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Politics, Poetry, and Principles / New City: Does the Suit Fit?

By Michael Miner

Politics, Poetry, and Principles

When a candidate for the U.S. Senate loses his election by 59 votes, he can think back to each baby he didn't kiss and each palm he couldn't squeeze, and sleep the sleep of the damned.

Dick Mahoney dealt with defeat in Baja California. "I went down to Cabo San Lucas," he told me the other day. "The Arizona Star, the Tucson paper known as the 'Red Star,' said, 'Mahoney was sighted surfing on a wave of beer while he reached for a shapely blond.'"

Did they get it wrong? I asked.

"I was submerged in a wave of beer. I certainly wasn't surfing on anything. The rest I don't remember and have no comment on."

Mahoney, who's 44, ran for the Senate in '94 as Arizona's second-ranking official, its secretary of state. Republican congressman Jon Kyl won the seat after Mahoney went down by a whisker in the Democratic primary, despite a Republican poll that showed him picking up enough independent support to run eight points ahead of Kyl in the general election. "The Democrats smelled that I was something of a renegade," Mahoney said. "But I don't think I would have won. Kyl had $6 million, and I had about $27,000 at that point."

He doesn't intend to run for office again. "I've had sort of a bohemian life. I say that with some amount of pride. I enjoy having parties at my home at all hours. And God, when I got into office a yoke was dropped over my neck. Everything became actionable. It's soul destroying."

What did he do as a candidate that he's most ashamed of?

"Two things. It was shameful to raise money from people about whom I had serious reservations about their motivation, intelligence, or character. And I pulled my punches on a couple of issues. For example, we have a fairly insane approach to drug use and drug laws in this country. I was pretty blunt on a host of subjects, with varying results. But on that one I toed the line on nonmedicalization, nondecriminalization. And it's outrageous. Instead of putting robbers and murderers and rapists in prison we put people in prison, in Arizona anyway, for casual drug use. So I'm now working on an initiative that will decriminalize marijuana and basically medicalize drugs and deincarcerate people cooped up on casual possession charges. This must change."

Arizona politics has given the nation great conservatives like Barry Goldwater; great liberals like Morris Udall, the former congressman and presidential candidate, and his brother Stewart, who was John F. Kennedy's secretary of the interior; and great nut cases like former governor Evan Mecham, who rescinded Martin Luther King Day and cost his state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tourism.

Some would say Mahoney honors each tradition.

"I was on the radio," he told me, recalling his Senate race, "and they asked me, 'What do you think about the Phoenix Suns?' I said, 'Oh, not really a lot.' 'You don't realize they're in the playoffs?' I said no. 'Why not?' I said, 'I just don't find a group of illiterate men bouncing balls on a wooden court all that interesting. How about you?' And the phones lit up."

Another time he was asked about the baseball strike. "I said I don't know much." Millionaires were at war with millionaires, and he didn't give a damn. But the interviewer pressed on; he wanted Mahoney to nominate a new baseball commissioner.

"Fidel Castro," Mahoney responded. "He actually played baseball, unlike those bureaucrats they're putting in. And he has a gift for command."

Mahoney came to Chicago last weekend. He had a talk to give Tuesday at the University of Iowa, so he decided to stop here first to read some poetry. He brought along copies of Petalos--"Petals"--his first book of poems, all of which he wrote in Spanish except for one on John Kennedy, which he wrote in French. Friends here rounded up an audience and a living room.

Mahoney's father, a law partner of the Udalls, had known the Kennedys. Mahoney told me his father was close enough to Bobby Kennedy that the last words Kennedy ever wrote were "Call Bill Mahoney," scribbled on a hotel night table a few moments before he went downstairs to his death.

In 1961 President Kennedy appointed Bill Mahoney ambassador to Ghana. "Maybe because he had so many children [nine in all] he put my brother and me in a boarding school. I was 11 years old. We never got to go home. Eight hundred Africans and my brother and I. We wore cloth and slept on boards for four years and learned the language. It was the most important experience I ever had in my life or ever will. It gave me a very broad sympathy for the human comedy, the human tragedy, in all its manifestations."

But breadth of view can be a dubious political asset. The candidates we take most seriously talk like cocksure sixth-graders; the ones called intellectual simply toss off a higher order of certitude. Mahoney took his chances. "I was always quoting poetry. There were only two reactions--either genuine delight or complete stupefaction. Poems don't always fit a dispute over a sewage contract, but what the hell, I did it.

"I quoted from a Twi proverb, and my campaign manager said, 'If you ever do that again I'm going to resign. It doesn't sound normal.' And of course normality is the great virtue, right?"

What was the proverb? I asked him.

"We are dry, lonely seeds that with the rain of love can spring to life."

Mahoney didn't accept PAC money, didn't seek endorsements, and on the day he took office as secretary of state cut his own salary by $10,000. His unorthodoxy, as he tells the story, on occasion led renegade political movements to assume a kinship that didn't exist.

There was the time four years ago when he was invited to a Buchanan-for-president rally. "He made some speech with a strong anti-Semitic flavor to it," Mahoney recalled, "and I walked up onstage and told him he was an anti-Semite. Thank the Lord his Secret Service detail helped me out of there, because there was a problem. People tote guns around Arizona. The press got a kick out of it."

