I’ve lived for many years on the shore of a vast morass of scumbaggery and lunacy. Put another way, I know a lot of people involved in New York local politics. One piece of housing legislation I know about was derailed because a key sponsor was arrested for rape; another because the sponsor of the bill brought Pepperidge Farms Milano cookies the day of the vote, but the cookies ran out before they got to a crucial member, who voted no and commented afterwards, “Why didn’t I get a cookie?” I’m always hearing some horrifyingly preposterous or preposterously horrifying story. But my closest encounter with the morass was a time I myself behaved badly: when I stole a book from Randy Credico, a.k.a. Person Two in the Roger Stone indictment; and I think this episode has something to teach us about what it means to be alive in 2019, when the morass appears to be eating the free world.
Before we start, this was not my first outing as a book stealer. It was just my greatest feat as a book stealer; my Sistine chapel, my Mona Lisa. I’ve been stealing books since I was 18, when a guy let me leaf through his copy of The Master and Margarita, then left the room saying, “Don’t steal that book.” And before you close this in disgust: I know stealing books is a terrible thing. But it’s not as if I got involved in political dirty tricks with Roger Stone. Stealing books isn’t murder. It’s more on a par with whistling on the train.
Also, let it be entered into the record that Randy Credico is generally no saint. First, he’s a stand-up comedian from an era where Louis C.K. could pass as normal. In a documentary made about him, Sixty Spins Around the Sun, Randy can be seen tearing off his shirt as he boasts about his 19-year-old girlfriend. Also, even if we believe his claim that he wasn’t Roger Stone’s back channel to Wikileaks, he did work on several campaigns for Stone, sometimes doing robocalls in which he impersonated famous politicians. There was also a murky episode where Stone ret-conned his way into Love Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s fall from power and then reportedly left a message with Spitzer’s 83-year-old father saying “ …you will be arrested and brought to Albany and there’s not a goddamned thing your phony, psycho piece-of-shit son can do about it…” only to claim it was Randy impersonating him, which Randy denies—and there you have Randy’s relationship with Stone in a nutshell.
Of course, Randy was amply punished for getting mixed up with Stone: after he refused to be Stone's fall guy for Wikileaks, Stone turned on him dramatically, famously threatening to steal Randy’s dog and emailing him things like, “You are exposed as a liar who wears women’s underwear.” Still, Randy had worked with Stone many times while knowing Stone was associated with such luminaries as Nixon, Marcos, and Mobutu. Randy’s only explanation for this is, “I guess he had a Rasputin/Svengali kind of spell on me.”
Finally, as the great Larry David says: “Once when he was in my house, he stole some cigars … So he is a thief.” N.B.: A thief!
On the other hand, unlike 99% of people, Randy has done real good deeds. In the 1990s, during one of many attempts to kick his cocaine habit, Randy saw a news item about a Latino guy doing 15-to-life in Sing Sing for transporting four ounces of cocaine given to him by a cop conducting a sting operation. The draconian sentence was due to New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, under which possession of four ounces of any narcotic—even cannabis—was punishable by a minimum sentence of 15 to life. As a white middle-class coke addict, Randy had had no inkling of this.
Unlike any other white middle-class coke addict before or after, he then devoted years of his life to fighting this injustice. He became the person who called everyone 10 times to nag them to go to a demonstration; who stood in front of the courthouse all day handing out leaflets and haranguing passersby. Due in part to his efforts, the New York drug laws changed; the number of prisoners serving sentences for A-1 narcotics felonies has declined by more than half. He also spent four years in a rural Texas town where 10 percent of the black population had been imprisoned on trumped-up drug charges and fought for their release.
Finally, Randy is the junior high school friend of my pal Jim Gottier. This isn’t good or bad: it’s just how I had the opportunity to steal his book.
It’s 2010. Randy’s in the middle of a long-shot run for Schumer’s Senate seat, and he’s having a campaign event in a bar. I’m invited by Jim, and when I arrive, I find Randy haranguing Jim about some book Randy’s reading about political repression in the 19th century. Randy’s waving the book (which looks like a mimeographed pamphlet bound cheaply by cavemen who’ve never seen a book), and unstoppably telling us everything in the book.
Then he has to do his speech, so he slams the book down on the bar, saying to Jim, “Don't steal that!” He goes up and makes his pitch, in which he keeps breaking into profane impressions of celebrities from the Reagan era and it’s impressively bizarre. (It’s here, with Randy starting at about the 1:13 mark.) He does Strom Thurmond. He does David Brenner. He does a few mystery impressions of people whose identities are lost to time. He weaves erratically from topic to topic—John Brown, stop and frisk, Robespierre, the Buenos Aires zoo—and to be fair, it’s sometimes funny when you can work out what he’s talking about.
So by this point in the story obviously I’ve already stolen the book. And I felt bad, but clearly I was driven by the bookstealingness of the book stealer, and the desire to give innocent joy to Jim.
