La Dolce Alfonse!

The movie-memorabilia auction at the W Hotel has been under way for only fifteen minutes, and Alfonse D’Amato has been here for less than two, but already the former senator is on the charm offensive. The target of the moment is a 30-ish brunette with exemplary cheekbones – “I’m a singer, but I also do public relations” – who happens to be standing on his right when a waiter swings by, carrying a tray of champagne. D’Amato grabs two glasses and hands her one. “Hi,” he announces. “I’m Alfonso.” The woman smiles, slightly baffled. He plows ahead, taking her hand and examining her ring, demanding to know whether it contains her birthstone (it does), blitzing her with personal questions. A roving photographer snaps their picture. The senator slings his arm around her waist for the occasion, then asks what she is doing tomorrow night. Flying to England, she says. “Aggghh!” he moans in his thick, Elmer Fudd patois, a hand clutched to his breast. “A dagger through my heart!”

The senator recovers, of course; he always does. Within minutes, he is threading his way through the star-strewn crowd (Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio) as effortlessly as a shuttle glides through a loom. When he greets people he knows, it is almost always the same: a howl, a grin, an animated embrace involving a clutch at the base of the neck and a kiss on the cheek. He spots Hank Ratner, chief operating officer of Rainbow Media and a client of D’Amato’s new corporate-consulting firm, and starts scheming about ways to televise soccer. He chats with Barbara Winston, wife of Bruce, one of the heirs to the Winston jewelry fortune, and meets her daughter Stephanie – “Hey, Steph!” Then he meets Stephanie’s Promethean fiancé – “You got a hunk, baby! A hunk!” – before moving on to an old friend, Peter Boyle. Seeing the actor sends the senator off on a mad tear, reenacting his favorite scenes from Young Frankenstein, the movie that first catapulted Boyle to fame: “What hump? Abby Normal?! What knockers!”

Forty minutes later, tenacious as ever, the senator decides to give Gwynne Rivers, the singer-publicist, one last shot. Earlier in the evening, I’d had a chance to ask her whether she had any idea who her suitor was. She hesitated. “Yes. Well – yes,” she said. “I knew he was a senator.” Then she hesitated again before asking an entirely reasonable question: “He’s out of office, though, right?”

D’Amato, who served as New York’s junior senator for eighteen years, is indeed out of office, dismissed by the voters last November in favor of the wonkier, higher-minded Charles Schumer. But losing, as it turns out, was probably the best career move Alfonse D’Amato has ever made. He is now doing in the private sector what he did so ably in the public one – twisting arms, dispensing favors, and solving “problems” – but for a lot more money, and without the hindrance of Senate ethics rules. He remains a vital force in New York Republican politics – advising Pataki, tweaking Rudy, drilling for cash – but without having to account publicly for his own behavior.

Most astonishing, at 62, he is dating even more flamboyantly than he did in the Senate – flying down to Palm Beach with erstwhile sex columnist Candace Bushnell, squiring around Olympic swimmer Dara Torres – forcing the New York Post to haul out the word canoodle not once but twice in its boldface coverage of his nightly romps. Before, D’Amato’s companions looked like astronauts’ wives. Now they look like MTV V.J.’s.

“I’m married,” says Al Franken, who does a devastating impression of D’Amato. “But if I were out there with him, I think I’d be kind of pissed if the babes were going after him and not me. I mean, they’ve done scientific studies on what makes people attractive, and as far as I can tell, he doesn’t fit any of those.”

Most recently discarded politicians spend years licking their psychic wounds and figuring out what to do with themselves. D’Amato, in fact, seemed especially vulnerable to this kind of isolation and humiliation – remember the rumors about him weeping in the elevator on the way to his concession speech? – because he couldn’t do anything in particular; he wasn’t a gifted lawyer or orator or policy-maker. Even while sitting at the helm of a committee, D’Amato was quietly regarded as a figure of fun.

But as Mike Myers has proved, goofy guys can be highly effective if they’re famous enough, well-connected enough, and have more than enough mojo. And that’s what Alfonse D’Amato is: the Austin Powers of Island Park. He’s an oafish charmer who knows a million people, solves the world’s problems, doubles as his own worst enemy, and manages, in spite of his epic bumbling, to get the girl.

