Magazine article The New Yorker

Albany Follies

Magazine article The New Yorker

Albany Follies

Article excerpt

If, as Walter Benjamin said, there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism, might the reverse also be true? Consider the twenty-eight-page criminal complaint, made public last week, against Malcolm Smith, a Democratic state senator from Queens, who, with the aid of several other local officials, stands accused of attempting to bribe his way onto the Republican ballot for mayor of New York. Rank with treachery, sleaze, and a seemingly endless barrage of literary and cinematic tropes (burner phones, envelopes of cash), the complaint isn't just readable; it's hard to put down.

Like Walter Neff, in "Double Indemnity" (or Rupert Pupkin, in "The King of Comedy"), Smith is not so much a scheming pragmatist as a visionary ensnared by his own dreams. Last November, according to the complaint, he persuaded a wealthy real-estate developer (actually an undercover F.B.I. agent wearing a wire) to pay three local Republican bosses--Daniel J. Halloran III, Vincent Tabone, and Joseph J. Savino--for their support of his mayoral bid. (In return, Smith promised to funnel state money to the developer's project.) The extreme unlikelihood of Smith's winning as a Republican, to say nothing of his already less than spotless ethical track record, apparently did not come up. (In 2008, shortly before his party won a majority in that November's state elections, he reportedly told a group of lobbyists that they should consider contributions to him as being like an I.P.O.: "The longer you wait to get in," one lobbyist recalled his saying, "the more it will cost you, and if you don't get in at all then it will be painful.") During the filming of "The Big Sleep," Howard Hawks cabled Raymond Chandler to ask him to explain a plot point. Chandler said that he didn't know the answer. Something of the same baroque inscrutability informs the structure of the Smith affair.

If the plotting is Chandleresque, the dialogue--taut, elliptical, and fizzing with ominous subtext--owes more to George V. Higgins. In January, in a parked car in Rockland County, Smith met with another real-estate developer, this one a cooperating witness in the F.B.I. investigation. When the witness asked Smith if what he was doing was really worth the price, the following exchange ensued:

SMITH: Yeah!

C.W.: It's a pretty penny.

SMITH: Yeah, it's worth it as long as they're going to do it. They can't, you know. Don't . . .

C.W.: Tabone is swearing he, like, that he controls or he's [the chairman of the Queens County Republican Party].

SMITH: Yeah, he does, he does. …

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