The Magazine

Rambunctious Rick

Lazio hits the ground running with a little help from the McCain team

Jun 12, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 37 • By TUCKER CARLSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On the other hand, Lazio isn't running against Hillary Clinton on ideological grounds. He's running against her on geographical grounds. Hillary Clinton isn't from New York. Rick Lazio is. That's the point Lazio and his surrogates make above all others. Again and again and again. At times during his speech, Lazio talks about New York so much he drifts into a kind of travelogue. Lazio praises "the storied skyline of Manhattan." He evokes "the postcard perfect vistas of the Hudson highlands." He waxes rhapsodic over "the quiet calm of the Finger Lakes." He also mentions the Great South Bay, Rome, the Adirondacks, Long Island Sound, the Southern Tier, the Hudson Valley, Lindenhurst, Montauk, Massena, West Islip, and the 2nd Avenue subway. Message: Rick Lazio knows New York. Well enough to give guided tours.

And well enough to recognize the importance of ethnic politics. Lazio is Italian. His wife, Patricia, is Irish. These facts are not insignificant in New York, where ethnicity still matters. In New York, politicians still reminisce from the stump about the Old Country, about stickball, pushcarts, and summer baths under the fire hydrant. It can be an effective shtick. It's harder to pull off if you're a baby boomer attorney who grew up in suburban Long Island. Lazio tries anyway, recalling his immigrant grandmother -- "'Mama,' we called her. . . . As a boy standing in her kitchen, I liked to hear Mama tell the old stories as she stirred a pot of sauce -- stories about Italy and America -- and maybe sample a meatball or two."

No one has ever claimed that Lazio didn't spend childhood afternoons soaking up earthy wisdom from a grandmother who glimpsed the Statue of Liberty for the first time from a boat. He probably did. It still sounded like a pasta commercial.

Once his speech is over, Lazio and many of the convention delegates move across town to a minor league baseball stadium. This is where Lazio will hold his last event of the day, the unveiling of his campaign bus. The bus is brand new and loaded with amenities, but in most ways it looks a lot like John McCain's old bus. Both have their website addresses and (noticeably similar) logos painted on the side, as well as on the roof, in the event of news coverage by helicopter. Both were leased not simply to carry the candidate and his staff, but to serve as the site of mobile press conferences. McCain's bus was called the Straight Talk Express. Lazio's is the Mainstream Express. The similarities, one has to admit, are striking.

While the crowd waits for Lazio and governor George Pataki to arrive, music blares in the background. It is the same music -- the same five songs, led by Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" -- that used to play at McCain rallies. Mike Murphy appears and is immediately surrounded by a group of reporters. A local ABC correspondent leans in with a microphone. "Will there be any similarities between this campaign and Senator McCain's?" he asks. "Not really," says Murphy, who happens to be holding a briefcase with Straight Talk Express luggage tags still attached. Murphy is sensitive to the suggestion that his latest candidate has simply purchased a prefab campaign. "It oversimplifies it to say, 'Just add water, it's McCain,'" Murphy says later. This is true. But Murphy could also defend Lazio by responding: Who cares? Since the New Hampshire primary, lots of politicians have tried to appropriate elements of John McCain's campaign style. Lazio does a better job than most. He is getting better with the press, for one thing. Though he has not had particularly good relations with newspapers in his home district, Lazio now talks about the importance of "being accessible to the media." He seems committed to answering most questions. This is in flattering contrast to his opponent, who hesitates to give any interviews at all.