Asked how he stays relevant, D’Amato shrugs, as if the answer were obvious: “By bein’ me.” No one could have guessed how marketable, powerful, and (apparently) lovable being him was – and how easily it could withstand the separation from public office.

“From what I understand, Alfonse is still slapping people on the back, getting engaged to young girls, and people are still calling him senator,” marvels Charlie Rangel, the salty Harlem Democrat who’s served in Congress since the Nixon administration. “So really,” he says, “I ask you: What the hell’s the difference?”

The obligatory opera soundtrack swells in the background at Limoncello, the restaurant on the ground floor of the Michelangelo Hotel, where the senator is due to arrive at any moment. The waiters are thrilled. They say he tips well, is easy to please, and likes to sit near the front, where he can banter with customers. D’Amato arrives about twenty minutes late.

He is tanner, trimmer, and much better-looking in person than he is on television, a medium that tends to bring out the Muppet in his physiognomy. He’s wearing a red tie with elephants on it – all GOP senators own clothing with elephants on it – a smart blue suit, and a Tiffany watch. He’s talking on his cell phone. He will keep talking on his cell phone for the next ten minutes.

“Heeeeeello. Hello? … Yeah … Early-Bird!!! How ya doin’? … Well, right now I’m doing a little interview …”

It’s Earle Mack, real-estate developer and D’Amato’s friend for more than twenty years.

“… and then I’m going to meet Joe Grano from PaineWebber, and then I’m going to meet one of the lawyers I’m dealing with on that Holocaust thing at 6:45, Mel Weiss, and then I’m going to see you and Carol. What are you guys doing? Where you guys gonna be? … You gonna let me know? … Call me back and let me know… . Where is she? … She went out to the Hamptons already? Very bad… . Verrrry BAD… . All right, pick out a place… . I don’t know… . I don’t know! … Do I want good food?!”

He rolls his eyes extravagantly back into their sockets.

“Do I want good food or bad food?! I want GOOD FOOD! … Okay, babes. Bye.”

A lull between conversations. “Let’s have a drink,” he proposes, looking at me and the sweet young aide he has brought along with him. “We earned it.” He turns to the waiter. “Did we earn a drink? And what happened to the air-conditioning?”

The waiter apologizes about the stuffy room and says the management is looking into it.

“Tell them to put it on,” says D’Amato. “It’s a hot table.” He gestures to me. He gestures to his aide. “Hot table. Hot hot hot.”

The phone rings again. This time it’s Bruce Blakeman, presiding officer of the Nassau County legislature.

D’Amato looks up at the waiter. “I would like a drink.”

Into the phone: “Bruce-ster, can I have a drink?”

To the waiter: “He says I can have whatever I want. Let me have a white wine, please. Pinot Grigio.”

Back into the phone: “How ya doin’, baby? What’s happening?” And so it begins again, until Bruce-ster’s phone cuts out. The sign-off, as always: “Okay, babes. Bye.”

He raises his glass to good health, then cups his aide’s face in his hand and kisses her on the cheek, apologizing for missing her birthday. “This is my baby,” he coos. “This is my young ‘un. I love her. She tickles me.” She shows him the new diamond-stud earrings her boyfriend has just bought her. “Heh heh!” D’Amato claps his hands, drums them on the table, and gives her a high five. “Are we breaking him in? We’re breakin’ him in, aren’t we? Oh, God, that’s good! Now he’s actin’ like a man. Now he’s bein’ a stand-up guy.”

This manic little revue could have been orchestrated for my benefit. But I doubt it. D’Amato has always had a special gift for chewing scenery. His boffo style made him one of the great paradoxes of the Senate: The more outlandishly he behaved, the more real he seemed, because his colleagues were such a bunch of pre-programmed, note-card-toting stiffs.

But now, out of office, D’Amato is even looser, if that’s possible. “I make a little joke,” says D’Amato. “When people say, ‘What’s the difference between now and before?,’ I say, ‘Listen, it’s the same. People used to wave at me before, when I was senator, and they wave at me now.’ Before, they waved at me like this” – he holds his hand high about his head and extends his middle finger – “and now they wave at me with all their fingers.” He nudges his aide, laughs.

