In his pastel tie, Ed Rollins was all smiles and looking strangely father-of-the-bride at KT McFarland’s reception in the Garden City Hotel’s “Société Suite.” It was the night before the State Republican convention kickoff at Long Island’s Hofstra Arena, and all the pyrotechnic WELCOME REPUBLICANS! flower arrangements in the hotel lobby couldn’t compensate for the fact that as an event, this one was going to fall a little short on fireworks.
Rollins’s back was acting up, and he was propped against a wall of Versailles mirror. A 1964 Olympic-boxing-team alternate, Rollins spent eight weeks as Joe Frazier’s sparring partner before his political-consultant glory days. Lately, he has been gleefully pummeling John Spencer, McFarland’s opponent for the GOP senatorial nomination, with the object of sparking a class war among New York Republicans.
Spencer is the pro-life but anti-everything-else mayor of Yonkers, a community-college dropout, Vietnam vet, and 30-years-recovered alcoholic prone to fairly spectacular gaffes about women, gays, and immigrants. (“What the fuck?” is how Spencer reportedly reacted when McFarland, a Park Avenue housewife with long-ago White House and Pentagon experience, entered the race as a last-minute replacement after the party pushed out Jeanine Pirro.)
“I just want to bloody his nose a little,” said Rollins.
Even for a political showman and quote chimp like Rollins, it was quite a performance. His Santa beard barely concealed a smirk as he unpacked his charges a few weeks ago on NY1: Spencer was a bigamist, Rollins claimed, a guy who’d cheated on his wife with his chief of staff while virtually tripling her salary and fathering two “illegitimate children” with her. Spencer had sixteen relatives on the payroll, gave away more Lincoln Navigators than Bob Barker.
And “that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Rollins said, allowing that perhaps this was business as usual in a rinky-dink burg like Yonkers, where Rollins actually has a house, in Waspy Bronxville.
Kathleen Troia “KT” McFarland and her ilk don’t even consider Yonkers part of Westchester, one Spencer supporter lamented. “They look at it almost like Staten Island.” KT’s husband, Alan McFarland, confirmed this: “I don’t think any of these people that I’ve met have ever heard about John Spencer or thought about him or are likely to.”
McFarland is a pin-striped investment banker with an upturned Opie Taylor nose; further conversation colored in a life in which squash had played a curiously prominent role. Spencer’s candidacy, he said, was “some sort of background noise that happens in politics today.”
Blue bloods and blue-collars have always mingled uneasily in the GOP. Spencer was calling himself “the one and only Reagan Republican in this race,” but Manhattan’s liberal-leaning delegation was impressed by the girls handing out jelly beans on KT’s behalf who looked like they worked at Christie’s. Spencer considers Manhattan’s Republican county chair James Ortenzio “a nitwit,” he told me, “and all of his liberal geeky friends couldn’t get elected in a windstorm.”
Alan’s eldest from a prior marriage arrived at the reception in a bow tie. “In my neighborhood, if a guy showed up wearing a bow tie, we’d kick his ass,” muttered one Spencer supporter, standing off to the side. Spencer’s lovable galoots, by contrast, tend to speak a recklessly accented English, and some flashed creative shirt-and-tie combos.
Spencer talks about the night he was at a party “down in Manhattan,” and he was introduced to a socialite, a GOP moneybags.
“I’m the former mayor of Yonkers,” he told her.
“Oh, Yawnnkkers,” she replied. “That’s where our maids live.”
Spencer’s humble origins are a crucial part of his sell. Up close, the former construction worker has sun-scoured cowboy skin but somehow looks younger than his age, 59. The foster child of a country-club greenkeeper and his wife (who already had eight kids of their own), Spencer confessed that he’s wondered all his life why they didn’t formally adopt him.
“I never found out the rock-solid answer,” he said.
Spencer was on the Thruway, cell-phoning between the kind of engagements one campaign worker describes as “dairy this and cow that.” He was annoyed that some might consider Mrs. McFarland more senatorial on the basis of her education.
“ ‘Oy went to Augss-ford, and Oy went there on scholarship,’ ” he imagined KT saying, in his best British accent. “It’s wonderful you got a good education,” he continued, “but that surely doesn’t make you intelligent.”
Spencer insists he didn’t drop out of college: “I defiantly walked away from college after two years and said, ‘This is nonsense,’ and I joined the military. I went on to get my education the real way—working.” Spencer’s résumé deflation seemed a bit of a put-on. He doesn’t say that after he quit drinking, night-school courses enabled him to score a job as a Bankers Trust vice-president.
