New York

Imitation of Bill


Donna Hanover’s image has hardly been helped by the parlous state of her marriage to Rudolph Giuliani. There’s an age-old epithet for a woman who goes public about her estrangement, especially if she acts in ways that embarrass her husband. It’s one thing for the mayor to own up to having a girlfriend, but when his wife responds by holding a press conference at John Cardinal O’Connor’s wake, only one word can describe her: Bitch! And you could almost hear it on the media’s lips.

It’s one of the great mysteries of New York journalism that no one broke the story of Rudy’s relationship with Judith Nathan, despite the rumors swirling for several years. Even after Judi and Rudy appeared together in March at the Inner Circle roast—a room full of reporters—mum was the word. Yet suddenly last Wednesday, the Post ran photos of hizzoner and his “very good friend,” as the mayor chose to call Nathan. Now, the Post doesn’t put its comics page to bed without consulting City Hall, so it’s quite likely that this scoop was abetted by someone in the mayor’s retinue.

Clearly, the timing has more to do with the mayor’s cancer than with any journalistic enterprise. Most pundits speculated (albeit gingerly) that Giuliani had decided to deal with his tangled love life in the sympathetic afterglow. But what if the recent disclosures were actually meant to address more primal issues raised not just by Giuliani’s diagnosis, but by his wife’s decision to appear in The Vagina Monologues? Both events challenge the candidate’s masculinity, the former by raising the specter of impotence (a common complication of treatment for prostate cancer), the latter by suggesting that this player can’t control his bitch.

Bemusing the good people of Herkimer County by exposing his private life is a small price to pay for dispensing with a question that haunts every American political campaign: Who’s the Man?

That question was openly raised when Al Gore hired a woman, fercrissakes, to teach him how to be an alpha male. We have issues about electing men who don’t radiate dominance, and the victims of this anxiety are usually liberals, who start out with a macho deficit and end up sinking themselves by their risible attempts to compensate. Dukakis went down posing in a tank, Carter was killed by his cardigan, and Gore may well succumb to earth-toned empathy. But Clinton—the master of syncretic politics—has managed to be both soft and louche. He’s the wimp as lover, something Real Men can’t abide and the rest of us can’t resist.

Now Rudy has torn a page from Clinton’s playbook. He’s made his life a melodrama, and in the process, sought to present himself as a heat-seeking humanist. What’s a guy bursting with brio to do when his wife steps out on him, if only onstage? We all understand the golden rule of relationships: Turnaround is fair play. And a guy who takes action when a woman pisses on him is all the more Man for it.

This is what the Post‘s Andrea Peyser would have us believe. “The mayor stood before the hungry press corps alone, as is his way,” she wrote breathlessly last Friday. “He didn’t lie. He didn’t fudge. He didn’t equivocate. He spoke the truth, no more, no less.” Here’s a slap at Clinton’s evasiveness and a nod to Iron John. As for the suggestion that Rudy’s affair might be a trifle sinful—especially for someone who is willing to shred the Constitution in defense of the Holy Mother—Peyser raises the red-meat banner. After calling Hanover “passive-aggressive,” she finds in Rudy’s actions fresh evidence that he is “mortal. He is human. He is a man.”

Everything about Giuliani’s behavior since his diagnosis invites us to draw the same conclusion. Not that anyone could invent the mayor’s health crisis, but its uses are another story, one the press is loath to address. Instead, we’re told that dealing with death has made Rudy a mensch. This is no mean feat for a man whose face, if it were displayed on public lawns, could deter migrating geese from landing in New York State.

Until his diagnosis, Rudy’s rants were as reliable as the rattling of radiators. On a slow news day, he could be counted on to demonize some victim of police brutality. When federal police seized Elián González, Giuliani called them “storm troopers”—a bizarre choice of words for a mayor who delivers a lecture on trivializing the Holocaust whenever someone calls him a Nazi (which is frequently). When he stood up a roomful of upstate Republican women in order to attend a Yankee game, some of Rudy’s closest friends began wondering if he was looking for a way out of the race—one that didn’t read like being pussy-whipped by Hillary.

He may have found that way. The diagnosis, the Donna, and the New Dame all provide a rationale for laying low until 2002, when Rudy’s health and hearth issues will hopefully be resolved. So will the anxieties raised by his prostate cancer, which lie just beneath the outpouring of sympathy. Indeed, it can only add to his appeal if a man facing such a crisis can keep an attractive girlfriend happy.

Is this the real reason why Rudy’s revelation about his relationship came last week? If so, it’s a stroke worthy of the master. Clinton used his brother’s cocaine addiction and his stepfather’s brutality as the stuff of a carefully constructed myth, a saga that came with its own slogan: The Man From Hope. Now it’s Rudy’s turn to create a profile in courage. Who cares if he tried to deny benefits to people with AIDS? We’re ready for our close-up of Giuliani comforting the sick.

Not that everyone buys the story of Rudy’s transformation from rough beast to compassionate leader. Only 1 percent of black New Yorkers back his bid for higher office—an astonishing figure, though it never makes the lead of stories about polls—and fewer than a quarter of Latinos are Rudyistas. Whites are his core constituency, and he polls highest in the suburbs that were built by white flight. These people believe Giuliani turned the city around. But don’t underestimate the extent to which the New-York-is-back mentality reflects a perception that the moulies are being kept down.

Out in Whitethnica, Rudy is regarded as the right man for this job. The only problem is his crudity. That might do for a satrap of City Hall, but the Senate is a class act. And when it comes to politesse, Giuliani has a lot to learn.

Still, nothing rehabilitates a race-baiter like a personal ordeal. Look at what it did for Lee Atwater and George Wallace. Of course, both men repented for their sins; all Rudy’s done is look soulful, and he’s treated like a wounded puppy. It just goes to show that all a demagogue needs to rise in politics is the ability to make folks feel good about their worst instincts. Give ’em a saga of personal growth and the people will crown a scoundrel Mayor Mensch.

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