Then he gushes about his golf lessons, spending more time with his grandkids, and being able to accept plane rides from Donald Trump, which he couldn’t do as a senator, because the Senate’s ethics rules barred gifts in excess of $50. But he also speaks with startling candor about being released from the tedious obligations of political life. “This weekend,” he says, “I won’t be preoccupied about having to stop in and see So-and-so who’s a major contributor or benefactor. I won’t have to go to a little town where they’ve invited me for the Fourth of July, where it’s important you be there and show that you care for them.”

So has losing liberated him? I ask.

“Totally!” he shouts. “I mean, I could bite you!” He laughs again. “No! Don’t!” And he throws his hands over my tape recorder like a goalie pouncing on a loose puck.

For almost a full year, D’Amato says, he knew he was going to lose the 1998 election to Chuck Schumer. “I never let anybody know that, and I dealt with it,” he says, “but I could read the numbers. I knew what was happening.”

As the election drew near, he really knew: The “putzhead” comment had cost him, and the armature of his political campaign, usually as tightly rigged as a Swiss clock, was flying apart. His television spots were relentlessly negative, and his campaign manager, Jon Lerner, was an aloof Midwesterner who lacked experience in New York politics.

There was, of course, another problem: Schumer had all of D’Amato’s scrappiness, tenacity, fund-raising zeal, and media savvy, plus a degree from Harvard, a reputation for being a serious policy nut, and an essentially clean history. That was a tough combination to beat.

But that’s not how D’Amato sees it. What really did him in, he says, wasn’t his own foibles or the incompetence of his campaign or the strengths of Chuck Schumer. What really did him in was the outrageous excesses of his fellow Republicans. “Once those crazy right-wing wack jobs put Clinton’s testimony on television, that was the end,” he says. “That cost us ten points. Because people were so disaffected, so angry with what was coming out of Washington. We made the villain the victim. The House conservatives, they did that – under Dick Armey and Tom DeLay and the rest of those … jerks.” He looks at me, pauses dramatically, smirks. “Yes, I said that.”

Representatives Dick Armey and Tom DeLay are, respectively, the second- and third-most-powerful Republicans in the House. “We looked like a bunch of bullies,” D’Amato grouses. “Like, where’s your class? Where’s your taste?”

On Election Day, D’Amato woke up around six and worked out, as he usually does. He voted at 7:30 in the morning, then had breakfast with a bunch of Nassau County politicos at the Ocean Star Diner in keeping with Election Day tradition. At midday, he took a call from one of his pollsters at his friend Larry Elovich’s house. The news wasn’t very good. “He was very matter-of-fact about it,” says Elovich. “He might have used a few curse words, but I’m not going to say those.”

D’Amato arrived at the Hilton’s penthouse duplex around 7:30 that night. He mingled with guests downstairs while Ed Koch, the Patakis, his top consultants, his family, and his closest friends all sat in a bedroom on the floor above. Then, just minutes before the polls closed, CNN declared Schumer the winner. Soon, half the crowd was gone.

“I felt like crap,” says Kieran Mahoney, one of D’Amato’s top aides. “It was like having a funeral when the corpse is walking around.”

No one was prepared to concede just yet. But at 10:30, Arthur Finkelstein, D’Amato’s chief political guru, summoned D’Amato up the spiral staircase and told him to call it quits. The senator went to a private bedroom to call the Schumer campaign. When he returned to the bedroom with his family, he found the Island Park priest, Father John J. Tutone, waiting for him. He embraced the senator. D’Amato started to cry.

The senator had two very bad nights after that. “I had, I think, anxiety attacks and whatnot afterward – I should have done this, I should have done that,” he says. “Maybe I wanted to strangle a few people.” But ironically, the fact that he lost by a landslide helped. “If I had lost by two or three points,” he says, “I probably’d be in an insane asylum.”

By Friday, he was on a plane down to Puerto Rico with some close friends and the governor. When he came back, several law firms offered him jobs. By Christmas, he had announced that he was forming a consulting firm with Wayne Berman, a buddy and lobbyist down in Washington.

“I really didn’t think he was going to adapt as well as he did,” says his daughter Lisa D’Amato Murphy. “For 30 years, he’d been so engrossed in this entire political thing that he hadn’t had time to develop any hobbies or anything – we never knew what to give him at Christmas. So to see him all of a sudden take up sports, like golf, with a vengeance, and to see him take my kids out to the movies … It’s like, wait, you’re almost being a normal man here. This is scary.”

