Our Man Recalls His First Political Love

How many times have I fallen in love at first sight? Uncountable. But only once from a campaign ad on a bus.
 
In 1970, Antonio Olivieri was running for the State Assembly from the Silk Stocking District. In the ad’s sexy black and white close-up, his face was irrefutably pretty, with long dark hair tossed across his forehead and even a bit onto his mod, tortoise-shell aviators. His eyes had the slightly crossed intensity of an intimate moment, his full lips barely parted, as if in soft-spoken mid syllable. His wide tie was loose, shirt barely open at the neck. At the edge of both the image and my memory, I think I recall the collar of a jacket held at the shoulder by one finger.
 
The ad’s copy, as I remember it over thirty years later, read something like:
 
O-li-vi-er-i, n., 1. A young lawyer passionately committed to the rights of women, minorities, and the poor. 2. A devoted husband and father of two children in public school. 3. A Democratic-Liberal candidate for New York State Assembly asking for your vote.
 
I was not quite ten. He, I know now, was 29.
 
Bobby Kennedy—New York’s crusading Senator—had been murdered barely two years before. Tony Olivieri was selling himself to the voters as an heir to that vision of what a politician could and should be.
 
As a fourth grader, I had little if any cynicism about political advertising. This candidate had the Liberal Party endorsement, he looked Kennedyesque, and he was even more beautiful than the slain president my mother dreamt about every night, so I was, immediately, an Olivieri believer. I wanted him to be the President of the United States. I wanted him to be my friend.
 
That 1970 election was my first as a volunteer. The campaign storefront for Sen. Charles Goodell (appointed by Gov. Rockefeller to finish Bobby’s term) was just steps away from the Madison Avenue stop where I waited for the bus home from school. Goodell was a true Republican-Liberal, before that became an oxymoron. His platform was solidly against the Vietnam War. Eight years and counting from facing the draft, that was the only federal issue I really cared about. But if Olivieri’s headquarters had been next to the bus stop, I might have handed out leaflets for him instead. Or even the Democrat in the senate race, Rep. Dick Ottinger. I was finally old enough to participate in whatever the Sixties had stood for. In the jargon of preachers I heard on television, “how” mattered less than “now.”
 
Goodell came in third on Election Day, behind Ottinger, who also lost to James Buckley, who ran on the Conservative line. Pundits tripped over each other to condemn Goodell for not having thrown his support to Ottinger. As it turned out, Buckley’s seat was easily taken by Pat Moynihan at the next election, who held the seat for four terms before passing it to Hillary Clinton, so history has been kinder to Sen. Goodell than his contemporaries were. Foresight is not easily judged right after the fact. 
 
In 1973, I volunteered for Assemblyman Al Blumenthal’s campaign to be the Democratic nominee for mayor. Blumenthal, an old-time liberal, said all the right things, but was later implicated in a bribery scandal, which is to say acquitted of receiving the bribe that sent the man who bribed him to jail.
 
Blumenthal for Mayor was in the Brill Building, in the waning days of its life as a songwriters’ lab. The operator-driven elevators passed through multiple-piano cacophony each trip up and down. Jack Dempsey still greeted customers himself in his eponymous restaurant off the lobby.
 
The first of many afternoons I stuffed envelopes and folded campaign literature for Blumenthal, the candidate arrived at headquarters with one of his colleagues from the Assembly, Tony Olivieri.
 
Cue movie music. Imagine the soft focus that conveys the blurring together of the wished-for with reality.
 
Tony came to the Brill Building office most days I worked there. Now a seasoned seventh grader on my third campaign—McGovern ‘72 had been the second—I affected a tone of naturalistic bravado and initiated political chitchat with him each time I could. My political poster boy. My hope for the future of the Democratic Party. Half my fantasy from mooning over his ad on the Lexington Avenue bus had come true; I imagined myself a friend and colleague of the beautiful politician.
 
Al Blumenthal lost the primary to the city’s comptroller, Abe Beame, a conservative Democrat who stood for all the machine politics that liberals like Blumenthal and Olivieri were opposed to. Some weeks later, I skipped a school event at which a speaker was to explain why we should tell our parents to vote for Beame. I was flabbergasted to learn, the next day, that the speech had been given by Assemblyman Olivieri.
 
I was incensed. I was shocked! I was disappointed. I felt angry and disillusioned and very, very sad. I handwrote him a Dear Tony letter, chewing him out. I had not yet turned 13.
 
Tony wrote back a patient letter he typed himself on Assembly stationery, explaining that, as a Democrat, his job was to back any Democrat on the ticket. I was not appeased, and my cynicism about politicians grew.
 
The following Spring, Tony announced his candidacy for Lieutenant Governor. I didn’t like anyone in the Governor’s race, so I occasionally volunteered for Tony’s campaign, more out of loyalty and affection for him than for any conviction about the race.
 
