A Kinder, Gentler Rudy?

How Rudy Prepared for His Bad-News Press Briefing

The Rudy Giuliani who revealed his cancer last week hasn't been seen in years. It was the same Rudy who announced his candidacy for mayor in May of 1989—open, warm, responsive, authentic. It was the same Rudy reporters got to know when he let his guard down as U.S. Attorney—more searching than driven, more reflective than rejective.

For a moment, up against a real adversary, he did not look embattled by his own demons. His jaw relaxed. He listened. The unpracticed smile returned—less tooth, more lip. His eyes had a lightness to them. Even the shoulders did not stoop protectively. His new tragedy and test appeared to have surgically removed the distrust and cynicism that ordinarily grip him, and he became, at least momentarily, a whole and engaging man.

It was enough to make those of us who've known him for a couple of decades wonder if he could rediscover himself.

But events surrounding the announcement argue otherwise.

By his own account, he had a physical two and a half weeks before his cancer announcement, and presumably learned shortly thereafter, roughly around April 12, that he had a high prostate-specific antigen (PSA) count. With his father already a victim of prostate cancer, "it sort of started there," as he put it at the press conference. "Just the contemplation of it for the last two weeks makes you think about what's important in life," he said, "and what are the most important things. But, you know, you should be thinking about that anyway."

The doctors put him on an antibiotic before giving him a second PSA test to make sure the initial results were accurate. A full course of antibiotics usually runs 10 days, possibly as few as seven. The second PSA test sounded the same alarm. Then he had a biopsy in the early hours of Wednesday, April 26, and got the final word. While facing the gravest challenge of his life, here's how he lived the two weeks:

April 14: When reporters pressed Rudy for details on what he would do with the federal surplus after Hillary Clinton announced a plan, he exploded: "Oh come on, Mrs. Clinton, Mrs. Clinton. You guys, you're unbelievable. You're, like, knee-jerk, knee-jerk, knee-jerk. Thank you!" He walked toward the door in the Blue Room at City Hall, shouting at reporters: "Join the Democratic National Committee."

Responding the same day to a state supreme court ruling supporting Comptroller Alan Hevesi's challenge to a controversial $104 million Human Resources Administration (HRA) contract, Giuliani said,"Democratic judge. Democratic decision. Jerky decision. He just took Hevesi's brief and wrote it down and signed it."

April 18: He proposed his seventh executive budget at a chart-jammed City Hall press conference. In a year with a gigantic surplus, he slashed almost $5 million from Hevesi's budget, the first time he'd ever proposed such a cut. The cut was obvious payback for Hevesi's opposition to a contract that stinks so bad Prosecutor Rudy would have sent agents with handcuffs to HRA.

That night he hosted a Guiding Eyes for the Blind reception at Gracie Mansion. His wife, Donna Don't-Call-Me-Giuliani, said through a spokeswoman that she couldn't attend because she had a "previous appointment with her kids." She was spotted nearby at Googie's Italian diner with Andrew and Caroline eating burgers. Her last reported sighting at a mayoral reception in her own home was years ago.

April 19: Hillary Clinton said she "supported the kinds of rights and responsibilities that are being extended to gay couples in Vermont." Though Rudy previously backed legalizing gay partnerships, he said he would not comment because "he has not seen" the new Vermont law. Preplanned flip-flops do not strain the prostate.

A new Quinnipiac poll released the same day found only 16 percent of city voters approved of the mayor's handling of the Patrick Dorismond case, and only 37 percent rated his overall performance as satisfactory, the lowest ever. Asked if he was concerned about the fact that 73 percent did not support the way he was handling race relations, he said: "No, it doesn't trouble me. I can see the coverage that you've all sort of engaged in the last two to three months, and I'm surprised the impression of the public isn't even worse."

April 22: To make sure no one missed the point, he called the INS agents who removed Elián González "storm troopers" six times in one visceral press conference. Asked if he was aware the phrase was an allusion to Nazi soldiers, he said: "How could you miss it?" He suggested a comparison with the Nazis was "obvious."