His daughter finds golf impressive. but what D’Amato’s male friends can’t get over are his glands. “With Alfonse, there have always been a lot of women,” says Peter King, the Republican congressman from Long Island, who’s known D’Amato for 30 years. “It’s hard to keep track.”

That D’Amato can be such a smoking Casanova surprises people. I never understood it myself – he always seemed like Joe Pesci without the shovel – but I have since learned the secret: He approaches courting as if it were an extreme sport. He pours it on about a girl’s appearance, deliberately underestimates her age, makes earnest inquiries about where she’s from and who her parents are and what she does for a living. It may be over the top, but it never feels insincere.

“Whether Al knows it or not,” says Earle Mack, “he’s a romantic. He’ll tell women how beautiful they look; he’ll send them flowers and write them notes. And there aren’t very many romantics anymore.”

In February 1995, D’Amato threw a press conference at the Water Club, not to discuss the Republican Contract With America or denounce Clinton’s tepid tax-cut proposals but to declare his love for gossip columnist Claudia Cohen. After Cohen, D’Amato had a high-profile relationship with Kathryn Finley, the red-haired daughter of the late Oakland A’s owner Charles O. Finley. Then, for a year, he dated Hilary Geary, the blonde, socialite widow of financier Jack Geary, appearing with her at black-tie and rubber-chicken dinners all over Washington, D.C.

Geary was unlike the others. The senator was much more serious about her, and his friends all agree that she had a positive, calming influence. She was his ideal complement: attractive, good-natured, well bred. But D’Amato’s randiness, alas, caught up with him. In the winter of 1998, Geary ended the relationship when a friend spotted him having dinner with yet another comely companion. The senator was crushed. Now he pines for Geary, and has spent the past year and a half furiously attempting to woo her back – with gifts, pleading phone calls, the works.

In the meantime, D’Amato has been doing what any lonely, spurned former politician would do: squeezing in a lot of quality time with women half his age. Power is supposed to be the ultimate aphrodisiac, but losing power only seems to have increased D’Amato’s daffy charm. “Just the other night,” says Peter King, who recently dined with D’Amato at the Capital Grille in Washington, “there were younger women coming over to our table and saying hello to him. I felt like saying, ‘Hey, wait – I’m the guy who’s still in office!’ “

If anything, since he left office, D’Amato’s companions have gotten younger, and in some cases wilder. Out are the wealthy widows and Hamptons socialites; in are the downtown girls with passports to the other side of the velvet rope.

The most outrageous member of this new club is Candace Bushnell, the blonde stunner who chronicled her own dating misadventures in Sex and the City, now a hit series on HBO.

“This is the thing about Alfonse,” Bushnell says. “I don’t know about in the rest of the country, but in New York, he’s as famous as any celebrity. When you walk down the street with him, people literally lean out of their cars and yell, ‘Hey! Senatah!’ ” Plus, she adds, “he’s fun, he’s charming, and he’s emotionally up-front – he doesn’t play games.”

She and D’Amato met in February at a party celebrating the launch of Cablevision’s MetroGuide. The senator was instantly smitten. He started ordering rounds of Cosmopolitans for the table, which included Sex and the City producer Darren Star and Times reporter Alex Kuczynski, and he made a toast to the beautiful women in his midst. Later that night, he escaped with Bushnell to Elaine’s, where much dancing and one of the two reported canoodles took place. The couple subsequently showed up at Rao’s and other Italian haunts about town. They spent the weekend at Mack’s place in Palm Beach. D’Amato even bestowed a nickname on her, which in the senator’s universe is the equivalent of landing a place on his speed dial. He called her Bushie.

The relationship didn’t work out. But so what? D’Amato clearly thinks the world of her. “She’s charming, she’s stunning, she’s a provocateur, just like me,” he gushes. “I love it. You know? We used to play these games on her computer. We’d play hearts. Ever play hearts on the computer? It’ll drive you nuts. We’d sit in the car, and I’d say, ‘No! Do this! Shoot the moon!’ “

After Bushnell, there was Dara Torres, the blonde, six-foot Olympic medalist and Tae Bo infomercialist. Donald Trump introduced them on his airplane, which at the time was bound for Florida. “They got along great,” Trump reports. “He was stunned by her beauty.”

So are they going out?

“I can’t tell you what happens when the lights go out,” says Trump. “But I think they’re going out. Ask him.”