The press, he said, took the line "Secretary of state and acting governor crashes Buchanan rally and grabs microphone." Which wasn't exactly false, but it made Mahoney out to be an irrational boor instead of a man of some principle. "The press," said Mahoney, "really likes dumb politicians and politicians that don't challenge them intellectually. They want meat and potatoes out there."

Could journalists be intellectually insecure? I asked.

"I think so," he said. "Some of them have such good reason to be so."

He went on, "The press is remarkably like a bureaucracy. It's very formulaic. It traffics in inside information. It is wholly--with few exceptions--unoriginal and largely defensive in its activity. It's pretty symbiotically attached to insiders. It can be counted on to reflect a pretty predictably low common denominator of inside understanding."

Of course, he said, the press in Chicago might be a cut above. Back home he was up against the Arizona Republic, possibly the most conservative paper in the country. It had been "rearranging my organs for years," and when he was summoned by its editorial board during the '94 campaign the interview was a predictable disaster. So he closed it with Oscar Wilde: "By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, modern editorialism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community."

"Unlike, say, Mexico or France--countries I used to live in--the American people are habituated to a very simple, wholly unrealistic concept of their elected officials. The press only accelerates that, elevates that.

"I used to be Gary Hart's chief speechwriter--I scripted him only during the day and on land. I remember a Washington Post reporter saying to him, 'During the course of your marriage'--he'd only been married 23 years!--'have you ever cheated on your wife?' The combination of a certain puritanical strain and the press is pretty toxic."

New City: Does the Suit Fit?

Up-from-the-ashes entrepreneur Kevin Trudeau has sued the weekly newspaper New City and reporter Murray Coffey for $10 million in damages. Early this month Coffey took a look at the Trudeau Marketing Group and suggested that it may resemble a legitimate business far less than it does a pyramid with a few rich operators at the top and a lot of pigeons at the bottom.

Trudeau's firm sells MegaMemory audiocassettes and distributes Nutrition for Life health products, Coffey wrote, "but you don't have to sell any product to participate in the program. The big money supposedly comes your way for bringing in new members, who also pay to join."

Coffey reported that in 1990 Trudeau pleaded guilty to larceny charges and in 1991 to credit-card fraud, and that he recently told a Houston newspaper, "My two felonies were the best thing that ever happened to me....I've learned from my mistakes. We shouldn't be penalized for the rest of our lives for mistakes we made years and years ago."

Is the Trudeau Marketing Group a fresh start Trudeau should be praised for making? It's an operation he's promoted heavily in late-night infomercials and on WLUP, and when the New City article appeared he reacted like any man of vision whose dream is under siege.

Trudeau's suit against New City lists 21 excerpts from Coffey's article and labels them "false and libelous inasmuch as the statements are all lies."

I'm easily bewildered by legal documents, and Kevin Trudeau v. New City Communications, Inc. and Murray M. Coffey worked the usual magic when I read it. So I called Trudeau's attorney, Ira Bornstein, and asked him to lead me out of my confusion.

The headline to Coffey's piece was "Memory lapse," and "false and libelous" statement (A) was the subhead: "How could those felony convictions slip the megamind of Kevin Trudeau?"

The problem Bornstein identified with statement (A) was not "those felony convictions." It was "slip." New City based its headline on a videotape sent to potential new "members" of the Trudeau Marketing Group; according to Coffey the tape makes no mention of Trudeau's criminal past.

Bornstein said (A) implies "that he forgot about it. There's no proof it slipped his mind."

Trudeau called me on deadline to say that although his past might not have been discussed on that videotape, it's mentioned on many others.

I read back to Bornstein statement (J): "He also fails to mention his past legal difficulties to you, the prospective business partner." The actionable word here seems to be "partner."

"There's no statement anywhere that says these people are going to be his partners," Bornstein told me. They may invest in the Trudeau Marketing Group in hopes of making money beyond their wildest dreams; but according to Trudeau "partners" is not only not the right word for them, it's a libelous lie.

And what about statement (K)? "Sometimes, crooks dress up pyramid schemes as multi-level marketing firms designed to sell products."

Isn't that a plain statement of fact? I asked Bornstein. "What it is," he told me, "is it's characterizing Mr. Trudeau as a crook. Again, it's in the context of the way it's used and the way one reading it would take it."

Statement (E) says this: "Although the Loop recently pulled Trudeau's commercials for two weeks, they reappeared Monday." Bornstein told me, "My understanding is [the commercials] are run on a rotating basis. And that's it. Nobody pulled them." I called WLUP general manager Larry Wert. "Kevin's Nutrition for Life campaign was put on hiatus while we researched the business operations in the eyes of Illinois state law," he said. "We did so at the request of Kevin Trudeau. We determined that absolutely no laws have been broken."

Statement (M): "The Trudeau Marketing Group is not a member of the DSA." I called the Direct Selling Association in Washington. "Unless they're new, or a subsidiary of another company," said a staff assistant, "I'm not showing that they are a member."

Bornstein: "That indicates they don't understand at all what this is all about. The Trudeau Marketing Group can't be a member of the DSA, but the company it acts as a distributor of can be and I believe is." Bornstein said he was speaking of Nutrition for Life.

Is Nutrition for Life a member? I asked the DSA staffer. No, she said. Or MegaMemory? No.

The courts will decide if Coffey's article was laced with error, innuendo, and libel. At this point, it's hard to share Trudeau's outrage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.

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