'Putzes,' 'Bitches,' and 'Fascists'

Do I have your attention now?

It could be said that Sen. Charles Schumer is a senator now, and not still a congressman from Brooklyn, because of an epithet uttered against him in the final weeks of his 1998 Senate campaign against then-U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato. Okay, that's a gross oversimplification.

But, when D'Amato called Schumer a "putzhead" in front of a group of Jewish leaders in a private meeting -- and then denied he'd done such a thing -- the tide began to inexorably wane for D'Amato. It wasn't so much he'd said "putz," which means "penis" in Yiddish, though it's commonly used to mean "fool." It was that D'Amato initially lied to cover it up. There was something about it that gave New Yorkers a handle on what they'd grown tired of in D'Amato. He skated around in an ethical minefield, he was a bit outre -- and he'd always manage to slip out, more or less unscathed. Not this time. D'Amato was out.

So there was a bit of poetic irony in the fact that Schumer was caught uttering his own epithet -- "bitch" -- after a flight attendant had asked him to turn off his cell phone so the U.S. Airways shuttle could could leave Washington. The story was first reported by Politico, and Schumer has since issued an apology. Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Schumer, says the senator "made an off-the-cuff comment under his breath that he shouldn't have made, and he regrets it."

One other thing. In 1992, when D'Amato was being challenged by then-New York Attorney General Robert Abrams, Abrams blurted out "He's a fascist!" at the Columbus Day Parade. Cue the violins. An almost-tearful D'Amato denounced the slur, and a television ad with Il Duce himself (illustrating what was described as Abrams anti-Italian sentiment) was quickly produced by D'Amato's handlers. Anti-italian epithets? At the Columbus Day Parade? Abrams campaign was over.

Watch what you say.