Born to Run

Betty Torricelli, a fierce New Dealer, used to drive her young son Robert from the comfort of their Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, home into the gamier neighborhoods of New York City to show him the squalor in which the other half lived. “Do you see,” she would say, “that there are things not working in America?” He did, and he knew from a young age that he wanted to fix them. He first ran for office in fifth grade. He won and hasn’t lost an election since, a streak that will now remain intact with his very forced retirement.

Politics is all he has known. He is one of those character types – whose numbers are diminishing as the Senate becomes more and more a millionaire’s club – for whom no other life was even the remotest possibility. And there is no reason, still, to doubt that the accomplishments he ticked off as he announced his retirement – the parks and senior centers he’d helped build – were things of which he was genuinely proud. Yet he clearly learned some other things along the way: During his initial run for Congress in 1982, one of his first acts was to write down the names of everyone he knew and estimate the amount of campaign money he could wheedle out of each of them.

Words like aggressive and ambitious and phrases like young man in a hurry have always appeared as reliable modifiers in Torricelli profiles. And always, the odor of the cash transaction lingered around him.

He was liberal, or perhaps agnostic, on Cuba – until his congressional district was redrawn to take in more Cuban residents, at which point he became a hard-liner and started getting money from the late Jorge Mas Canosa, the anti-Castro fund-raiser and influence-peddler. He talked a lot, and loudly. He threw elbows. He married and divorced and fathered no children (his ex remained a friend and, predictably, a fund-raiser). He dated Bianca Jagger and Patricia Duff. He became, in full refulgence, the Torch. To be sure, there was another Torricelli, who courageously took on the CIA over Guatemala and led the fight against a pandering anti-flag-burning amendment, and who fought for his state.

Just two days before he quit the race, a letter appeared in the Times from New Jerseyite Lisa Beamer, whose husband, Todd, famously shouted “Let’s roll!,” defending the senator and suggesting that the hypercritical Times lay off, or at least make an attempt to see the whole picture.

But Torricelli’s predicament was that the sleaze became the whole picture. In politics, reputation is usually fate. Torricelli’s had preceded him for years, and once newspapers catch that scent, well, unless you’re Social Register material, or impossibly rich, it’s only a matter of time. And Torricelli made the tactical mistake of stealing small: Average citizens can’t really comprehend an arcane, multi-zeroed scandal like WorldCom or Enron; but a fancy watch and a wide-screen TV? That they get. It’s got to be killing him that Lautenberg, who can afford to buy his own Rolex, got the call. “You’re a fucking piece of shit,” Torricelli reportedly screamed at him during an argument in 1999, “and I’m going to cut your balls off!” But he was scarcely in a position to dictate the terms of his demise.

Or maybe, come to think of it – and the thought occurs with a tinge of sadness as well as disdain – he already had.

Born to Run