Al Pirro looks exhausted. He’s coming down with something, he thinks. In press accounts, Al’s usually described as tan, but today his complexion appears yellow, almost nicotine-stained. “I’m worn out,” he says. He sits perfectly still, a small, elegantly dressed man (dark suit and black tasseled loafers) in a tall, straight-backed chair. We’re in his stunningly ordinary White Plains office, a few floors above the campaign headquarters of his wife, Jeanine, who is running for state attorney general. A minute ago, Al’s lawyer was sitting with us. Al dismissed him. He doesn’t need a minder. He needs to talk.
Since Jeanine, a three-term Westchester district attorney, announced her bid for attorney general, Al has emerged as perhaps the single most important campaign issue. He scored a couple of speeding tickets. And, as the papers won’t let anyone forget, he is a convicted felon. His trial for tax fraud also happened to disclose an old paternity suit against him. Then three weeks ago, there was the bombshell—but this time, it was Jeanine being investigated. She’d been talking to Bernie Kerik, the disgraced former NYPD commissioner, about bugging her own husband. She wanted to know if Al was cheating on her, with a friend of theirs, no less. Jeanine was caught on tape and investigated by the FBI, an embarrassment that somehow—again!—seemed like Al’s fault.
To Al, it’s the same dog-eared tale, endlessly retold for a couple of decades. Al knows how it goes: “Poor Jeanine. She could have been governor if not for Al.” Jeanine said as much on the tape. She should dump him, goes the chatter—chatter her campaign doesn’t rush to suppress. Why should it? This is Jeanine’s last political stand, and perhaps there is an advantage if Al is the bogeyman one more time. Perhaps Jeanine will emerge, like Hillary, a more sympathetic figure.
Al tells me he wanted to issue a press release. “You’d like to be able to return the volley once in a while,” he says. Al’s voice is so even, his tone so relaxed, he seems almost indifferent. He decided against a press release. “What good would it do?” he asks.
How about talking to Jeanine? They’ve been together for more than 30 years, and for most of that time, they seemed the self-completing power couple. She was the rising political star. He was the fixer who brokered the big Westchester real-estate deals and eased her political way. Together they threw those swinging parties at their mansionlike home, knocking back shots with the likes of Governor George Pataki.
“You can’t talk to each other?” I ask Al.
At 59, Al is trim, fit, and almost completely gray. He lets go a short, restrained laugh. “She’s out campaigning. I’m asleep by the time she gets home or I’m reading. And I don’t think that eleven o’clock at night is the time to sit down and talk about these things,” he says. “You’d never sleep.”
It appears that Al Pirro is lonely. The role of political spouse no longer suits him. Last summer, as Jeanine contemplated whether to run for the Senate against Hillary or for attorney general, Al offered his opinion.
“I didn’t want her to run for anything,” Al says. Jeanine’s political aspirations, he thinks, have done nothing but hurt him. In Al’s mind, the tax case “probably would’ve been a civil adjustment if you weren’t married to a district attorney.” Al pauses, then adds, “Look, the decisions that were made by her have a very significant negative impact on the economic status of our family.” And, as everyone should know, the family’s economic status is Al’s responsibility. “I was the person who dealt with being the breadwinner. I tell Jeanine, ‘You can’t enjoy the fruits of my hard work and destroy it at the same time.’ ”
“Meaning she felt that she was an independent person; she wanted to pursue her career.”
“It wasn’t a compromise?”
“There are compromises, and de facto compromises,” Al says.
“This one was de facto,” I say.
“It was de facto,” Al says. He means it wasn’t a compromise at all. Al had no say in the matter. “You always hope for the best,” he says. “Sometimes hoping for the best is really not enough.”
I wondered about the speeding tickets, the female companions he is sometimes spotted with in Westchester restaurants. I’d spoken to a friend of Al’s who suggested this was Al’s cri de coeur, a way of asking Jeanine to pay attention to him.
“So that’s why I speed?” Al asks derisively. “So I can catch her attention?” Al is introspective; it’s surprising in someone usually depicted as an aggressive, blustery shouter. After a moment, he says, “The more clever question would be, Do you feel you’re acting out of some kind of inferiority because your wife is more accomplished than you?”