Still Bearing a Torch for the U.S. Senate: But is He the Least Likely Person for these Peculiar Times?

The Torch

He at times detested Frank Lautenberg and vice versa. How ironic then that Bob Torricelli should come in his mid-sixties into the same shock of Crocker Jarmin white hair that once gave Swamp Dog the precise appearance of sublime and austere elder statesman. In Torricelli’s case, the hair looked less like the handiwork of age than the perfect poll-tested complement to not only his tan and powder blue suits but to the very concept of public gravitas.

And yet, there was a rub.

Elder statesman arguably lacked the resonance required of these times.

In the event of an indicted U.S. Senator Bob Menendez opting of a reelection bid, no doubt some financially well-heeled person without a single vote to his name would step forward to solve the world’s problems from the perch of the U.S. Senate and spare the party organizations from having to balkanize; or the U.S. Senate seat would present deal-making opportunities related to state politics. One continuing strategic design posits South Jersey (whose Democratic organization consistently presents the largest and most impenetrable majorities in Trenton) dangling U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1) at a (let’s say, for the sake of argument) Governor Phil Murphy. The unspoken message would be clear: bring in the northern chairs and make Norcross the U.S. Senator and your agenda won’t get blocked.

If that scenario develops, what could Torricelli offer in response to that kind of political gamesmanship?

Experience?

The very word conjures unsettling political handicaps. Maybe the pendulum will swing back sufficiently from the last presidential cycle in which Donald Trump ran as a committed outsider in time to make Torricielli shine, but in an attention deficit addled world, it seems unlikely.

Few seem overly eager to value government experience anymore in a statewide atmosphere, and less so from one who left under an ethical cloud in the earlier part of the millennium. Short of the north and south sinking into an all-out war, the Torch presents too many complications from a purely political standpoint, or so runs the conventional wisdom, starting with the nettlesome fact that he has a public record.

He tells the story about getting called in to brief President George Herbert Walker Bush.

It’s fascinating, and the perspective of one who lived a valuable arc of American foreign policy, both succeeding and failing.

The elder Bush wanted Middle East expert Torricielli’s no BS assessment on an Iraq invasion. Torch says he told Bush the only way to go in was if he could line up an international coalition of allies. Already done, Bush told him. Would Bob back him with an aye vote on backing an American-led cohort to smash Saddam Hussein as repayment for the dictator storming Kuwait? Impressed by the elder Bush’s diplomatic prep work, Torricelli answered in the affirmative.

Years later, though, his career as a U.S. representative over and now in the U.S. senate, Torricelli answered a call to the office of Bush’s son, President George Walker Bush. The younger Bush wanted Torricelli’s support for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, to finish the job undertaken by “dad.” Torricelli asked Bush the same question he had asked his father, regarding the president’s advance work in putting together a credible coalition. Already done, W. told him.

So Torricelli backed him, he recalls – in agony.

That’s because the younger Bush hadn’t, in fact, done the work to put together a coalition, as his father had, the former senator told InsiderNJ.

Torricelli voted aye to give Bush the Younger the authority to make war on Saddam, a bad man, by Torricelli’s own reckoning as he had on several occasions found himself a forward observer in the (much of the time western-stoked) Iraqi-Iranian war.

A man once humbly asked Torricelli if he would intercede on behalf of his son, an officer in Saddam’s army who had allegedly retreated in the face of an Iranian assault. The Iraqi leader’s punishment for retreat was execution. When Torricelli met with Saddam he broached the subject of the officer slated for execution. Would the president please consider commuting the sentence?

Hussein grunted in  response to the question.

Later, as Torricelli was leaving the country, a Saddam emissary told him – just before he boarded the plane – that the man had been executed.

That was Hussein’s answer to the entreaty for mercy.

But Torrcielli’s regret over the Iraq War vote has nothing to do with Saddam Hussein, but with the pain at the thought of the suffering of those men and women – American soldiers and innocents – killed or maimed in a conflagration that produced no weapons of mass destruction – precisely the stated reason for the U.S. going into Iraq. It’s perhaps tragic in a sense that his aye vote on the Iraq War resolution should stick to Torricelli, as it does to Bill Pascrell, as it did to Steve Rothman and Rob Andrews, and, of course, as it did to John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

But it is arguably worse that all that amassed institutional knowledge – some of it in the service of good decisions and some bad – should be more the reason for outright dismissal than acceptance or at least genuine consideration at a time when the new and untested and slick find a greater chance for traction.  Or irrelevant. Torricelli vociferously disagrees that his chance for a second act has evaporated, and sees those long nurtured relationships up north as fertile ground for an attack.  But there too he has a challenge, for sources say Menendez – wounded by the former senator’s uptick in visibility as the senior senator weathered corruption charges – will use the influence he has to block Torricelli from power, even going so far as to give a nod in the direction of the dreaded south and Norcross.

There’s some volatility there.

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