Olivieri for Lt. Governor was a lackluster affair, featuring a collection of Democratic operatives I later referred to as the usual gang of idiots. (My political perspective had long been shaped by Mad Magazine.) I showed up maybe ten times—nothing like the scores of appearances I’d made for McGovern or Blumenthal. The race was for such a second-class office that no one seemed to care very much who won. Just the same, I still believed in the inspiring bus ad from four years earlier, and wanted to show Tony I hadn’t forsaken him just because he’d tried to be a good Democrat. Most of the times I went, Tony was off campaigning upstate, which is why I didn’t show up more. I wanted to be near him. I wanted to be important to him.
 
September tenth, the night of the primary, I was one of the first to show up at the wake every campaign calls a victory party (until the results come in). The caterers and musicians outnumbered the supposed faithful for the first 45 minutes I waited.
 
As with Goodell’s 1970 thrashing, the three-way race broke badly for Tony. He came in third. The victor was Mary Ann Krupsak. In second place was another ambitious Italian-American lawyer from the city, Mario Cuomo.
 
Across the lobby from Tony’s party, in the same dreary midtown hotel, soon-to-be Governor Hugh Carey’s campaign had rented an enormous ballroom for a true victory celebration. I checked it out. Nearly a thousand people jammed the smoke-filled room, faces red from booze, excitement, too much body heat, and the prospect of power. I stayed through Carey’s victory speech, taking photos with my Instamatic of him and all who crowded near him as the television lights flooded the stage.
 
The speeches over, I walked back to Tony’s party. Maybe 25 people were there now, including the candidate. “It’s really nice of you to stop by,” Tony said as I entered, the same near-smile from the bus ad crossing his face, before it fell back to sadness and disappointment.
 
I wanted to say I’d come earlier—that I hadn’t just now stopped by—but I couldn’t think of words that wouldn’t rub in how few people had shown up. I’m pretty sure I said, “Of course.”
 
I felt as bad that he didn’t know I’d been one of the first to arrive as that he hadn’t known about each and every time I’d come to his campaign office when he wasn’t there.
 
“You know, you were probably right,” he said in one quick breath, as if he’d planned this mea culpa in advance. “About Beame. And the party. Not one of them supported me. Not one of them showed or called or telegrammed tonight.”
 
Had I ever felt more welcomed to the world of adults? My fourteenth birthday was over a month away. I’d written the letter a full year before. Did I ever feel more enraptured by Tony than standing with him as he so sadly confessed his regrets to me? I wanted to jump in his arms, like a little kid hugging his daddy.
 
My pride and sadness competed for brain time. I don’t remember how I replied, but I hope I thanked him. I probably said something like, Better luck next time.
 
From 1975 to 1976, Tony worked for Senator Fred Harris’s presidential campaign. At the same time, I volunteered for another liberal senator, Birch Bayh. Jimmy Carter was both the media darling and the best organized, so defeat for the rest of us was assured.
 
The last time I saw Tony face to face was on a late winter afternoon in early 1976. The Bayh and Harris campaigns were both in their last days, after dismal showings in the early primaries. To blow off some steam (as well as get a little press), we held a touch football game on a patch of lawn just south of the Boat Pond in Central Park.
 
The game was tied at the end of the fourth quarter. In sudden-death overtime, Tony leapt to catch a pass in the end zone, winning the game for the Harris squad. In the TV-movie sentimentality of my memory, that’s how I remember him, in freeze-frame, in midair, the football clasped to his dark-blue crewneck sweater. With the tortoise-shell frames now replaced by nearly invisible gold wire, and his hair less shaggy than six years earlier, he looked more Kennedyesque than ever—like how handsome Joe Jr. might have looked, had he survived World War II.
 
That night, when I saw on the news that the Harris workers had won the game, I genuinely thought it was a mistake. I even phoned Channel 2. I was connected to the reporter, who calmly recounted what he’d been told, that Olivieri had won it in overtime for the Harris team. I realized I’d silently cheered Tony’s catch so much—ever my hero!—that by the time I got home I’d forgotten he played for the other side.
 
Tony never achieved higher office. A malignant tumor had already started growing on his brain. Just the same, the Democratic Party arranged a safe City Council seat for him and he served out his last years in that office with distinction. In the end, his service to the Party was not forgotten. A homeless shelter for women on the West Side is named in his honor, a tribute to the work he did for his least powerful constituents.
 
Councilman Antonio G. Olivieri died four years later, the night Ronald Reagan beat President Carter and John Anderson. He was only 39. I hope, like with me and our football game, that Tony imagined the outcome of that race on his own terms.


I've been informed of an error at the end of this piece, which has depended on the vagaries of my memory. Tony Olivieri was by all accounts in good health when he won a primary fight for his City Council seat, so my statement that he was rewarded with a safe seat is in error.

My apologies to his family and friends.
07.8.2004 | David L Steinhardt
Great piece about a great man. I played in that football game and stuck Tony real good once, planting him in the snow. But his catch at the end was suberb.
07.12.2004 | John Sabini

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