Thursday, August 25, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (8/25/05)


Who was Major Deegan? The Major Deegan for whom the expressway is named was William F. Deegan. He had trained as an architect and saw service during the First World War locally, constructing military camps and bases in the New York area. Major Deegan helped to organize the American Legion in New York, served as its state commander and was deeply involved in improving medical care and employment opportunities for veterans.

Active in Democratic politics and a close friend of Mayor Jimmy Walker, Deegan was serving as Commissioner of Tenement Housing when he died at the age of 39 in 1932, following an appendectomy. In signing the ordinance naming a new 1.5-mile link between the Grand Concourse and the Triborough Bridge in his honor in 1937, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, also a friend of Deegan, reminisced about being "captivated by his charming personality."

The original Major Deegan Boulevard was widened and lengthened into an expressway that also bears Major Deegan's name. It survived a later attempt by Gov. George Pataki to change its name to honor Joe Dimaggio.

What makes Jeanine run? Looking back on the events of August 10th, Jeanine Pirro, 54, three-term Westchester County District Attorney, may wish she had consulted a psychic or Tarot card reader before kicking off her campaign on that date. Ever since May, when Mrs. Pirro announced that she was considering higher state office, she has been mulling possible bids for governor or state attorney general. Experts agree that the latter office would have been a shoo-in for her. Instead, she decided to take on the most formidable opponent of all: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It was a kickoff reminiscent of an incident in the 2000 campaign of Rep. Rick Lazio on the day before he accepted the Republican nomination to challenge Hillary Clinton in her first run for the Senate, While marching in a Memorial Day parade and waving to the crowd, he tripped and fell smack on his face. The result was a swollen lip that required eight stitches.

Mrs. Pirro comes to the campaign with some heavy baggage: a husband named Albert, the felon and disbarred lawyer who served time for filing fraudulent joint tax returns that illegally deducted luxury automobiles, legal expenses in unsuccessfully fighting a paternity suit over a daughter he had fathered eight years after his marriage to Jeanine, high-tech electronic gates for their kitschy home, and the care and feeding of Wilbur and Orville, their pet pot-bellied pigs. Husband Albert, whom she had met at the Albany Law School, had put the kibosh on her political career in 1986, when she had to give up the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor after he refused to release information about his law practice.

August 10 was a series of fiascoes occurring with a tempo like that of an exquisitely timed Buster Keaton comedy. The first happened in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where she was to make the official announcement launching her campaign. At eight minutes into her speech, she read the words, "Hillary Clinton" and turned the page to continue. She suddenly became mute and did not finish the sentence. She furrowed her brow, She frantically shuffled pages. After 32 seconds of embarrassed silence, she turned to an aide and asked for a copy of missing page 10. It was provided, and she resumed speaking. But the ordeal wasn't over. After only 15 seconds, she seemed to lose her place in the text. Another silent gap followed, this time lasting eight seconds.

Other than these gaffes, to impartial observers it seemed like a good speech with which to start a campaign. She described her work as a prosecutor and talked about growing up in upstate New York. She admitted to being a red Republican on fiscal matters but one with broad blue stripes on social issue like abortion and stem cell research.

The would-be candidate's major complaint seemed to be that Hillary Clinton could conceivably run for President while serving in the Senate for a second term. "New York deserves a senator who will give her all to the people of New York for a full term," she maintained--a questionable position. With 13 months to go before the primaries and 16 months to go before the election, this leaves her open to the counter argument that the citizens of Westchester also deserve a full-time District Attorney.

Mrs. Pirro's speech included a confusing sound bite involving welcome mats and doormats, obviously intended to be a trademark of her campaign. She claimed that Hillary Clinton "asked us to put out the welcome mat and New York did--but now she wants to use New York as a doormat to the White House."

Queried about policy issues like the deficit, she begged off, saying, "This is my first day in the campaign." At one point Michael McKeon, Pirro campaign spokesman and Gov. George Pataki's former director of communications, lost his cool and used an obscenity in responding to Ben Smith of the New York Observer, who had the temerity to ask when the would-be candidate would learn about the issues. The usually affable McKeon apparently forgot Dan Quayle's admonition about not getting into a fight "with someone who buys printer's ink by the barrel."

New York newspapers saw Pirro's first day on the campaign trail as less of a perfect 10 dive into statewide politics and more of a belly flop. The New York Times reporters Patrick D. Healy and Al Baker called it "a fiery but rocky start." Reporters Greg Smith and Joe Mahoney used a biting lead on their Daily News story of the day's events: "It may have been a hot day in the dead of August but Jeanine Pirro froze up."

The Post's Linda Stasi also concentrated on Pirro's 32 seconds of silence: "While mistakes happen and you get past them (except if you're Rick Lazio), what was startling is that Pirro, a woman I personally and professionally like very much, hadn't memorized the thing and seemed unable to improvise." Summing up, Ray Hernandez of The New York Times said of Mrs. Pirro: "Most New York voters do not seem to have any idea who she is." Her supporters cried "Foul," and accused the media of piling on. But the tapes were there for everyone to see, and besides it was a slow news day.

After the Waldorf disaster, her next stop was Albany, where she arrived 20 minutes late. With the wide stone Capitol steps as a backdrop, she began speaking. About a minute into her speech, a reporter called out, "Jeanine, we have no sound." "You have no sound?" the exasperated candidate asked. The reporter explained, "You'd be pretty upset if you had no voice on the evening news." Jeanine killed time by chatting with reporters. "I'm still running for U.S. senator," she jested.

When the technical glitches were finally corrected, she resumed speaking. Three minutes into the speech, she decided to try the welcome mat sound bite again--but she mangled it. "When Hillary Clinton first came to New York, she said she wanted to be a New Yorker. We put out the doormat," Pirro said and hesitated. Realizing her error, she tried to recover. "And now she's using that welcome mat as a doormat to the White House." The metaphor was unsalvageable.

Buffalo was the next stop. Here in the state's second largest city, home of her alma mater, SUNY Buffalo, it started to rain on her speech. An aide opened an umbrella to hold over her, but a gust of wind turned it inside out. She hastily shortened her speech as the rain began to come down in torrents. It was the last straw.

Not quite. The final blow was the blooper that turned up on the Jeanine Pirro web site. In a reference to the Mohawk Valley, it spelled the valley's name as "Mowhawk."


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