Disruption Rises From the Governor’s Garden

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, August 19, 1986

When one takes vacations during the summer doldrums, one can usually read the morning newspapers without fear of being startled out of, well, the doldrums. Newspapers, like most derivative institutions, tend to take siestas when it is hot and the crickets are softly cheeping lullabies.

Which is why I was struck, on this year’s sabbatical, by all the shouting that so rudely disturbed the season of tranquility. Senators were yelling at the president’s choice for chief justice just because he made a habit of lying. (Funny, they weren’t the slightest bit outraged at the nominee for associate justice for his belief that reporters who publish leaks should be jailed under the mail fraud laws.) Everybody was yelling at everybody else over the latest trendy issue — the war on drugs (mainly the war against designer drugs) — with accusations lying that no one was doing enough to curb the cocaine plague, not even Nancy Reagan, who was not asked to take a urine test because it would have been unseemly.

And then Alfonse D’Amato, the alderman from Long Island who fills one of New York’s two seats in the United States Senate, was yelling at all kinds of people for not cracking down on evil everywhere. Ever vigilant for the common man and recklessly disdainful of the big-money interests, D’Amato battled to the end, in a losing cause, to keep real-estate tax shelters from being lopped out of the country’s new tax legislation.

D’Amato also continued his shtik of railing about “turnstile justice” — that is, about the judges who blithely set free drug fiends to pillage and burn our communities. New York’s chief judge, Sol Wachtler, surprised the alderman by shouting back at him. Wachtler said, “It is bad enough that we have to live with fear of crime, but what is almost as dangerous is the exploitation of that fear by those who divert society’s attention away from cures toward the courts.” Whereupon D’Amato challenged Wachtler to a public shouting match, which he called a debate, over the state of the court system. It’s hard to nap with that kind of hollering going on.

Perhaps the worst disturber of the peace was Governor Cuomo, who bellowed at us by the use of silence and bullying. Cuomo is very popular, for a number of valid reasons, but the tactics he has adopted against his Republican opponent in this year’s campaign, Andrew O’Rourke, and against Abraham Hirschfeld, who opposes the governor’s choice for lieutenant governor, Rep. Stan Lundine, in the September 9 Democratic primary, are almost enough to make those two limp and unimpressive contenders look good.

With O’Rourke, who is the Westchester County executive, Cuomo has embraced the Chrysanthemum Garden strategy, known in the incumbency trade simply as the Mum Maneuver. In brief, he is refusing to debate O’Rourke, who in turn accuses the Democratic governor of hiding “on Mount Olympus.”

Assuming the lofty position from his mountain aerie, Cuomo says: “Why should I give him [free television] time?” He has also sneered: “I haven’t heard anything I would like to engage the Republicans on.”

This refusal to meet his opponent in a public forum is the kind of ploy that Cuomo would have denounced as un-American if it had been practiced against him when he was a contender for mayor and later governor.

His debating skills are formidable — as witnesses recall from his first debate against Ed Koch in the gubernatorial primary of 1982, when he sliced up the New York mayor nearly to the point of overkill. So if O’Rourke is concealing something by not making public a list of all his law clients and his tax returns going back 11 years, as the Cuomo camp implies, then what better stage for the governor to expose those alleged conflicts of interest than a series of open, televised debates?

Cuomo’s overkill on Hirschfeld has been even more pronounced. Hirschfeld, a millionaire who is a builder of parking garages and a harasser of tenants, has sought public office before but never placed higher than third in his tried for City Council president and United States senator. His lack of knowledge about public policy is awesome.

Yet the governor’s pick for his lieutenant-governor running mate, Congressman Lundine of Jamestown, has gone in to the Mum Garden, too, shunning a debate with Hirschfeld that would be certain to reveal the latter’s deficiencies.

The misguided Cuomo-Lundine forces have also gone into court to try to knock Hirschfeld off the ballot, charging systematic fraud and forgery in the gathering of signatures for Hirschfeld’s qualifying petitions.

They are on their way to doing the impossible — turning Hirschfeld into a sympathetic figure. Cuomo has explained his behavior by saying that he considers Hirschfeld totally unqualified for the office. Translation: Cuomo would not sleep well at night running for president if the man who would fill his chair in Albany were to be Hirschfeld. 

Someone should tell him that we’re not sleeping that well, either, with all this yowling and howling and hullabaloo shattering our holiday snooze.

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