa, the governor from Hamlet, the Emperor mayor or senator Pothole was never less than stimulating.

I was lucky. Most local TV newsrooms in most towns in most of the country don't care a farthing about politics except in presidential election years. But in this town at that time politics was a spectator sport and my station aspired to be its play-by-play voice. It didn't hurt that the players on the field strutted and fretted mightily.

Speaking of great actors, I confess I did envy my colleagues in Louisiana during that time. They had Edwin Edwards. In a state renowned for flamboyant, unorthodox politicians, Edwards was a true heir to the dynasty of the Longs. He remained beloved by the voters even after two scandal-scarred terms. When he made a third run for governor, reporters asked him to assess his chances. Edwards replied, "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." That, my friends, is a colossus. But I digress.

New York's city hall in the time of the reign of Edward I. (for Imperial?) Koch was hardly summer stock. Koch trod the boards across the five boros proving indefatigable of leg and mouth. He went everywhere and spoke about everything. He was a cornucopia of quips, a symphony of soundbites.

It never seemed to faze Koch whether he charmed or infuriated the citizenry with his often snarky opinions. TV News couldn't get its fill. No matter if a reporter was assigned to a fatal car crash on the FDR or the latest fad for losing ten pounds by Thursday, his story was not considered complete without a comment from Hizzoner. No problem. Koch never met a TV camera he didn't serenade. For some of us, spending part of every day with the "Mayatullah" as he once described himself eventually lost its lustre. Would he never shut up?

There came the time when Koch decided he needed a new car. The mayoral ride in those days was a black limo. It was ripe with age. But which car to choose? Naturally, Koch turned his decision into the greatest quest since Jason and the Golden Shmatta. Daily, he mused about the relative attributes of Chrysler or Cadillac. Daily, he insisted rear-seat legroom was paramount; the car would have to be a stretch version. "I have very long legs," Koch reminded us around the clock. And daily we recorded it all and put it up high on the six o'clock news.

One afternoon the News Director assigned me to get "the latest" on the limo. My protest that there was no "latest" fell like a tree in deep woods. Koch was giving a speech at the Hilton hotel in midtown. I waited for him outside near the vehicle that was soon to be replaced. I told my cameraman to maintain a 2-shot for this interview, keep me on screen with Koch. I figured there might be fireworks.

"What's the latest on the car search Mr. Mayor?"

It was like throwing pork chops to a pit bull.

Koch spieled like a tummler. Worn out... springs shot... transmission going... brakes failing... terribly uncomfortable. No legroom in the back. "I have very long..."

"Did you ever think about hiring a shorter driver?"

Silence. Maybe two seconds of glorious silence from the mouth that roared. Gradually, a thin smile creased his lips, he pointed a long index finger at me and crooned, "That's very good, Tony. Unlike you, but very good."

The piece played to rave notices on the evening news.

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