He responded to a Times story detailing the incestuous ties between HRA commissioner Jason Turner and the winner of the contract Hevesi blocked by calling it "all created stuff." The Times, he said, "will write all sorts of stories making it appear they did something wrong, and they will be cleared, and [the Times] won't write all kinds of stories saying we were wrong to malign them." An earlier HRA statement pointed out that Hevesi's brother works at the Times.

Responding for the first time to the tabloid story of the week—Donna's announced performance in The Vagina Monologues—he refused to answer a question about whether he would attend the racy Off-Broadway show. "I think that those discussions will be private discussions about whether I do or don't," he explained. "My wife is independent. She lives an independent life. So do I." It was the first time in almost five years of estrangement that he's used so frigid a formulation to describe his ringless marriage.

April 23: After delivering Easter baskets to kids at Metropolitan Hospital and doing a spirited reading of Peter Rabbit, he returned to his Elián commentary: "The big winner yesterday was Fidel Castro," he declared. "He's been orchestrating this." The INS agents "were dressed up as if they were in the middle of a war action," he said, without returning explicitly to his "storm trooper" mantra. Critics had already reminded Rudy of his repeated denunciations of anyone who invokes Nazi imagery as a cheapening of the Holocaust.

April 24: Hillary Clinton said Rudy was exploiting Elián's case for political gain and that Rudy's rhetoric was "extreme." The 17,500-member Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association issued a statement expressing their "strong disgust and dismay" over Rudy's choice of words.

When a reporter offered to read Clinton's brief statement, Rudy cut him off: "I don't really care what she said," he raved. Repeating the three names three times, he excoriated "Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, and Janet Reno," launching into a 15-minute monologue about his own immigration experience as the third-ranking official of the Justice Department in the Reagan administration. He did not mention that the INS commissioner who orchestrated the Elián raid, Doris Meissner, ran the agency under him as well. Nor did he mention that his 1981-82 blockade and exclusion policies sent thousands of Haitian refugees—including six-year-old boys—back into the arms of the brutal Duvalier regime.

April 25: The day before his biopsy, and aware by now of both PSA results, he refused to apologize for characterizing the INS agents as storm troopers, though he tried to shift the onus of the comments exclusively onto Clinton and Reno. "I'm not going to back down from it," he insisted. When he made his cancer announcement two days later, he said that once he got the second high-PSA report, he "expected" the biopsy to be positive and "started thinking about how I would handle it." Apparently, standing firm on storm troopers was his first response.

April 26: Returning to City Hall after his still-secret biopsy, he called a reporter who survived gastric cancer two years earlier a "jerk" and an "embarrassment." The incident occurred while he was taking reporters through newly installed metal detectors at the entrances to City Hall Plaza, a security measure he adopted after losing a First Amendment lawsuit over access to the steps. A group of 12- to-16-year-old kids from London surrounded him and he began chatting with them about the city. When Rafael Martinez Alequin, publisher of an independent paper called The Free Press, asked the kids if they had "this type of security in London," Rudy blew up:

"Don't pay any attention to him. He doesn't even have a newspaper. We have embarrassments in America. He's one of them. Jerk. Jerk. I mean it's ridiculous." Alequin told Newsday, the only paper to report the rant: "He has insulted me before, but never so blatantly, and directly in front of a group of school children."

The Times published a brief item in its late edition revealing that Giuliani underwent tests for prostate cancer during a three-hour visit to a hospital that morning. NY1 aired the story that night as well, leaving Giuliani no choice but to do his next-morning press conference.

April 27: When Alequin, whose grace exceeded Rudy's, assured him at the press briefing that "there is life after cancer," he replied: "I know that. And thank you. Thank you for saying that."

When reporters shifted from cancer to cops and asked about the U.S. Civil Rights Commission report leaked that morning to the Times, he denounced it. "They're a joke. I say that most respectfully," he laughed. "If you take what they're saying seriously . . . they're a big joke." The 9 percent of Staten Islanders who are black and were among the 91 percent of Staten Islanders stopped and frisked—as the report revealed—weren't laughing.