And (as Jim reported later) Randy was upset about the loss of the book—until he learned I stole it. Then he became alarmingly interested in me, and pestered Jim to give him my phone number. Jim refused to do this. “There clearly was a sexual component,” he said. Jim advised me to forget the book, and told me that, at the peak of Randy’s career—after his appearance on The Tonight Show in 1984 (strictly stand-up; no trip to the couch)—Randy returned to their working-class hometown and methodically slept with all the girls who’d been hot and unattainable in eighth grade.
Long story short, I still have the book. I also have a lot of Jim’s books, to be honest. Are you missing a book? It is probably in my living room. But listen, it’s not murder.
The book is Political Repression in 19th Century Europe by Robert Justin Goldstein, and I’m happy to report that it really is great. Sadly, however, what I’ve learned from it is that political repression hasn’t essentially changed.
For instance, in the 19th century, familiar methods of voter suppression were already rampant. Take Hungary, where bizarrely shaped gerrymandered districts reminded one scholar of “the most difficult Chinese puzzles of our childhood.” In regions with ethnic minorities, Hungarian polling stations were often located dozens of miles away from their voters—just as they are in African-American precincts today. People of certain nationalities might also be unceremoniously rounded up and thrown into prison before an election. This at least may seem like it couldn’t happen here—until you reflect that our drug laws are enforced so that a much higher percentage of people of color are incarcerated and thereby disenfranchised. Atrocities like those life sentences for possession of four ounces of cannabis under the old Rockefeller drug laws stay on the books much longer when the people most affected by them can’t vote.
In many countries in 19th century Europe, only the affluent had the vote. This is gone, but the arguments once used to defend it are still here. It was said that the rich were more informed; that they deserved more say because they contributed more; that they were less biased because they didn’t need money, but also that they had more of a stake in society. These arguments are still used to argue for everything from tax cuts for the rich to the election of Donald Trump.
Hysteria about the free press was also rife in the 19th century, and it’s oddly poignant to read how the anarchist Proudhon was jailed in the 1850s for publishing “false news.” More alarming, in light of recent revelations about fake social media accounts, is a section about agents provocateurs, an area where the Russians excelled. In the years leading up to the revolution, many important Bolsheviks were actually police agents, including the leader of the Moscow branch. Police agents could easily advance in the party by having their superiors arrested. But this cut both ways; one police agent, Yevno Azef, arranged the terrorist assassination of his boss, the Minister of the Interior. Police agents also played crucial roles in the Russian revolution; notably Roman Malinovsky, who helped engineer the split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of Russia’s Social Democrats, thus ultimately helping Lenin gain power.
In a way, the moral of this story is that the political evils of the Trump era aren’t new or unique. You could with equal justice say that Trump’s administration has brought the lunacy and scumbaggery of New York politics, or the lunacy and scumbaggery of 19th century Europe, to the White House.
But this is also a story about Randy Credico, who’s become for me a symbol of human goodness and fallibility. After all, whether you’re stealing Randy’s book or Larry David’s cigars, or taking shady jobs on behalf of Roger Stone, we all have things to be ashamed of. But Randy really saved thousands of people from spending their lives in prison for possession of recreational drugs that many New York politicians take. Credico is the closest thing to a grassroots hero New York politics will ever get. He deserves more from us. Specifically, he deserved more from me.
So, finally, this is the story of how I returned Randy Credico’s book.
When I got in touch, he still remembered the book—and wanted it—after 10 years. He said, “I actually can’t find it and I am obsessed with 19th-century European politics.” He agreed to meet me in a cafe, where we instantly fell to talking about the book with the happy animation of two people bonding over their fascination with political repression in 19th-century Europe. I’d told him about this piece, so it must have been clear I had an ulterior motive in returning the book, but Randy didn’t call me on it. I guess he was working with a New-York-politics scale of corruption, and this barely moved the needle.
Inevitably, we did talk about Roger Stone (while Randy’s phone kept pinging with invitations from TV producers to talk about Roger Stone); but really if you’ve seen one preposterous political morass, you’ve seen them all. So we soon drifted to other topics: how Randy kept telling producers he couldn't go on TV because he didn’t have the right clothes and producers kept trying to send him pants; how Schumer once saw Randy in a supermarket and tried to make him do his impression of Reagan for Schumer’s wife; how Randy kept worrying some alt-right nitwit would steal his dog Bianca now that Stone had drawn crosshairs on her.
Finally I had to ask: Did Randy really go back to his hometown and sleep with all the girls who were hot in eighth grade? “Yeah, I did,” he said, and started to list the girls with the far-away smile of a man who has glimpsed Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome in a dream. Then he stopped himself and asked me not to name them in this piece. He figured we were talking seven women, maybe eight. The most recent occasion was 10 years ago; they both would have been in their fifties.
Through all this, Randy was mercurial and gentle and clearly very sensitive. In that documentary about him, one of his ex-girlfriends says belligerently, ”Randy is good to the bone,” and this was obvious from five minutes’ chat. I was particularly struck by how he tied himself in knots to forgive his enemies, even insisting that Roger Stone might have been a great guy if he’d grown up in different circumstances. And when I told the story of stealing the book—him saying to Jim, “Don’t steal that book,” then turning his back on me naively—his face lit up with warm recognition.
“Yeah,” he said reassuringly. “I steal a lot of books too.”