RED BANK, N.J.--Today is Halloween, and I am in Red Bank, N.J., dressed up as a reporter. I'm chatting with Cynthia Webster, the director of the Red Bank Senior Center, which is where we are both waiting, along with a few dozen senior citizens, for Bob Torricelli, the Democratic Senate candidate. "I told them we didn't have a p.a. system," Webster tells me. "But they told me not to worry, he can speak loudly enough."
Torricelli arrives, dressed as a congressman, has his aides unfurl a gigantic banner that says "Protect Our Medicare," and quickly dispels any acoustical worries.
"THANK YOU MAYOR, VERY MUCH, FOR YOUR VERY KIND WORDS," he orates, in an extraordinary, reverberating tenor voice. "FIRST, MAYOR, I WANT YOU TO KNOW HOW PROUD THIS COMMUNITY SHOULD BE OF THIS SENIOR CENTER."
A woman near the front, with cat makeup on, inches her chair back. The point is not that Torricelli can speak without a microphone. It's that he could speak without a microphone at the Superbowl. Until you get used to it, his performance is reminiscent of Garreth Morris on Saturday Night Live, who used to do the news for the hearing-impaired on "Weekend Update." "NOW THE NEWS FOR THE HEARING-IMPAIRED!" Morris would shout.
What Torricelli goes on to offer, in his cascade of decibels, is straight medigoguery. He slams his Republican opponent, Dick Zimmer, for supporting Medicare premium increases of $1,000 per person, for trying to force old people into managed care, for being against covering mammography for women over 40, for being against Medicare altogether, and for trying to clandestinely dismantle the program. It's a remarkably dishonest performance at almost every level. Torricelli claims that Democrats have already acted to "save" Medicare, and can save it again next year if necessary. After he finishes, I ask whether saving the program doesn't mean pushing seniors into managed care. Republicans want to "force" people into managed care, he replies, whereas the Democrats merely want to "encourage" them to join it. Before I can press the point, he's back in his minivan, on the way back to his phone and his donor list, to raise more money for vicious TV ads, which are what the campaign is all about. Bringing up policy in this race, I am discovering, is considered hopelessly naive.
Torricelli's ads, produced in the shop of S
's own Robert Shrum, call Zimmer "too extreme for New Jersey." Zimmer's ads describe Torricelli as "foolishly liberal"--there's one that uses the term "liberal" eight times in 30 seconds. In fact, the Torch, as they call him, is not much of a liberal, but rather the exemplar of a new breed of superaggressive young Democrats with no particular allegiance beyond publicity-seeking. Torricelli's domestic policy is a farrago of hot-button issues with a People magazine angle, such as the Brady Bill (Zimmer, for his part, gets credit for Megan's Law, a bill he sponsored to require notification of neighbors of released child molesters). Likewise, Torricelli's foreign policy focuses on Israel, Ireland, and Cuba, those countries with relevant constituencies in state. "Anyone who gets between me and my record with Israel is standing in front of a freight train," Torricelli told a Jewish group a couple of weeks ago.
Once upon a time, Zimmer may have been more principled. During his three terms in Congress, he was known as a fairly decent sort--a nerdy, libertarian-leaning fiscal conservative with an environmental bent, sort of a William Weld without the sense of humor. In an increasingly disgusting series of ads, however, Zimmer has managed to accuse Torricelli of shilling for a Korean embezzler (Asian corruption is very in this year), bribing a teenager to keep quiet about not getting a promised nomination to West Point, and (Torricelli's Amtrak Zionism notwithstanding) consorting with Hamas terrorists. One particularly notorious ad purports to be a newscast exposing Torricelli's scandalous behavior.
For his part, the Torch has accused Zimmer of taking money from the mob, supporting toxic dumping, favoring breast cancer, and encouraging teen-age drunken driving. While indulging in this orgy of mudslinging, both candidates have simultaneously signed pledges not to engage in negative campaigning, and claimed, with straight faces, to be abiding by them. After Torricelli's speech in Red Bank, his press secretary tells me that the campaign isn't particularly nasty by New Jersey standards. All I can say is, I'd love to see a really nasty one.
After I get home, my father-in-law phones from Cherry Hill. It's depressing, he says, not only that the choice is between two bottom feeders, but that one of them will replace Bill Bradley. Bradley (who has endorsed Torricelli, but stayed as far away as possible for most of the campaign) made New Jerseyites feel that all those turnpike jokes weren't true. What he left in his wake when he retired was a local version of the Iran-Iraq war--a fight in which the bystander is torn, unable to decide which side deserves to lose more.