Monday, February 23, 2009

Ackerman's Tart Tongue Wins Him Popularity, Scorn by Tom Brune --

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(CNP Photo)

It was in 1984 during a debate over school prayer that first-term Rep. Gary Ackerman discovered how powerful his tart tongue could be.

"Let's say in the middle of a math test, a student stands up and says 'God damn the teacher, I hope he burns in hell,' " said Ackerman about a bill to deny federal money to schools that banned student prayer.

"If a teacher tells him to shut up, all of Indiana could lose its (federal education) funding."

Recalling that comment Friday, Ackerman, 66, a Democrat from Roslyn Heights, laughs. "I said that on the (House) floor, and my office had an apoplectic fit. People from Indiana wouldn't stop calling."

But now it's television producers who won't stop calling. Ackerman has become the go-to congressman for network and cable news shows looking for someone who can be angry and funny about high-flying executives and inept regulators as the economy collapses.

Ackerman has been on CBS's "Face the Nation," "Hardball with Chris Matthews" and, with some regularity, Fox News.

They sought him out for his glib, quick-witted remarks on Caroline Kennedy's quest for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate seat and outraged comments on auto executives' perks and Securities and Exchange Commission failures.

"DNA in this business can take you just so far. You know, Rembrandt was a great artist. His brother Murray, on the other hand . . . wouldn't paint a house," he said on "Face the Nation," making its host Bob Schieffer nearly fall over laughing.

Afterward, he said, his made-up Murray Rembrandt was the most Googled item for days.

At a House hearing, Ackerman ripped the auto execs for flying planes to Washington to ask for a bailout. "Couldn't you have downgraded to first class or something, or jet-pooled . . . to get here? It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo."

Ackerman has always been funny, smart and interesting, said New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf and Nassau County Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs. But he's just getting the national limelight now.

"It's like show business," Ackerman said. "You work doing whatever you do, then somebody recognizes you and you become a star."

Sheinkopf agreed, saying Ackerman would remain popular with pundits "so long as he has a fast-moving tongue and a fast-moving set of metaphors."

Over the years, Ackerman has cultivated a flamboyant image, with the fresh carnation in his lapel and a quirky, but often direct, sense of humor.

He asked for a urine sample from an official who argued at a hearing in favor of worker drug testing. He also held up red- white-and-blue socks in a debate on a flag-protection amendment.

Sometimes his acerbic comments create controversy. The town of Utica took umbrage at his comment that "I don't do Utica," on why he wasn't seeking the vacant Senate seat. Kennedy's friends took offense at his comparison of her name recognition to J.Lo's popularity.

"I've been doing it all my life," he said. As a kid in his family, "I was the funny guy."

"It's just me," he said. "Sometimes, I say the funniest things when no one is around. I think something funny, and I start laughing."

When people ask who writes his jokes, he said he replies, "After I say it, everybody."

But now, he admits he feels pressure: "Everybody is looking to me to say something."

Ackerman stressed he also has a serious, studious side, though he acknowledged he won people's thanks for dressing down the SEC for failing to detect Bernie Madoff's suspected $50-billion Ponzi scheme.

"We're going through some serious things right now, with a lot of people going through tremendous angst and pain, and looking for consolation," he said. "But it is also part of life to find humor in things. If you can laugh in the face of adversity, you've got it made."