Taking stock of Comptroller Liu’s curious practice

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Once upon a time, quite a few years ago, I was what you might call “active” in politics. Enough, in any case, to snag an appointment to a job in a city department, which permitted me to have a gold badge, get my name in the Green Book every year and be able to have correspondence addressed to me as “Hon.” No, not honey. Was I honorable? Legally, of course. Morally, I hope so.

But that was long ago. My father was a lifelong Tammany man and instilled in my sister and me the importance of knowing about politics and exercising our voting rights. I still remember what a great thrill I had when I entered a voting booth for the first time, at my old elementary school on Van Horn Street in Elmhurst, to cast my vote. You had to be 21 in those days to vote.

Clearly, we were not as smart as the 18-year-olds of today.

As far as I can remember, I have voted in every primary and general and special election since that day. Sometimes, as necessary, by absentee ballot. My father was a good teacher, even though, on occasion, I may have strayed or contemplated straying from his strict party line. When you do that in our family, your hand hurts for days.

Although my active days in politics are long since over, I read and listen to and study politics as carefully as I can. That may come from DNA as well as a fascination with history.

So, let me say at the outset, that I have never met John C. Liu, the New York City comptroller. And, if he is really lucky, we never will meet. But I certainly feel able to comment about him and do not expect to be among the many people to whom he has given awards from his office. However, you never know, do you?

Liu has been referred to as “famously ambitious,” but, folks, have you ever met a politician who is not ambitious? It comes with the DNA.

Certainly he is a smart man. You had to be to get into the Bronx High School of Science and be a graduate of the Binghamton University of SUNY. You have to be if you are committed to watching over the city’s money.

In his earlier career, because he was not my Council member, I did not pay much attention to him, but now that he is one of the three citywide elected officials, you have to pay attention.

I don’t like interfering or commenting on ongoing investigations, such as those being done by those examining Liu’s fund-raising activities, so I shall confine myself to a personal bit of news about Liu that caught my attention. In any case, the TimesLedger Newspapers will keep you on top of the money story, which is not about to go away it would appear.

I understand from a published report--which to my knowledge has not been repudiated--that when Liu enters a room, his aides are required to stand. Think about that for a moment. And then think about it some more.

The first thing that came to my mind was a New York City commissioner of a department, which will be unnamed, during the Lindsay administration. Queens residents remember Lindsay as the guy who couldn’t clean up after a snowstorm. Let us be kind and say he was not the best of mayors, although he may have been the handsomest since Jimmy Walker. In any event, this commissioner, highly regarded by Lindsay, was brought in from out of town.

The commissioner had a rule: If you were a member of the department you didn’t speak to him if you saw him in the halls. However, as far as I know — my sources are no longer available for comment — he did not ask his aides to stand when he came into a room. I had business with the department on several occasions while he was commissioner. I did not see him in the halls and to the best of my recollection, his minions did not stand when he entered the room. Just shows how far we have progressed.

The second thing that came to mind is a movie by the great Billy Wilder, “One, Two, Three,” starring James Cagney and Arlene Francis. If you have not seen it, get the DVD. You will have a ball. Cagney is a Coca-Cola executive assigned to Berlin (when it was still a divided city) to advance the drinking of the beverage on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Cagney speaks not a word of German. When he enters the very large office on his first day, every German stands at attention. He tries, in very broken German, to get them to sit down. They continue to do it day after day.

There is also a marvelous car chase through Berlin and a wonderful Sabre Dance in a nightclub. It is all top-draw Billy Wilder, who wrote and directed it, and great Cagney.

Clearly, the DNA of that commissioner — who, by the way, did not last long and wasn’t very good — and the Germans in Berlin and Mr. Liu’s insistence about aides standing up when he comes in a room are all linked. But, what do I know? I’m not a scientist and I have enough trouble with my own DNA.

A final note: As I thought about this blog entry, I realized that I did know Liu, but not John C. of Flushing. This Liu is the slave heroine in Puccini’s final and uncompleted opera, “Turandot.” That work has become famous beyond anyone’s wildest imagination because the Three Tenors outdid each other with the great aria, “Nessun Dorma.”

Liu is in love with an Unknown Prince, who has triumphed over the Princess Turandot by answering all her complicated questions. But he gives her an out. If she can learn his name by sunrise, she can cut off his head. That is why no one is sleeping in Peking that night.

Liu is arrested and tortured so that she will reveal the name. She fights back, but at last grabs a dagger from a guard and kills herself rather than betray the one she loves. Shortly after this remarkable death scene and its very poignant aftermath, “the Maestro laid down his pen,” as Toscanini said at the world premiere in 1926, At that point, it is reported, Toscanini ended the performance, although another opera composer had written a final scene using Puccini’s notes.

Please note that I am drawing no moral from this operatic comment.

I imagine that there are some people involved in fund-raising who don’t sleep too well these nights in our part of the world. But here I am commenting on the matter and I said I wouldn’t and I won’t any further.

Another time, perhaps. Maybe the next blog. I’ll sleep on that.

I will not check my mailbox for a reward from the Liu who gives them out very generously, it would seem. After all, getting up and sitting down on a regular basis is good exercise.

Updated 2:32 pm, March 26, 2012
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