It was a full year he served in Vietnam, the platoon leader of as many as 44 men. A soldier in the field was “on edge 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says, and the foxhole mentality doesn’t seem to have left the man, who is still angry at local station News12 (or “Nitwit News,” as he deems it) for roughing up his administration even though he considered himself a Jack Welch type running this $800 million corporation called Yonkers. The Journal-News stopped comparing him with Rudy Giuliani only after September 11. He forced a tart little laugh.
“They’ve had a meat cleaver out for John Spencer since day one of my political career,” he said a bit Nixonishly.
Campaign workers talk about how Spencer suffered as much inner torment about his unconventional love life as Richard Chamberlain did in The Thorn Birds. Spencer is such a good Catholic, they argue, that he couldn’t divorce his first wife. Spencer admitted that priests were called in to mediate, the first time he’s spoken openly to the media about his marital difficulties. Rollins likes to say that Spencer was still living with his wife when he cheated with his chief of staff, and after she became pregnant, Spencer denied he was the father.
Spencer had finally decided to address this: “As we were going through that, me and my first wife, I mean logistically, did it take me a while to physically get out of my house and in with Kathy? Yeah, of course it did. I’m the mayor of Yonkers, and we had to do it a certain way.” Then he escaped into the Land of Off the Record.
“John Spencer reminds a lot of women of their first husbands, and I don’t think many women want to vote for their first husbands,” says Rollins.
“I truly resent that as a U.S. Senate candidate, I have to answer these how-long-has-it-been-since-you-stopped-beating-your wife questions from such a low-class character as Ed Rollins,” Spencer told me.
Spencer married his girlfriend three years ago, and at the convention, she would slip away to smoke in her respectable Chanel-copy suit. KT was also dipped in some kind of Chanel, her Magic Shell bubble-do flattering (if vintage). A handbag needlepointed by Alan’s grandmother with American eagles seems as much a signature as the Bush pearls. KT, who enjoys needlepoint herself, would soon start on a Christmas stocking for one of her “grans.”
What the convention lacked in star power, it more than made up for in intrigue and conspiracy. At one point, McFarland adviser Rich Galen says he walked in on George Pataki holed up in the Hofstra Arena’s greenroom, state troopers posted outside. The governor was calling in county chairs, asking them to help block KT from the ballot the day of the convention so there wouldn’t have to be a primary. The governor had taken several potential candidates out on the dance floor this year—Pirro, Richard Nixon’s son-in-law Ed Cox, William Weld—and serially humiliated them. But the real culprit was said to be Elizabeth Dole, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who apparently made it known she didn’t want to waste her money on a primary.
“Elizabeth’s a very dear friend of mine, and we have cornered her on that,” Rollins said later, seething. Rollins was standing in one depopulated tier of the arena pitched slightly forward, like a sea captain trying to keep his balance on the deck of a storm-buffeted ship, and he exulted when KT scored 36 percent of the delegates’ votes—which after only ten weeks on the trail was almost as much as William Weld received. (The next morning, every county chair who’d backed McFarland received a hand-written thank-you note.)
There was talk that Ed Cox, the professorial prepster with wireless glasses now working the floor of the convention, his hands shoved into his pockets, was the vengeful architect of the McFarland campaign. After all, it was Cox who reportedly received a let’s-do-something-about-Hillary e-mail from Karl Rove. “Ed Cox never, ever, volunteered to help us,” said Rollins peevishly.
Spencer & Co. hubristically believe that Hillary Clinton has been pushing KT’s candidacy ever since Friends of Hillary pac spokeswoman Ann Lewis told somebody she knew KT would run three days before the announcement. (In fact, KT’s entrance was widely rumored.) A Spencer press release, absurdly titled “The Clinton-McFarland Connection: A vast left-wing conspiracy?,” lists several McFarland friends who have donated to candidates of both parties.
Rollins disputed any Clinton connection. “The Clintons have always had an obsession against me,” he insisted with his usual amour propre. He’d heard President Clinton considered him the Republican’s best general, “but like Patton, I was overly aggressive.” (Not two minutes later, he was praising Bill: “The best political animal I’ve known in my lifetime.”)
The McFarlands have also sipped paranoia from the same straw, with KT announcing at one GOP dinner that the Clintons had helicopters flying over her beach house taking pictures. (Just kidding! she said later.) Most agree it’s McFarland who stands a better chance against Hillary, even if, as most believe, the sacrificial socialite was tapped to temper any Hillary landslide in preparation for 2008.
McFarland has a let’s hear-it-for-the-sisters strategy. There are just as many Republican women as men in New York—close to 1.5 million—and a week later, KT kicked off a series of “kitchen talks” across the state. “John Spencer reminds a lot of women of their first husbands, and I don’t think many women are going to vote for their first husbands,” said Rollins.