D’Amato: “We’re just friends. Besides, Dara’s in California right now, training for the Olympics.”

The tabloids, D’Amato declares, have sabotaged his love life. “I don’t think it does much for any serious relationship that you might want to have,” he says. “I think it could be a deterrent.”

The subtext here has a name, of course: Hilary Geary. To this day, Trump partially blames D’Amato’s Senate defeat on his broken heart. “Breaking up in the middle of his campaign,” he notes, “didn’t exactly help his psyche.”

The first time I mention Geary, D’Amato pouts: “I refuse to discuss my broken heart.” But later, at the bar of the W Hotel, waiting for the movie-memorabilia auction to begin, he orders two glasses of champagne and hands me one.

“Who’s the love of my life?” he glumly asks.

“Hilary Geary,” I answer.

He’s off and running. “I didn’t have my priorities straight,” he says. “I was more into politics. I didn’t see what a great lady she was.” Without thinking, he starts to dictate. “You can just say, ‘It’s obvious that the senator’s heart lies with one person, and that’s Hilary Geary – and when asked about it, he wouldn’t deny it.’ “

“Wayne-ster! How are ya?”

Wayne Berman is Alfonse D’Amato’s business partner in Washington, D.C. Berman used to have his own K Street lobbying firm, Berman Enterprises, but last winter the two formed Park Strategies, a corporate-consulting firm.

“Did you tell him what I said? It’s death and destruction … DEATH AND DESTRUCTION, that’s just, just, just crazy… . No, no. No, it’ll be worse. She’ll take whatever she wants to take and destroy you… . Hey, listen! I fired that guy… . Yeah… . Asshole, asshole… . Oh, yeah. He’s bad, he’s bad, he’s bad. He is BAAAD… . So take the appropriate course of action, all right? He’s just really not a good person… . DONE. OVER. So let our friends know that, okay?”

Together, D’Amato and Berman represent about 40 or so clients, including Bell Atlantic, Continental Airlines, Group Health Incorporated, Cablevision, Metromedia Fiber Network, the Greater New York Hospital Association, and American International Group. Some are paying more than three times D’Amato’s old annual salary of $133,600 to secure his firm’s services.

“Whaddaya have in Chile? Anything in Chile? … Good! … Oh, very good! Okay! Señor Wayne, SEÑOR! So did you talk Pépé out of it? … Hey, by the way, did you ever get an opportunity to get a call back from What’s-his-name on the mission of mercy for me?”

D’Amato would like to make this clear: He is not a lobbyist. Even though he is an ex-senator with no business experience. Even though his partner, a former Reagan-administration appointee, is … a registered lobbyist. Former senators are not allowed to lobby – i.e., contact old colleagues in Congress on behalf of business clients – for a full year after their departure from office. They can, however, “consult” and give “strategic advice.”

“Yeah, yeah… . Berserk, yeah… . Hmmm… . Yeah, yeah. Good… . All right, baby. Oh, by the way, I’m gonna be down in Washington on the twenty-first. It’s Royer’s birthday… . Don’t be such a WEENIE. Of COURSE you’re going to go. Why do you think I mentioned it? So you could put it on your CALENDAR! … Okay, yeah, I called the governor… . Huh? … Okay, all right. Bye.”

D’Amato’s telephone never stops flashing and screaming like a pinball machine. He takes calls from Ed Koch, Governor Pataki, and Senator Pete Domenici (“Pietro!”). He talks to a representative for Continental Airlines, a client, and mentions, along the way, that the airfares to St. Martin, where his son has a time-share, are outrageously expensive – can something be done about this?

The New York office of Park Strategies, on the twenty-fifth floor of a building on Park Avenue, is comfortable, cozy even, but a startling step down from D’Amato’s previous fiefdom, which included the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Banking Committee, five offices around the state, and the vast suite he had in the Hart Building on Capitol Hill. All told, the senator had more than 120 people working for him. Here, in this small office without a view, there is just one room, a reception area, and a staff of four.

In a few years, D’Amato hopes, his operation will have expanded some. “I get the sense Al’s treating his new job the way he treated politics – working in overdrive, trying to get as many new clients as possible, ” says King. “This is his new obsession. He’s like a kid with a new toy.”

