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Lazio: Pensive and jobless in New York

On the stereo, Bruce Springsteen moans about regrets, setting a pensive mood inside the local hero's gray-shingle ranch, masking the doorbell's trill. The slightly depressed homeowner, almost 43 and out of work for the first time since puberty has Springsteen bending one ear, a phone in the other (sometimes it's the vice president, floating job prospects: FDIC commissioner, housing under secretary, ambassador to Italy). Since answering doorbells is not his priority, a lawyer sidekick, Ken Trepeta, does the honors on the second ring.

Outside, a crew of workmen rip up Rick Lazio's front yard as they bury a street-long length of cable _ the lawn of the failed Senate candidate gets no executive privileges. He and his neighbors in this seaside hamlet will have plenty to gripe about when they rev their mowers come spring (after eight years in Congress, Lazio is available for yard duty).

In 2000, he gave up his House seat, traumatized his family and spent $33-million in Republican money, all for naught. All for a nasty Senate campaign that, he says, left his psyche bruised, left his identity compromised, left him jobless with three mouths to feed and, worse in a way, won a six-year term for his nemesis, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Some people will sacrifice kindness and goodness for cunning and savage determination," he says, not naming any names.

Instead of him, it's that woman ensconced in Washington as New York's junior senator. The day he lost the election, Lazio felt "like the Mets" to Clinton's Yankees; four months later, he still does. Like the guy who strikes out and lets down his team: "The greatest disappointment in all this is the inability to really lead," he says, "to show people they could feel good about their public servants, have a good role model for their children that they could point to as a person who would never double-cross them, never find his hand in the till, never find him wrapped in a scandal."

Yes, he's accepting sympathy votes these days. And if you'd like to help defray the final $2-million or so his campaign owes its final 46 creditors, his staff accepts sympathetic contributions, too.

What a difference an election makes. While Clinton plays senator, Lazio spends a morning in a Babylon, N.Y., classroom with a bunch of sixth-graders. Then he gives a pep talk, tells the students to let nothing hold them back. After all, he used to be one of them, "sat in the same seats, flunked the same tests, got cut from the same teams." Look where he is now!

By the way, where is he now?

"He must be on the phone upstairs," Trepeta says. "He'll be right down."

Sure enough, into the family room strides Lazio. He fetches himself a cherry Tootsie Pop, straightens a picture above the sofa, scans the room for stray toys (it's on his chore list), then pronounces himself ready to vent his, ah, disappointment. Yes, he knows that's Sen. Clinton's favorite word, what with the sordid flap over ill-gotten furniture and pardon peddling.

About her culpability in those pardons, he says: "I think the public should figure it out without me. People are not stupid."

As for why his campaign went south: assuming he had to play presidential hardball, he hired the wrong people (notably the McCain strategist Mike Murphy), sent out the wrong message, became a pit bull when puppyish ("But not a pushover!") is more his style. "There was no time to reflect," he reflects. "It compromised who we could hire, who we could fire. I should have stopped the campaign after a week, sent everybody on a three-day retreat, said, "Let's get on the same page.' If I had one overarching regret, it was that I didn't trust my own instincts. I'm still struggling with it." Faith, he says, helps him cope.

But life goes on, as do living expenses: There's this house, a Fire Island place, a Washington apartment (hey, you never know), and two daughters to put through college. "Family security" has him leaning toward the private sector, though his "heart is in public service."

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