Donna Still-Don't-Call-Me-Giuliani issued a written statement that actually announced that she and Rudy had "discussed" his cancer and that she was both "optimistic" and "supportive." In the most awkward sentence of the day, Donna's statement declared: "It would be appreciated if he is given the maximum opportunity possible to deal with this privately." The statement could not say "we would appreciate it" since the first-person plural is as banned a phrase as the last name. Nor could it say, "he would appreciate it," since Rudy had already been very public about every aspect of the crisis. What she meant was that no one should question her own continuing unwillingness to take on an acting role that she has declined to play in recent years—the loving wife.

After getting a standing ovation from 200 Queens residents at a town hall meeting the night of his cancer press conference, he got one tough question from a man in the audience who said he knew someone with medical problems who was denied public assistance. "Can you imagine having a serious disease and not having the health benefits to deal with it?" the man asked. "Do you feel personally responsible?"

"That's really an unfair question, but I am used to dealing with unfair questions," fired back the mayor who's lost cases at the highest state levels and in federal court over his administration's arbitrary denials of medicaid and other benefits to AIDS patients and other welfare recipients. He then defended the city's public assistance policies. There were a quarter of a million fewer city residents receiving medicaid in February than there were five years ago—in part due to aggressive Giuliani efforts to restrict health benefits.


In the aftermath of the cancer revelation, Rudy did the town hall meeting Thursday night, Saratoga Springs Friday night, and Buffalo Saturday. He differed with Hillary Clinton at the Independence Party convention on Saturday, indicating his willingness to appear on the same ticket with a cancerous presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan. He golfed with 14-year-old Andrew on Sunday. His public comments—about Elián and everything else—have been so mild no one's quoting them. He also revealed with relief that hours more of bone and other tests confirmed the cancer was contained. He said he would spend some of this week interviewing doctors and contemplating options.

His campaign had a 2-million-piece mailing all set to go when the biopsy result came in. He's already spent $5 million on prior national mailings and this one, too, undoubtedly carried a big price tag. Second-time solicitations are usually far more cost-effective, because you're hitting folks who've already given a little, and might want to give again. The timing of the mailing—and the millions it may bring in—are hardly irrelevant to the calendaring of Rudy's future medical/political announcements.

Conservative Party leader Mike Long gave him a get-well call on Thursday and a get-out message on Monday, when the Times reported that longtime Long sidekick, Westchester's ex-congressman Joe Dioguardi, might be the Senate candidate of his and the Right-to-Life parties. George W. Bush told cameras that Rudy assured him he would "absolutely" stay in the race, and they've been very close ever since Bush announced a few days earlier that he would "absolutely" not do any commercials for Giuliani's Senate race.

Whether Rudy runs or not is the question on every tongue tip. The big May media buy—estimated at $750,000—looks like a signal that he's staying in, but it could also raise his numbers enough so that he won't look like a loser when he pulls out. Running amid surgery or radiation certainly offers him an explanation if he loses, and may give him the humanizing impetus to win.

If this crisis allows him to put his family back together, he may want to concentrate on that for a while, salt the campaign loot away, and ready himself for Albany in 2002. If he thinks he can mend the family wounds quickly, the thought of running with Donna at his side may push him to stay in. Her decision this Monday to pull out of The Vagina Monologues—which was scheduled to debut the same day in May that he would be nominated for the U.S. Senate—may be the first opening of that slammmed-shut door in years.

He packed enough venom into the two weeks before his announcement to last most lifetimes. It could hardly be attributed to anxieties about the PSA test, since his explosions were par for the course, memorable only in light of what we now know about the secret of those days. He is a better actor than his wife and he may believe he can play a new, professionally vulnerable Rudy until November with or without Donna. It is also possible that this mortality lesson is genuinely changing him, and that he will not merely mutate politically.

His Senate-race decision is as tough a choice as he has ever faced and he will make it with destiny, as much as doctors, whispering in his ear.


With special reporting by Jennifer Warren

Research assistance: Nicole Gesualdo

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