D’Amato’s office is stuffed with stately furniture, including his chair from the Senate chamber. (He paid to take it with him.) On his desk, he still keeps the sign saying mr. d’amato, chairman from his days on the Senate Banking Committee. The walls are coated with New York Post covers and photographs of himself with pretty much everyone: Al Pacino, Ronald Reagan, the pope, Boris Yeltsin. There’s even a photo of him with Charlize Theron. (The two of them were both in the movie The Devil’s Advocate – though his role was slightly smaller. Which one was she? I ask. “The hot one,” he says.)

So what does corporate America think it’s getting when it hires D’Amato as a consultant? He was, after all, the crazy Uncle Louis of the Senate, the guy who sang “South of the Border” during a fifteen-hour filibuster and always managed to stay just inches ahead of the Senate Ethics Committee. The answer, assuming it’s not lobbying, is some serious muscle and shrewd political calculating. D’Amato is a bulldog negotiator, an absolute master at getting what he wants. As a fund-raiser, he had no equal. “If people only sent him $500,” recalls Congressman Eliot L. Engel, a Bronx Democrat, “he’d call back and say, ‘Why didn’t you send a thousand?’ If they sent a thousand, he’d call and say, ‘What’s wrong with your wife? Why can’t she send a thousand, too?’ You gotta love that. It’s so New York.”

Watch him on the phone for an hour, and D’Amato’s overnight success as a corporate consultant makes perfect sense. In the Senate, he says, “I loved the battles. I loved winning things that everyone thought were impossible to win. Now I do the same thing for clients. I’m the best. I am. If you want an advocate, and you’re bein’ wronged, you want me, because I’ll find where to go, how to go, and what to do.”

On the stump, D’Amato may have been a rabble-rouser and an ideologue, but behind closed doors, the man was an absolute pragmatist; he knew just how to cut a deal. In fact, New York Democrats in the House privately claimed to find him much more approachable than their fellow Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. As Charlie Rangel puts it: “D’Amato’s kissed me. Pat Moynihan ain’t never kissed me.”

In his new role as paid consultant, he has arbitrated between Cipriani and the unions and advised Continental Airlines when they were caught in a turf war between the governors of New York and New Jersey over a $1 billion project at Newark Airport. He was appointed by a federal court to facilitate settlements between Holocaust victims and the German and Austrian banks, a project he also pursued while still in Congress.

And the private sector makes for even stranger bedfellows than politics – which may be why D’Amato seems to be thriving. On the negotiations with the German and Austrian banks, he’s now working closely with the lawyer Mel Weiss, former national finance chairman for the Schumer campaign. Weiss, in fact, showed up at that first meeting at Limoncello, hoping to talk business with the senator and share a glass of wine. Over the course of the conversation, the two men discovered they shared the same birthday.

“This is crazy!” exclaimed D’Amato, thumping his fist on the table, then leaping up to give Weiss a big hug. “I love this guy. This guy was trying to kill me a year ago. Now we’re … I mean, you see? That’s what life is about. Life is not about being petty.

D’Amato doesn’t watch C-SPAN anymore, not even late at night. And he no longer subscribes to the Washington Post. Asked if he has bittersweet feelings when he visits Washington now, he turns reflective: “I’m gonna tell you about bittersweet – ” The entrance of his executive assistant, a lovely and patient blonde, interrupts him. “Look at you, you little devil!” he sings. “You look so beeeeauuuuteeeful. You want to come out and rrrrumba with us tonight?”

Indeed she does, and they agree to convene at Brown’s, a trendy new haunt on the Upper East Side, later that evening. He turns back to me: “I do not miss the Senate, the trappings of the Senate, and all that came with it.”

Most of D’Amato’s friends dismiss the possibility of his ever reentering public life. D’Amato prefers to play it coy. A run for governor? Forget about it. Ditto for senator. “I could be anointed mayor,” he says mischievously. “Maybe they’ll work out a system where they’ll have a mayor/ strong-manager system, where a board will appoint me as city manager. How’s that?”

Don’t misunderstand: D’Amato is naturally, chromosomally, a political creature, and it’s still true that nothing gets his juices flowing more than a nice provocative screed about the latest local or national controversy. He still answers political questions in “Ask Alfonse,” his new advice column in George magazine, and he has a regular commentary gig with Fox News. In his office, between calls, the senator can’t help working himself into a new tizzy about Bill and Hillary Clinton; he maintains the First Lady still may decide not to run for the Senate.