But even Rollins occasionally experiences seller’s remorse. He now says his comment about Spencer’s kids’ being illegitimate “was an inappropriate thing for me to say.” His own divorce lawyer told him that what Spencer got up to did not amount to bigamy. Still, he can’t help but mention that Spencer once ran a janitorial business (“It was more than that, it was a maintenance business,” Spencer corrects me), then chattered about some top aide and pedophile whom Spencer put on several months’ paid leave, and he made sure I’d heard the one about the mafioso captured on tape saying, “Spencer Spencer Spencer Spencer.” (“That guy also said on the tape he had lunch with Mariah Carey and got her to sing a song,” Spencer manager Kevin Collins told me. “He has no credibility.”)
Rollins is hunting down Spencer’s military records. “There were so many guys getting killed in Vietnam that it wasn’t so difficult [for Spencer to be made first lieutenant]—and it wasn’t so difficult to get a Bronze Star,” he added casually. As for those who would compare Spencer with Al D’Amato, Rollins says D’Amato was pro-choice and had little baggage, stole home base in a fluky Reagan sweep: “The crass and the crude part may be the only comparison you could make.”
Rollins imagines what life would be like for Spencer if Hillary Clinton took the gloves off. “All of a sudden, you get $10 million of TV commercials statewide crushing this guy, and you can imagine he’ll be back on the bottle under the bed.”
“As trashy as Ed Rollins is, I hold Mrs. McFarland responsible,” says Spencer. “She’s the dirtiest politician I’ve met in sixteen years.” Two nights earlier, Tucker Carlson called Spencer “a drunk guy who no one knows” on MSNBC.
“A lie goes around the world while the truth is still tying its shoelaces,” said Spencer.
I was now sitting in KT McFarland’s kitchen, where her campaign has decided that she likes being photographed, at her Park Avenue duplex in what is known as the Agnelli Building to the town’s real-estate brokers. Judging from its chintz curtains and sack-back Windsor chairs, a decorator hadn’t so much as sneezed in there in several years (or in the cozy den off the hall, every painting a clipper at sea). McFarland, 54, has been accused in the newspapers of spotty voting (“The realities of family life took precedence,” she’d said) and cooking her résumé. Some of her first-female, highest-ranking claims were borderline, and adjustments had been made. The New York Times had revealed that she hadn’t actually written the critical anti-ballistic-missile insert that gave Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech its name. Still, any physical contact with the document seemed compelling. A conscientious job applicant, KT gave me William Howard Taft IV and Bud McFarlane as references.
“As trashy as Ed Rollins is, I hold Mrs. McFarland responsible,” says Spencer. “She’s the dirtiest politician I’ve met in sixteen years.”
There’s still some careful gardening going on. Her father’s people came from outside Palermo, and of those grandparents, KT remarked a bit fliply, “I don’t even think they could read.” Her mother’s maiden name was Fuller, “from an old New England family,” she said.
KT’s father worked the night shift as a train dispatcher in Madison, Wisconsin. The eldest of four, KT had a brother here in New York City who had followed her to George Washington University and then worked as an analyst. “Ummmm. He was sick and then he died,” is all she would say when pressed. Michael Troia had aids; his obituary listed three “companions.”
KT, the moderate in this race, couldn’t abide his sexual orientation. Shortly after she discovered Mike had aids, she wrote her parents lengthy, angry, almost Gothic letters in which she outed her brother, blamed her father for his troubles as well as those of her and her other siblings, and cut off contact with her parents. “Have you ever wondered why I have never had anything to do with Mike and have never let my daughters see him although we live only fifteen minutes away from each other?” she wrote. “He has been a lifelong homosexual, most of his relationships brief, fleeting one-night stands.” The father’s behavior had surfaced for McFarland as recovered memory. She said a shrink put her up to writing the letter; reached for comment, her mother, Edith Troia—KT has since made up with her parents—denied the account. “Wouldn’t that make a great book?” she said. “Please be kind. You could be casting dark shadows on this whole race.”
KT could type—fast. She was hired as a secretary on the night shift in Henry Kissinger’s office. That she typed the president’s confidential daily briefing mightily impressed Erie County Republican Party chairman Bob Davis, who blustered at the state convention, “Folks, this is one serious lady!” Kissinger was making secret overtures to the Chinese; intrigued, KT majored in Chinese studies. Her campaign literature peddles her as “a member of Henry Kissinger’s influential National Security Council staff”—early on, the New YorkTimes was calling her Kissinger’s “protégée.” But in large part, she kept the man’s files.
In an effort to be “taken really seriously,” she hustled up a scholarship to Oxford. Then it was off to MIT. Her dissertation, “The Sino-Soviet nuclear confrontation of 1969 from the point of view of the Herman Kahn stepladder period of escalation,” was junked when Reagan was elected and jobs were in play.
