O.J. & THE LAST LIBERAL

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This was last Tuesday when the jury would be bringing in the verdict and I was in Gramercy Park which is one of the city's loveliest gardens to lunch with distinguished people and to listen to perhaps the country's last liberal, a man who might have been president or sat on the Supreme Court.

The Dutch Treat Club, one of the great luncheon clubs, was beginning another season and as speaker they'd asked Mario Cuomo. The invitation was a long-standing one and pure coincidence that Governor Cuomo was scheduled to speak just about at the time Judge Ito out in Los Angeles would be calling for the verdict. Cuomo has a slim new book out from Simon & Schuster, "Reason to Believe," and he would be plugging that among other things.

We all had a glass and stood about chatting for a bit. I hadn't seen Cuomo since he left office and he looked pretty good, the face much less deeply lined, the usual blue suit and white shirt and black shoes. He made his way through the room, shaking hands and saying hello. There were 170 of us there, they said, mostly white, mostly middle-aged, mostly men, not much of a demographic mix, but in that room as in all of America people were waiting for the verdict. They'd set up a single, small TV set near my table to the left of the speaker's podium and Peter Jennings was going on and on soundlessly. When Judge Ito took his place, we were told, they would turn up the sound.

I looked around, taking notes. John Mack Carter was there and the actor Paul Sorvino and Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque who said he would be catering the pope's lunch on Friday and William Plunkett, described as an "F.O.G.", a "friend of George Pataki," and William Morris agent Jim Griffin (he reps Cuomo) and Leonard Riggio of Barnes & Noble and Susan Solomon of Sony and Woody Broun and the GOP's Roy Goodman and Bill O'Shaughnessy who owns radio stations and who got me there.

And then it was almost one o'clock and Ito was in the courtroom, by now as familiar to most of us as, say, Cronkite, if somewhat less universally admired.

Across the club dining room, there came a hush. "It's like the moon walk," a man said quietly. And he was right, the waiting, the near-silence, the tension and expectation. Somewhere a young woman laughed, nervously. There were other small titters. At our table two men with mustaches continued a low, focused little chat. Then came the "not guilty."

"No, I don't believe it," someone said. There were through the room what could only be described as groans. On the screen O.J. grinned. Mr. Goldman, in the courtroom, shook his head. At our table someone started to say, "America...." and then cut it off. About 10 minutes after one they turned off the television and got ready to listen to Cuomo. How do you engage a roomful of people so clearly distracted? The emcee said, "There's a show business cliche about tough acts to follow...."

Then, blessedly, breaking the tension and giving the room a chance to breathe, two singers and a pianist came on and gave us some of the wonderful old Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. At last Ralph Graves introduced Mario Cuomo as "the highest elected official to speak to the Dutch Treat Club since Herbert Hoover. He is, however, a better speaker than Hoover and might have been a better president...."

That got some laughter and applause and then Cuomo was promising to be brief since 2 p.m. was approaching and "some here may want to discuss O.J," and telling a single joke, about the new doctor who asked what he did for exercise and Cuomo said he played full-court basketball, five on a side, and the doctor inquired, "but where do you find nine friends to play with?"

He spoke, and eloquently, as he always does. Modestly, too, referring to segments of his own book as being "tediously cogent," and I wondered what agent Griffin thought of that. And when he finished, on a soaring note, and threw the floor open to questions, because I was right there I got in first, "Governor, when the verdict was announced there was in this room an audible groan. What was your reaction at that moment?"

Cuomo got right into it. "The first law in the country is God forbid we convict an innocent person. Better to let a guilty one go. So I was not shocked. Number two, unless you're in the courtroom and study every nuance, how can you know? Is he guilty or innocent, I don't know. It's not relevant.

"God knows. Nicole knows. Ron Goldman knows.....

"If I had to say, I'd say he did it."

He went on from there:

"This is for another day but we learned a lot from this trial. We learned too much. Parents used to chase you from the room. `You're not ready to hear this,' they'd say. The thesis is, you can know too much. We used to think a judge was a person up there in a robe. Now we know a judge sleeps with a woman and she's a policeman...."

A questioner from the floor asked, "Why aren't you making this eloquent statement as a candidate?"

With a typical Cuomo riposte, Mario said, "One does not ascend by losing." Then he was back to the Simpson verdict.

"There will be a tendency to say nine black guys won't convict a black. That's not so," Cuomo insisted. "This was a white jury. If those three whites had wanted....or one of them to say `No!'-but they didn't. They decided on acquittal. It was a unanimous decision."

So spoke the last liberal.

And in L.A. they partied and book deals were cut and jurors interviewed and the talk shows called, begging for his time. Some spoke of O.J. as a pariah to be shunned, others as a hero justified. And a nation stood divided largely along the lines of race. And that, too, is criminal. A sad day, a sad time, as Simpson vowed never to rest until he found the killers.

He might start with his own bathroom mirror.

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