“He’s not gonna give her bad advice,” says D’Amato, referring to the president. “The last thing he wants to do is see her run and lose – although maybe he might get a certain perverse pleasure from that. You can’t tell.” He laughs, transported by his own mischief. “Now, having said that, I don’t believe that he’s gonna want to have her lose, so they’re going to continue to monitor this … and guess what? If she’s in trouble in the polls, don’t be a bit surprised …” He trails off. “You’d be naïve to think that she’d continue to run into a mountain.”

And what if she were to win? “I think that she’d be in for a rude awakening,” he says. “You think the Senate leadership is going to be happy that she’s there? You kidding? They all have egos. You really believe that the senior senator from New York is gonna be happy that he’s going to be totally eclipsed?”

D’Amato is never more than one degree away from the sultans of Republican power. He says he and Pataki speak once a week, but Larry Elovich says it’s more like once a day. Before D’Amato helped broker this month’s deal that got the state Republican Party behind Giuliani’s bid for Senate, it was widely assumed that the senator was gleefully (albeit quietly) trying to subvert the mayor by fueling the upstart Senate campaign of Rick Lazio. The Post even reported that D’Amato was discouraging potential GOP donors from attending a fund-raiser for Giuliani in Washington.

“That was the most incredible piece of nonsense,” D’Amato sniffs. “That whole story came about because they ran a ridiculous, silly fund-raiser that didn’t raise any money … so what happened? Some idiot, all right, and I know who it was, a jackass in Giuliani’s political campaign, Dopo, El Dopo – ” His eyes twinkle. “That was pretty good, huh? El Dopo?” He continues: “El Dopo, who is empowered by the mayor, said, ‘Well, the reason this happened is because of Al D’Amato.’ “

El Dopo may have had a reason to be paranoid, though, because D’Amato still wields considerable political influence. Just before Michael Forbes the Long Island Republican jumped ship and became Michael Forbes the Long Island Democrat, D’Amato got frantic phone calls from Republicans in the New York State congressional delegation, hoping they could get the senator to dissuade him. When Representative Bob Livingston was thinking of challenging Newt Gingrich for the position of Speaker of the House, he asked King if he could speak to D’Amato, just to get his political advice. (The senator happily obliged, though it was just days after his defeat, and he was baking on the beach in Puerto Rico at the time.)

There’s also the small matter of fund-raising. New York State’s giant GOP cash machine, after all, is an engineering wonder that D’Amato built himself. “How is Alfonse D’Amato still influential?” asks William Powers, chairman of the state Republican Party. “I’ll tell you how: He helps me raise money.”

And for anyone who doubts the senator’s continuing political potency, just consider this: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee still has eleven boxes of D’Amato research tucked away in a basement in Washington, boxes that party officials can’t quite bring themselves to throw out. They’re not sure – not absolutely, positively sure – that the man won’t one day return.

Back at the W Hotel, the crowd is thinning, though there are still a few glamorous people milling about. I ask the senator if he wants to meet any, and he waves his hand dismissively, as if there’s no one there who’d really impress him. I confess to wanting to meet one particular actor myself. “Which one?” he asks, perking up. “C’mon! I’ll introduce you to him. I’ll tell him you’re my cousin and that you want to marry him and have babies with him. You think I wouldn’t tell him that story? I would! I love making up outrageous stories!”

But the actor in question is nowhere in sight. Instead, he marches me up to a random fellow with an earring who works at William Morris. D’Amato points to me. “This girl tells me, ‘Alfonse, see that man with that earring? I tell you, I’ve never felt this way about a man before.’ ” By the end of this little exchange, he has nicknamed the fellow Big Johnnie.

A woman timidly approaches the senator and tells him she loved what he said on television about “John-John.” Another man, a Hungarian refugee, sputters in broken English that D’Amato is “the greatest ever” and shakes his hand. Then a reporter comes up to him and asks if he can talk to him for a profile he’s doing of Ted Kennedy. D’Amato introduces me as his fiancée.

The room is close to empty now. The senator wraps his arm around my waist and looks ruefully into space. “I gave you way too much tonight,” he says, meaning too much gossip, access, everything. Then he gives me an affectionate squeeze and pulls me close, so that he can whisper in my ear. “If you savage me,” he gently says, “I’ll kill you. Understand? I. Will. Kill. You.”

La Dolce Alfonse!