Here things get turbid: At the Senate Armed Services Committee, she labored over talking points and briefings, and says she was the first female hired with any policy background. Within six months, she moved over to the Pentagon, as a spokeswoman and deputy assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs, a title truncated in her handouts just before the key words for public affairs. She was a speechwriting Marisa Berenson in mabe-pearl earrings who dated Les Aspin and smoked Trues. She befriended pre–Supreme Allied Commander George Joulwan and the young Colin Powell, but readily admits that stroke-victim Margaret Thatcher, who’d urged her to run at Cap Weinberger’s funeral, only pretended to remember her.
The consultant John McLaughlin was going to represent her for a congressional run against Carolyn Maloney. After Rollins pronounced the seat unwinnable and urged her to switch races, McLaughlin released a confidential memo in which KT described herself as having the civilian rank of three-star general (since emended to “two and a half stars.”).
In the past, she’d railed about our failings in Iraq but now said she was seeing progress. Spencer told me he expected KT would behave just like those politicians who acted like we’d lost the Vietnam War. Calling Saddam Hussein a “maniac nut,” he seemed nettled by KT’s inability to take a position “without trying to sound intellectual and well read.” More locally, KT sees renewable energy and biogenetic engineering as the cure for upstate ills; Spencer suggests factories and light industry.
“She’s more of a thinker than Spencer. She’s not willing to shoot illegal immigrants coming across the border, and I think he will,” said Rollins, cackling. Spencer sometimes seems a bit ingenuous, telling me there’s simply no way American soldiers could be torturing prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, because “last night Bill O’Reilly visited there. It’s open to the Red Cross. Everything’s open.” In regard to immigration, he acknowledged that while the country needs to close the valve on “these people,” he’d shown nothing but compassion when he’d noticed them being exploited in Yonkers. “They’re just trying to feed their little babies,” he said.
KT quit the Department of Defense when she got married. “I’d made my contribution,” she says coolly. It remains startling, the degree to which KT amputated herself from Washington and public service—and for so long; it almost seems a repudiation of life before, when, like so many others, she was determined to have a life different from her own housewife-mother. “After leaving Washington, KT taught Sunday school, served as a class mother, directed school plays, headed a preschool library, and sang in the church choir,” say her handouts, “all the while remaining active in national-security circles.” Mainly, she kept up subscriptions to a lot of journals. As a Social Register “married maiden,” she (and Alan) checked off an impressive list of clubs: in town, the Union, Racquet, Metropolitan, Brook, and the Colony. In the country—in Southampton—National, Shinnecock, the Meadow, and the Bathing Corporation.
John Spencer, member of Alcoholics Anonymous, calls this KT’s “cocktail crowd.”
Only in 2000 did she find her way into management at the Foreign Policy Association, which anyone can join for $250; there, she helps book speakers for the prestigious ladies’ lecture series.
Experience remains an exquisitely fluid concept on the Hill, where in recent years the most powerful guy was someone who’d killed cockroaches for a living (Tom DeLay). After 9/11, KT sent Colin Powell a memo on communications strategy, and he asked if she’d return to the District. She still had kids to pick up from school, she said. But now she saw herself as part of some as-yet-undocumented-by-Newsweek generation of back-to-the-workforce boomer mothers.
Her daughter Fiona wanted to fly helicopters as a Marine or F-18 fighter jets. Mom’s brow contracted, and there was silence. She didn’t seem too happy about it. A Marine colonel who’d once worked for her had been kidnapped and tortured in Lebanon. That tattered flag that hung above her head came from the USS Bache, commanded by her husband’s father and battered by kamikaze pilots. A stain on the flag had always fascinated her kids: Is that blood? they’d ask. Now KT’s daughter was willing to spill her own for her country.
KT said she was frightened, but insisted that “as an American,” she applauded her daughter’s choice. (“Alan tried to go to the Naval Academy, but he has very, very bad eyes, so he couldn’t pass,” she disclosed later—just in case I might be thinking what I was in fact not.)
Suddenly, she got a bit exasperated. “Why do you think I’m doing this?” she asked. (A fair question.) KT wants a say in things when her daughter receives her commission in June 2008. Which begged for some follow-up: If Fiona were at Yale, would KT now be running for office?
“Well, I mean, I probably would be doing something,” she said. Instead, it would be a summer spent phoning the cocktail crowd for money from a cramped cabana now shared with Ed Rollins and John Spencer. Somewhere, Hillary Clinton was grinning. Next: Summer Stuff for Jocks and Athletes of the Spectator Variety
As New York’s story went to press over the weekend, KT McFarland issued a statement claiming that her father had abused her as a child. Read the New York Times and Associated Press reports.