When you're in politics, to borrow a phrase from Faulkner, the past is never the past, especially when you're running for high office. Even from when you were only 18 years old.
Bill de Blasio, the 52-year-old Democratic favorite to become New York City's next mayor, got a tough dose of that basic law of political physics Monday when the New York Post reported that his father, while suffering from late-stage terminal cancer, committed suicide long ago.
“The local police received a call at 8:24 a.m. from a subject stating that he or she had found a man dead in vehicle,” the Post quoted an Aug. 2, 1979, article in the New Milford Times in Connecticut as saying. “The police said their investigation revealed that the wound had been self-inflicted with a rifle.”
The Post also reported that a local medical examiner, performing the autopsy, had discovered "carcinoma of the lung and metastases.”
Tough day for De Blasio, who was last seen galloping away in the polls before the media started to bring their boredom to bear on the city public advocate's campus-lefty Sandinista days; then again, that's life in the big city when your work starts to come shoulder to shoulder with New York's sharp-elbowed tabloids, which haven't always been known for genteel campaign coverage.
It was the Post's forthcoming report Monday that prodded the de Blasio campaign to issue a preemptive acknowledgment of Warren Wilhelm's suicide -- and then a deeply personal interview with WNYC radio that de Blasio promised would be his first and final remarks about his father's death.
(Click play to hear the interview.)
"It's just very painful because it's all the result of this horrible decline he went through, and I think, just talking about it brings up what that whole, long, painful period was like," said De Blasio, who had previously told WNYC how his absentee father struggled with alcoholism.
"Particularly the last year of his life was very very difficult," De Blasio said, adding, "This particular piece is painful and difficult. It wasn't something I felt real comfortable talking about, honestly."
Wilhelm -- which also used to be De Blasio's surname -- had constantly drank and smoked after surviving the battle of Okinawa, the scene of some of World War II's most brutal fighting.
"He got all the way through that and only lost his leg at the very, very end of the battle," De Blasio told WNYC. "To have heard him talk about that and then, of course, for years and years tried to figure out after his death who he was. ... There was something very noble and very good about him, particularly when he was young."
But Wilhelm and De Blasio's mother got divorced when De Blasio was about 8, and Wilhelm fell out of his son's life to the point that De Blasio eventually took his mother's name.
"On the one hand, it was a shock. On the other hand, it wasn’t a shock at all," De Blasio said of the suicide. "We knew his life was going to come to an end. We didn’t expect it to be this way."
De Blasio told WNYC that his daughter, Chiara, knew about Wilhelm's suicide but indicated that his son, Dante, hadn't known.
"I think some things still need to be respected about families, and I think it's fair that I would answer these questions for one person, and explain the situation for one person," De Blasio said, explaining his campaign's decision to contact WNYC about an interview. "But after that I don’t have any intention to talk about it anymore."