He Should Thank Us

New Jersey is hot as a pistol. “The Sopranos,” Bruce Springsteen, Bob Torricelli, a state Supreme Court that expresses its latent creativity by taking a broad and even artistic approach to the law. New Jersey is front-page news.

You got a problem with that?

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I happen to love New Jersey. It’s not a hard place to love. I went to high school and college there, I lived there a few years ago, and there is something poignant and moving in it. Jerseyites all know they’re part of a national punch line—“I’m from Jersey!”—and they accept it with grace and a shrug and play along with the joke if it’ll make you happy. They are unpretentious.

And Jersey is colorful. It is not a beige state like Virginia, where everything—the hair color of the girls at the mall, the hills, the buildings of Tyson’s Corner—comes in shades of brown. New Jersey has a broad palette; there’s a full ethnic mix, and people have a shock of red hair and black hair and blue eyes and green eyes and freckles and round ebony faces. The grandchildren of the immigrants of Eastern and Western Europe are there, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of black Americans who came north in the 20th century are there, and so are new immigrants from all over the world.

It has the same ethnic mix as New York but less conceit. Instead of vanity it has an accommodating brassiness. The Jersey I like best is hard-hat, not high-hat, and working-class. In its old train stations and its black steel bridges—TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES—it looks like the America of “On the Waterfront,” that masterpiece of estrangement, loyalty and love. My Jersey looks like America when America was young and tough.

Of course Jerseyites wince when you write things like this because it seems like you’re reducing the state to clichés. And that’s the politicians’ job.

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Forty years ago, in “The Making of the President, 1960,” the big book that transformed modern political reporting, Theodore White called New Jersey the most corrupt big state in the union and said the reason was that it was the least covered by the media of the day. The great newspapers and the broadcasters with the most resources were in New York and Philadelphia. Jersey media couldn’t hold on to first-rate writers and reporters; those who showed conspicuous talent were quickly lured to the big pay and big bylines of the big cities.

I first read White’s observation when I was in high school. I thought to myself: By the time I’m grown up it will have changed. But it hasn’t entirely.

Which has been both good and bad.

Good: Jersey longer than many states got to continue as itself, unruined by outsiders. It is still distinctive and still capable, at least to some degree, of producing kids with a bona fide regional accent.

Bad: Its rich tradition of corruption continues, if not largely unchecked then only slowly checked. Bob Torricelli would not, I think, have lasted quite so long in New York.

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Others will castigate New Jersey’s Supreme Court, political leadership and senior senator. But I want to castigate Bob Torricelli’s withdrawal speech. It was really interesting and revealing. In fact I think it was a masterpiece of political manipulation that failed.

First, what worked.

The speech was timed and presented in a way that showed savvy and discipline. Mr. Torricelli and his staff kept his decision under wraps until the day he stepped down. That morning they began to leak to media bigfoots. TV cable channels and radio stations trumpeted all day that a big announcement was coming. They did it to hold viewers, which built Mr. Torricelli’s audience. Mr. Torricelli’s people did not put out an advance text of the speech, to the extent there was one, so TV and radio producers didn’t know when to cut to the speech and show the withdrawal. So they had to run the whole speech. Mr. Torricelli made good use of the time, presenting reality as he wished it to be understood. Of course he saved the specific announcement of his withdrawal for the end of the speech, so CNN wouldn’t switch away from his remarks.

This was all really well done.

Mr. Torricelli got maximum exposure and used it to give a last will and political testament. And for a good while it was a good speech.

He began by putting himself in context. He told us “The Story of Torricelli”—the tale of a young Jersey college kid whose mother and sister put his name up for local office. He enters politics. As a young man he meets Anwar Sadat and boldly declares himself to be a future member of the United States Congress. He hungers for political greatness.

There was an elegiac feel to this part of the speech. His review of his life had height. “Thirty years have passed. I’ve loved almost every moment. I fought for everything I believed in, with all the fiber in my body. . . . I’ve had the life that I wanted.”

Then he spoke of something that isn’t spoken of enough: the meaning of a political life. The purpose of politics, he says, is to offer a stage for the betterment of man. He candidly asserts his partisanship, saying that people denigrate partisanship but that he is proud to wear the label: “I have believed in the Democratic Party all my life.”

There was something fresh in this. First, it seemed true. But also, it can be argued that in some ways we don’t have enough partisanship in modern politics. Conservatives like me see the GOP as the party more reflective of their views, and thus deserving of regard and respect. But we don’t “believe” in it. Most of my friends who are Democrats are similarly liberal, and see the Democratic Party as the vehicle of liberalism. They are loyal to it insofar as it is the party of the left. But there is something to be said for direct and declared partisanship. It keeps things clear. It helps move the ball forward, helps propel events and decisions. And it helps the center hold.

