October 10, 1989
“I THINK WE HAD a great week,” Rudy Giuliani’s deputy campaign manager, Ken Caruso, said Saturday at the official unveiling of the TV ad on Dinkins’s failure to file tax returns 20 years ago. “Jackie Mason went too far, and he was removed from the campaign. But today the issue is taxes…”
A campaign is like a miniseries: It develops the hero’s character slowly until a defining moment broadcasts it in simplified form to everyone. Many voters now think Rudy has the sense of humor of a wet troll, especially after the infamous “fancy schvartze” joke, and that will be hard to shake in the month left before election day. “The question isn’t really how Jackie Mason reached such prominence and visibility in Giuliani’s campaign, but how this became the only story in the race,” Republican strategist Jay Severin said the day after Mason’s controversial remarks forced him to resign. “If Giuliani had been getting out a message a day it would have been different, but all of a sudden this is the only sound in a vacuum — that signals deficiencies in a campaign.
“Mason is more a political story than it seems,” Severin continued. “This is almost a generic model of what happens when you don’t have an agenda. As we say in this business, [the important thing is] not stepping on your own dick.”
If Giuliani danced the flamenco on his own dick last week, his staff claimed not to notice. In fact, they counterpunched hard, first with an ad in the country’s largest Yiddish newspaper showing Dinkins arm in arm with Jesse Jackson and Rudy chatting with George Bush in a wing chair (reminiscent of Saturday Night Live‘s mock ad, “Vote for Bush — He’s whiter”), and then with the taxes spot. All the while, Rudy complained that the press employed a “double standard ” in judging the fairness of the two sides, nagging him while letting Dinkins take “a free ride.”
The Mason flap made Giuliani the focus of media attention for several days, and he took advantage of the opportunity to trot out canned assaults on his “Jesse Jackson Democrat ” opponent. Like the original decision to name an ethnic-insult stand-up comic as campaign mascot, the Giuliani assault suggests a tin ear for the subliminal vibrations of politics — surprising in a campaign guided by the Republican master of the unsaid, Roger Ailes, who managed Bush’s nasty ’88 campaign.
That the Giuliani people didn’t pull the Algemeiner Journal ad after Mason stepped in shit may speak more about sloppiness than intent. The way it went down, it almost seemed as if Rudy were hoping Mason’s troubles would ultimately work in his favor, and that Robert I. Friedman’s interview had merely allowed Mason to spell out clearly what he’d been saying in semaphore for weeks. Just what counts as a blunder in this sort of politics?
“Is racial innuendo raising its ugly head? I think it’s entirely possible that that’s the motivation,” says a Republican consultant based in Washington. “It may be a case in which Giuliani is really being manipulated a little bit here. I think there is a certain sense in which Giuliani is naive about these kinds of things, I’m not sure he’s been around long enough to know what he’s doing. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but maybe, too, it’s a pattern that racism seems to become an issue as Ailes becomes more prominent in a campaign.”
IN AMERICA, RACE GIVES a pretty straight bounce in a campaign. It’s an identity issue, an us-or-them question, exploiting the Manichaean mythologies of national politics with their binary oppositions — Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative, black/white. Like the LOVE and HATE tattooed on Robert Mitchum’s knuckles in The Night of the Hunter, racial division has a fundamentalist glamour.
But here in New York City, the physics of race occur in a cloud of charged particles that can bend space. Ask Al Gore, who was led into an eerily similar nuclear winter by Ed Koch during the presidential primary.
“The reason it wouldn’t happen anywhere but in New York is you don’t have a Mason type anywhere else,” says David Keene, conservative activist and former Bush campaign political director. “Also, in New York the ethnic and racial appeals are more overt than anywhere else. It’s the only place you put together your schedule and say, ‘Today we’re going after Puerto Rican voters, tomorrow we’re going after Jews.’ You can argue that it’s more crude, or you can argue that it’s more honest. What you have in the rest of the country often masks itself.”
