Can Al D'Amato shed his bad-boy image during the Whitewater hearings this month? 'SENATOR CARTOON'

July 16, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of the Sun

There was Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato last January, riding high on the GOP jet stream to power and position. He was now chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, chairman of the Republican senators' fund-raising committee.

He was now one of the most influential men in the Senate.

There would be no more singing "Old MacDonald had some pork" on the Senate floor. No more loud and showy productions with a giant "Taxasaurus" prop. No more Mad Dog D'Amato.

He would be a statesman now. A gentleman senator. A more dignified, less scrappy, less D'Amatoesque D'Amato.

And then . . .

Starry-eyed and once again feeling musical, he holds a news conference around Valentine's Day to announce that he's in love with wealthy New York gossip reporter Claudia Cohen, singing "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie." On the Don Imus radio show in April, he uses a Japanese accent to mock Lance Ito, the judge in the O. J. Simpson murder trial, and then goes on the Senate floor to apologize.

His colleagues in the august body roll their eyes. Again.

"You're not going to change a personality like Al D'Amato," says former New York congressman William Carney.

"He's a category unto himself," says a former Banking Committee staffer. "Senator Cartoon. He's bombastic. He's hilarious. He's a show."

Indeed, the 57-year-old junior senator from New York, who will wield the gavel when the Senate Banking Committee begins its hearings into the Whitewater case Tuesday, has been one of Washington's most controversial figures since he first brought what he understatedly calls his "earthy" style to the Senate in 1981.

Even he admits, as he ascends the power rungs of Washington, that bad boys tend to be bad boys.

"I probably should have made some efforts at being less colorful starting a couple of months ago, and I would have avoided putting my foot in my mouth as I did on the Imus show," the New York Republican says with a laugh. "I've been chastened by that, but I haven't done anything to change an image. I probably should have."

The histrionics, the nasal Brooklynese, the tendency to stand too close and talk too loud and wheel and deal too brazenly have earned him more nicknames than the whole gang of Little Rascals.

He is "the Bart Simpson of the Senate." The "prince of chintzy chutzpah." "Senator Pothole," a reference to his devotion to the most mundane constituent services. "Senator Shakedown" and "Senator Sleaze," less laudatory references to his reputation for strong-arming money out of lobbyists and a 1991 Senate ethics committee rebuke.

The embarrassments and ethics questions have taken a toll on his popularity at home. But not so his power as a politico. Over the last two years, Senator Pothole has set his gaze on a bigger avenue, taking some risks -- and, so far, winning.

In a major coup, he engineered the startling defeat last fall of Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo by plucking little-known Republican George E. Pataki out of the state Senate and pushing him on to victory.

Now the senator is hoping to take his political king-making to the national stage. Chairman of Bob Dole's national steering committee for the GOP presidential nomination, Mr. D'Amato has lined up New York's Republican machine behind the Senate majority leader, all but assuring Mr. Dole a primary victory in the vote-heavy state.

As the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he is building up chits within the Senate with his aggressive, even ruthless, fund-raising for his GOP colleagues. And he is poised to lead an investigation that could damage the president and help determine the outcome of the next election.

"It feels like he's in the catbird's seat right now," says William J. Feltus, staff director for the Senate Republican conference.

Mr. Feltus notes that Mr. D'Amato, in an unusually conciliatory move, sought agreement with Democrats in mapping out the scope of the Whitewater hearings. In fact, he believes that, the Ito gaffe notwithstanding, the senator's new clout fits him like a glove.

But much like O. J.'s provocative demonstration before the jury, the fit may be in the eye of the beholder.

Critics say Mr. D'Amato's considerable baggage -- most of all, a 1991 rebuke by the Senate ethics committee for letting his brother use his Senate office to lobby on behalf of a defense contractor -- undermines his credibility to run the Whitewater hearings.

"To have the most ethically-reprimanded senator now sitting presume to judge the ethics of anyone else, much less the president . . . boy, is this the pot calling the kettle black," says New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. D'Amato for his Senate seat in 1986.

The Washington Post called for Mr. D'Amato to withdraw from the Whitewater hearings.

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