1997Spot News Reporting

Paul Vitello: Stand for Change, Not Attention

By: 
Paul Vitello
Staff Writer
July 20, 1996
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It has become stock live footage from the scene of every recent American disaster, whether a raging brush fire or the spread of breast cancer or the crash of an airplane offshore: Politicians standing before the microphones, talking, talking, talking.

"I'm in charge here," they seem to be saying, if never in those words. "Not to worry. I'm taking care of this."

Gov. George Pataki did this straightforwardly and lengthily in the aftermath of the crash of TWA Flight 800. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani did it emotionally and brilliantly. President Bill Clinton did it with pain in his heart and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato did it by hook-up from Washington. Rep. Michael Forbes did it with the clumsiness of a novice but enough tenacity to keep his grip on the mike when told by the National Transportation Safety Board to let go.

Even Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey tried to give of herself -- granting a radio interview on the morning after the crash in order to criticize the FAA. Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta, Suffolk Executive Robert Gaffney, Suffolk Legis. Fred Towle all were seen on TV. Even Bruce Blakeman, majority leader of the Nassau County Legislature in far-away Mineola, issued a press release proposing beefed up security at the airport.

There are two popular ways to view the motives of the politicians in all this, both of them more or less supportable:

  1. Politicians are curs. They have no role in putting out fires, tracking down bombers or curing cancer. But they will do anything to get attention, especially worldwide attention, even standing on the smoldering ruins of other people's lives.
  2. Politicians have an important role to play in public disasters -- to show their faces, to advocate public calm and to personally intervene on behalf of victims who might otherwise be steamrollered by bureaucrats and airline vice presidents. This is what we pay them for.

One could argue either case. But there is a third way to see it, which is more of a hunch than an ironclad view:

  1. It probably doesn't matter what a politician's motives are for stepping up to the mike -- if at the same time he steps into the lives of the people affected by a disaster.

Politicians probably need to step into disasters more often. They ought to see other people's lives at the worst of times at least once a week. There ought to be a statutory requirement, in fact, that for every hour they spend under crystal chandeliers in the company of $1,000-a-head campaign contributors, they spend 10 hours with a family that has lost someone in a plane crash, or in a workplace accident, or to drugs, or some other form of tragedy in which government might have or could make a difference.

When Pataki entered the Ramada Inn at Kennedy Airport, where the families of Flight 800 victims were gathered on Thursday, he took a step toward meeting this quota.

In a banquet room, he touched and shook hands and embraced every one of them, repeating over and over his condolences and his offer of help. "Call us," he said, according to Newsday reporter Michael Slackman, who accompanied him. "Call us if there's anything you need."

He did not mention that he has a daughter, Allison, who is 12, and who is in the French Club at her school, and who recently flew to Montreal with her fellow club members -- just as the members of the Montoursville, Pa., High School French Club were flying to Paris on TWA Flight 800 -- though it seemed to be just beneath the surface of his gubernatorial handshake.

At one point, a man in blue jeans and a salt-and-pepper beard stood up to receive the governor's outstretched hand and then suddenly fell to sobbing in the governor's arms. The governor held him.

At the same time, in the same room, Giuliani was jawboning a TWA official, demanding the long-delayed release of the passenger list. Even from across the room, Slackman said, Giuliani looked furiously angry, like a man who had somehow stepped out of his role as the mayor of New York and stepped into the shoes of a grief-stricken father.

"We are human beings too, and we want to do something, just like everybody else," said Forbes, who has met with three families in his district who lost relatives in the crash. He describes as "heartbreaking," the conversations in which those constituents have told him about the hopes and dreams and personalities of their lost loved ones.

After what he described as an "emotionally turbulent" decision-making process over whether or not to return home to the district when he heard about the crash, Forbes drove overnight from Washington to be briefed by the Coast Guard in East Moriches early Thursday morning.

After the briefing, the first-term congressman from Quogue stepped outside to face the largest mass of world media he had ever seen in his life; and that is when he got into trouble -- telling the reporters that a black box from Flight 800 had been "located." The NTSB said Forbes was wrong. Forbes has stuck by his story.

Even Friday he said, "I've since had that information confirmed by two highly placed people in Washington." Whatever.

You will see Forbes, Pataki, Giuliani and the others in front of the cameras again. They will look more or less the same.

But if they have done their jobs well, they will be different people than they were before the crash of Flight 800, and better ones.