Besides, to a couple of deep-dish Republicans — Ailes, who earned his media spurs as a producer for Mike Douglas, and Robert Teeter, the Ann Arbor–based polling consultant and fellow Bush ’88 veteran who completes Rudy Giuliani’s A-Team — the local customs must seem very exotic. “I’ve been astounded at the answers I’ve gotten on some things,” Giuliani pollster Fred Steeper says of his New York data. Steeper hails from Detroit, where his firm works with Teeter’s. “You are the most liberal group in the entire country. Giving out birth control to teenagers without parental consent, for example, is overwhelmingly opposed in the rest of the country. In New York, it’s a close question… This is one of the wildest races I’ve ever been involved in.”
In factional politics — which is what the New York mayoral race has become — the shadows cast by a candidate inevitably obscure the algebra of his policies. That’s part of the appeal of campaigning on a symbolic level, since fighting a race with petroglyphs largely frees the pol from making promises he might not want to keep. Besides, it works, sometimes against the longest odds.
So candidates look for doppelgängers, issues that have a patina of legitimacy (who wants a convicted murderer in their bedroom?) and a sweeping undertow (especially a black one!). That some people could clearly read the unwritten in the Dinkins/Jackson picture in the Algemeiner ad may well be because they’re partisan or obsessed, as Giuliani maintains. Or it could be that they read context: the context of a fractious New York City, of Ed Koch’s divisive kvetching, of Willie Horton, of how photos of black people have been used throughout American history to transmit verbal taboos. To strip this graven image of context, as Giuliani has tried to do by protesting, “What’s wrong with this picture?” is at best naive, at worst willful insensitivity.
Up in the swanky fastness of the Rockefeller Center campaign headquarters, things in the top echelons have gotten mighty male and pale. Giuliani’s despair of picking up black votes has led to a virtual blackout of African-American issues, not to mention faces, in his campaign. “I have not measured the amount of racial antipathy in the city because we don’t want to know. We have not asked some of the standard academic questions,” Steeper says. And yet he goes on to lament the perverse polling anomalies he’s found in the city.
“It’s frustrating. New Yorkers say that crime and drugs are the number one issue and that Giuliani is better on it. But they’re voting for Dinkins. It’s partly because there’s been a sort of honeymoon for Dinkins and he hasn’t been viewed as critically as the other candidates.”
For his part, Roger Ailes is still trying to live down the bitterness of the Willie Horton issue (Ailes didn’t make the infamous TV ad, but he was part of the team that made Horton a household name). So in his first TV spot for the general election, Ailes appears to have bent over backward to avoid using a photo of Dinkins. The tax commercial is just a scrolling script and a voiceover spearing Dinkins for not paying; by failing to mention that he paid the IRS in full 16 years ago, the sin floats lazily into the present.
The ad is curiously prefaced with a caveat. “Some people will try to tell you this is a negative commercial. But it isn’t. Because it’s fair and the facts are true.” This is classic Roger Ailes: the opening denial is at once an attempt to trumpet the ad’s negativity (negative ads are simply irresistible) and to preempt any such thoughts.
And the ad is almost personal. Ailes is so aware of his reputation as a GOP hit man that he has to insist he’s using only “true facts.”
“THE AMAZING THING here is that there’s an absolute strategic imperative for Giuliani,” says Jay Severin. “The issue in people’s minds hasn’t changed — crime and drugs — and Giuliani as a political entity exists only to fill that political void. But look at the feeble connection that’s been made to it! I would have him somewhere on the steps every day talking about a new program to fight crime and drugs.”
It would be nice to say, as Mario Cuomo did last Sunday, that New York City is going to show “Republicans that if you inject race into a campaign we will reject you overwhelmingly.” But this is hardly the end of such campaigns. GOP chair Lee Atwater is doing fine, in spite of the Tom Foley slander; this very local flap probably says more about New York than it does about a general rejection of the principles of ’88.
In the short term, Rudy Giuliani is going to pay the price — he’ll have a hard time getting elected Grand Poobah of the Raccoons in this city, much less mayor. But Ailes will likely pay a personal price, too.
“I don’t want to blame Ailes for Mason’s comments,” says David Keene. But “if Giuliani fails badly and if his failure is popularly believed to have been a result of this, then yes, Ailes’s career is in some jeopardy. And I suspect Giuliani is going to lose badly. So [using Mason was] dumb, in that it allows some people to say that it was Ailes’s fault.”
Reportedly Ailes is advising his man to put every dime into TV. “I agree with Roger,” says Severin. “He’s never going to win it with news coverage.” ■
Research assistance: Diane M. Rubino