New York Vice and Our Undercover Senator

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, July 11, 1986

Sen. Alfonse D’Amato is so much a creature of the photo-opportunity age that one resists the temptation to comment on his antics because to do so invites the reprimand that one is taking easy shots at a large, completely voluntary target.

But not to comment can sometimes be an abdication of the need to say that serious issues are not necessarily best dealt with by hokeyness and flashing lights.

The senator — who is running for re-election this fall — has always seemed to be everywhere in our newspapers and on our television screens. Posing alongside water leaks in a subway tunnel. Posing with giant scissors as he cuts ribbons. Posing in a speedboat that is used, when it is not posing, to overtake drug runners.

On Wednesday, he took the ritual to a new level. He donned a disguise — army-type jacket and shirt, visored cap bearing sergeant’s chevrons and pilot’s sunglasses — and went out to buy drugs.

He went into Upper Manhattan in a sports car with a woman undercover agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration. They played rock music loudly (WPLJ) on the car radio.

They were followed and watched and photographed and videotaped by lots of other agents and by a van carrying a press pool of photographers and reporters who recorded the event through the rear windows.

The trendily dressed senator and the agent parked their sports car near 160th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where the agent had spotted a member of that army of people who now peddle on New York City streets the substance known as crack, a distilled, concentrated form of cocaine that can send the heart into spasm and bring a quick end to the life of the user.

The agent gave a signal to the dealer — touching her nose and then holding up two fingers — and he then disappeared into a building and emerged with two vials of crack. The senator rolled down his window, gave the man a $20 bill, took the vials and said, “Thank you.” This graciousness should have tipped the dealer that D’Amato was a ringer, but it didn’t. Or maybe the dealer knew it was just a photo opportunity and was being a good fellow and going along with it.

Two other senior officials also participated in this event — the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Rudolph Giuliani and Benjamin Baer, chairman of the Federal Parole Commission. They, too, were in costume — Giuliani in a Hell’s Angels black leather vest decorated with patches that said “Dirty Thirty” and “Filthy Few,” and Baer in a house painter’s outfit. Both, of course, also wore sunglasses.
Like D’Amato, Giuliani and Baer also bought some crack, but through ill timing, the surveillance van failed to get any film of their purchases. Only D’Amato got a videocassette to take home for the kids.

No arrests were made because, it was explained, the purpose of the event was not to lock up low-level street dealers, but instead to dramatize the ease with which this vicious, highly addictive drug can be purchased in this city.

A press conference was held downtown immediately following the event. The costumed senator, as he was in the past, called for new laws to stiffen both the penalties for trafficking in crack and the parole rules for convicted dealers.

He talked about the judicial system being a revolving door and “a mockery.” He indignantly denied that he had arranged the whole thing as an election-year stunt.

Newspaper coverage was extensive. Large photos of D’Amato and Giuliani in their undercover clothes dominated the front pages of the Daily News and the New York Post (the latter also giving the story its banner headline). The New York Times carried a photo on Page 1 and New York Newsday ran it on Page 4. Television, both local and national, gave the story wide play.

Giuliani said yesterday in a telephone interview that he was surprised at the explosion of publicity (“I didn’t expect it to be the kind of event that it was”), but he defended the exercise on the ground that the problem is so severe that every opportunity has to be seized to get the public’s attention and “build momentum” for the resources needed to deal with the crack epidemic.

One cannot but endorse the federal prosecutor’s concern about crack. And indeed every newspaper and television station in town has been drumming away on an almost daily basis about it.

But does Wednesday’s Big-Top performance get the public thinking seriously about crack, or does it instead run the risk of trivializing the issue by focusing on the masquerade, the getups and the unlikely behavior of a U.S. senator? In short, does it occasion more quips and jokes than sober contemplation of the drug problem?

In the aftermath, both Giuliani and a spokesman for D’Amato said, in effect, that the affair may have seemed hokey to some people but it got the point across. The D’Amato spokesman also stressed the senator’s history of speaking out on drugs.

But do you command respect for your ideas by dressing up in funny clothes and running around like the Blues Brothers? Is the senator’s recognition factor in such jeopardy that he has to put on shades and olive-drab army surplus garb and cruise into drug-heavy neighborhoods for a mock buy, followed by a press van?

Actually, maybe the recognition factor is the problem. As ubiquitous as the D’Amato visage is in print and on television, the crack dealers utterly failed to recognize him. What a blow.

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