Mr. Torricelli then jumps to the day he walked into the Senate. Here he captures what is rarely expressed these days by political figures in public: the romance of the endeavor. He speaks of the old and spontaneous Senate tradition dating back 200 years in which every senator has carved his name, before he left, in the desk he used on the floor of the chamber. The day Bob Torricelli entered the Senate he lifted the lid of his new desk to see whose names were there: “Hubert Humphrey’s name, and Fulbright, and Wayne Morse.” The old liberal giants. He wanted to be among them, to be part of their tradition. “I’ve tried in my own way to add a little bit to whatever they left.”

This is good stuff too.

At this point, about halfway through the speech, I thought: People are going to say this was the speech of his career, and Jersey is going to thank him for going out with style.

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But soon it was clear I was wrong, and I thought of what John Kennedy is supposed to have said of Richard Nixon after his bombastic bowing out of politics in 1962: “No class.”

What happened to turn Mr. Torricelli’s speech bad?

He went too far. He strained credulity and then broke it.

Why was he leaving now? Because he had concluded staying might hand the Republicans a new Senate seat. But it was immediately clear that the timing was related to new allegations that he had attempted to get a pardon from the Clinton White House for a supporter who’d given him $20,000 in illegal contributions. He asserted that withdrawal was his idea, but it quickly appeared to be more largely the result of decisions by national Democratic leaders. He suggested his mistakes were small ones when they were essential ones: the gross peddling of political influence. He suggested the people of New Jersey had been ungenerous in not forgiving him. And there were embarrassing moments such as his apology to Bill Clinton “for not having his strength.”

But the moment when the bad in the speech crystallized was when Mr. Torricelli eulogized himself.

“Somewhere today in one of several hospitals in New Jersey, some woman’s life is going to be changed because of the mammography centers that I created. . . . Somewhere tonight in Bergen County, if a woman is beaten . . . she’ll spend the night in a center that I created. . . . Somewhere today, because I changed the gun laws . . . . Some child in Bergen County will play in a park that I funded, in land that I saved. . . . Somewhere all over New Jersey, some senior citizen who doesn’t even know my name . . . will live in a senior center that I helped to build.”

I created, I funded, I saved, I did. I, I, I. And they don’t even know my name.

This is—well, where to start? It is poor political etiquette, and it is more than that.

Imagine a JFK or a Ronald Reagan talking like that. “I brought the Berlin Wall down—I did it,” “I put Castro in his place.” “I cut taxes and you didn’t even say thanks.” And now you won’t have Torricelli to kick around anymore.

Ronald Reagan and JFK would not speak that way, and not only because each had grace. They also had more understanding of the facts. Mr. Reagan knew it was the patriots and bravehearts of the world who brought the wall down.

But what is sad is that what Mr. Torricelli had to say is more and more how modern politicians talk. And because he seemed to believe what he said.

He did it, he is great, we owe him.

The kind of politicians who do this are the kind who never say they’re in politics. They always say they’re in public service.

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As for who owes whom what: A political figure such as Bob Torricelli should attempt to lead in a certain direction. He may think it good to take taxpayer money—that is, your money, the money you worked for—and dedicate it to the building of a local day-care center. He will push for it and get his bill through. When the day-care center is built the politician will show up on the day it is opened and cut the ribbon. He will get in the papers. He will make a statement. He will appear to be effective, the kind of leader who makes a difference. People will say, My son goes to that center Torricelli built.

This isn’t bad politics. And if you agree that the day-care center should have been built, and should have been taxpayer funded, you will look kindly on him.

But he didn’t “do it., You did. You paid for it. With your taxes. And he was among its chief beneficiaries.

He should thank you.

He should thank the people who paid for the facility he wished to see built and whose existence he will claim as part of his legacy.

The facility serves his interests, in some cases in ways that are not officially sanctioned. The politician, for instance, may see to it that a contractor who is a major contributor gets the bid for the building of the facility. He may see to it that the cousins of his biggest supporter in Essex County work in the facility.

The political figure, that is, can, if he chooses, benefit big time from the building of the facility.

And we all know it. And all of us pretty much accept it. Politics is messy and imperfect. But it is grating to be told by a politician all the things he gave us.

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Here is a rule you can rely on: The kind of politician who insists he is in “public service” and not in “politics” is the kind of politician who’ll ultimately think that his constituents owe him.

And so a speech that started out strong wound up weak, a goodbye that started out moving ended up as merely manipulative, and a testament that started out seeming candid ended sounding like mere blowhardism.

Too bad. I thought Mr. Torricelli would go out like a Jersey guy—straight, unpretentious, humble and tough.