The Mayor's Silence and the President's Guffaw

New York City's landmark Municipal Building will soon be named in honor of its 106th Mayor, David N. Dinkins. After being engaged in 36 political campaigns over the last 27 years -- from presidential to judicial -- I have a lot of stories to tell, including this one featuring the first African-American Mayor of the City of New York.

In 1993, I was working as a special assistant to the campaign manager for the re-election effort of New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins. I shared an office with the present NYC mayor, Bill de Blasio (we were both special assistants to the legendary Bill Lynch, who reprised his role as campaign manager, having scored the historic win over Rudolph Giuilani in 1989).

It was getting late in the campaign cycle, and it was time for our biggest fundraising event, a September 26 gala featuring the Big Dog, President William J. Clinton, and a bevy of Democratic Party heavyweights, both the elected and the moneyed varieties.

The ballroom at the New York Sheraton was packed. It had been a contentious campaign (yes, Mr. Giuliani was just as nasty back then as he is today), and this event was timed to help provide a big momentum boost in terms of campaign cash and also to serve as a wake-up call to the flagging coalition of democratic voters who helped make history in the 1989 general election. We needed them at our backs in a big way, and this event was our campaign's alarm clock.

As the evening's program began and the preliminary speakers sought to excite the standing-room only crowd, I found myself in a small holding room adjacent to the main stage. Remarkably, there were only a handful of people in that room: secret service and other security personnel, President Clinton, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Governor Mario Cuomo, and Mayor Dinkins. The four electeds were standing in a row, waiting for the cue to go onto the stage. I was standing with them, fretting over the Mayor, making sure he had his speech, hoping that the lights weren't too hot so they wouldn't cause excess sweating, and generally trying my best to do my job.

Each of the four men were quiet, perhaps mentally going over their remarks, or thinking of dinner, or of a million different things. Whatever they were each thinking, they weren't really talking to each other. The only one to speak was Senator Moynihan, who kept saying in a somewhat annoyed and insistent voice, "Let's go!" The words sounded like, "Let's gaw-o!" Perhaps he had someplace to go after the event, but despite his frequent two-word request/demand, the four men stood while the speakers on stage made the most of their allotted time, basically repeating what the previous speakers had said. Actually, most of the speakers went over their allotted time, but sharp elbows and egos are always at play at these events. Hence, Senator Moynihan's plaintive "Let's go!"

After what to the Senator probably seemed like an eternity, it was almost time for this big four to make their way into the ballroom. Caught up in this significant moment, I had a passing thought which somehow seeped from my sleep deprived brain into my mouth (at this point in the campaign, we were working around the clock). Just when all four were focused on the next step, I blurted out in a soft but audible voice: "I suppose you gentlemen are wondering why I asked you all here today."

Silence. I heard my breath, like Dr. David Bowman inside his spacesuit in "2001, A Space Odyssey." Inhale, exhale - inhale, exhale. Then Mario Cuomo offered a wry smile, his left eyebrow arching up, Mr. Spock-like. Daniel Patrick Moynihan stared at me, his face pulled into an even bigger frown. He began to speak but probably decided not to waste the effort. Mayor Dinkins glowered, his eyes sparking like the wheels on the old red Broadway local trains, yet he did not speak (or scream, because that's what I was expecting).

President Clinton -- the leader of the free world -- fixed his gaze on me. He had his hands clasped together. Jeez, he seemed really tall! I stood shock still, but figured whatever he was going to do, it would probably pale in comparison to what my boss the Mayor would do to me later on that night (not to mention what Bill Lynch would do).

After a few more beats of silence, POTUS smiled and then let out a heaven-sent guffaw. "That's okay," he chuckled, and as the four men were ushered out of the room, he repeated it: "That's okay."

One guy from the secret service detail patted me on the shoulder - it's the only time I ever saw one smile while they were on duty.

I tried to keep a low profile after the program ended, but that was rather difficult to do as I couldn't avoid Mayor Dinkins, since I was bodying him. After the speeches were over they all trooped off the stage, stopping momentarily to acknowledge Mel Torme (somehow, the Velvet Fog was on the wrong side of the velvet rope). DND (David Norman Dinkins) walked up and handed me his speech folder. I told him that he did a great job on his speech, and then steeled myself for the verbal assault that would soon burst forth.

The assault never came. Given the context of the event, perhaps bigger things were on his mind, fortunately for me. So Mr. Mayor, if you are reading this, I hope you accept my apology, 22 years late. Mr. President, thank you for your apparently impromptu line in the speech: "Too many of us are still unwilling to vote for people who are different than we are." Despite much work to be done, we've come a long way since 1993.

And Mr. President, thanks, too, for that priceless guffaw.