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Girls! Girls! Girls!

Has the mayor's taste for women turned him from a self-righteous scold into a vulnerable man with a heart? Or is this midlife crisis as political crack-up?

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He is, of course, one of the great media survivors, or counterpunchers, or refuseniks, of our political age. It is always satisfying to see Rudy get in trouble, if only to see him get out of trouble -- never defensive, always aggressive, chin out, jokes good. And for a while, it seemed that he was going to try to stare down this story -- force the press to treat him merely as a man taking a divorced woman to an inexpensive restaurant and leaving in separate cars like any doctor or banker on Second Avenue. He even, in the early part of the news cycle, seemed to be enjoying himself. He would, unlike the Clintons, insist that his personal life be kept personal -- and succeed at keeping it there. He would never be caught in the headlights -- he could manage this.

I've always been a sucker for just how much this man has consistently defied the rules of the game and gotten away with it (surely part of his counter-charm: the anti-boomer, the unreconstructed fifties guy -- not a press panderer like Clinton). In a media era when, almost invariably, the guy who best communicates warmth, optimism, and classic sales skills wins, he is arrogant, contemptuous, often cruel (those teeth!). He hasn't just broken the rules of modern media behavior but harassed and abused the press.

In spite of this, or because of this, he's gotten a pass on personal issues to a degree unknown in the modern media age. What's more, he's managed to secure this pass in the most politically dangerous of circumstances: when personal behavior contradicts public pretense. The self-righteous, letter-of-the-law Catholic prosecutor contemptuous of any sort of relativism, with a fetish for rules and a mantra of zero tolerance, always fresh from his most recent decency campaign, has been allowed to live peaceably in a European-ish marriage of convenience (not so much cool and sophisticated as strained and ridiculous).

I've wondered, actually, whether the secret of the brazenness, of the ha-ha-ha in-your-faceness of the mayor's three-way relationship with the press and women-not-his-wife, is that he holds the trump card. Which is, there is no sex. Very good friend may, in fact, just mean someone to eat dinner with.

The mayor's first girlfriend of public record, his press secretary, the unfortunate Cristyne Lategano, was a kind of rabbit the mayor waved without caution in front of the barking-dog City Hall press corps. It was not only I don't care about you but I dare you to try to take me down. Who's tough enough? The mayor was the provocateur.

His countermove was an anti-"Sensation" strategy. Instead of exercising his virtuous outrage, as he did toward the Brooklyn Museum, he offered his humanity, his vulnerability, his complexity.

For a full year before Vanity Fair finally said it, the relationship with his press secretary was openly discussed not only by the press corps but by anyone who knew anyone in New York. Before the Vanity Fair article, my colleague Craig Horowitz laid out telling details of the relationship in this magazine -- a story the mayor, as well as the press, ignored (except to banish Horowitz from City Hall).

After the Vanity Fair story -- the first to use the word affair -- the mayor denied it. He denied it without making any attempt whatsoever to hide it.

And that worked just fine. It worked, actually, better than fine. The press went with the denial while at the same time knowing that the denial was absolutely a lie. It was so bald that you found yourself saying, Well, maybe it isn't true. It was like Koch being gay. It was just so much in front of your face that you had to think you were hallucinating.

Either there really was no sex, I'm thinking, and that explains his amazing implacability, his contrition-is-bunk kind of glee, or else, in the most basic of political calculations, he understood what you can get away with when your political enemies are weak. (The mayor has had no "left-wing conspiracy" to pursue him.)

Now, there are surely instances (although not all that many) of American politicians' being able to successfully navigate openly troubled marriages in public life -- and as strategies go, the Giuliani-Hanover standoff seemed to be a politically workable one. But there are no instances of marital unravelings on a grand scale and protracted timetable -- competing press conferences; doubts about who lives where with whom; accusations about who is wounding whom how -- without ensuing tabloid scandal. Indeed, such soap opera turns into the only thing more damaging than scandal for a politician -- farce. I.e., the Bootsie Mandel law of political life.

Bootsie Mandel, perhaps not everyone remembers, was the aggrieved First Lady of Maryland who, in 1973, refused to vacate the governor's mansion when the governor (I remember her name but not his) declared he was maritally moving on. Needless to say, the standoff was a jolly media occasion, which ruined the forgotten governor's career.

In the instance of Gracie Mansion, we actually don't quite know who lives there at the moment (they both do, it seems -- although now it appears he is trying to kick her out). Is it an armed camp, a house of silence, a scene of progressively more chaotic and demented marital breakdown? (Why do I think we will shortly find out?) He, clearly, has taken a kind of stoic pleasure in publicly humiliating his wife; she has, likewise, given almost as well as she has gotten. While using her marriage to the mayor to further her pallid acting and cable career, she has, for the past several years, refused to mention his name (or appear with him) in public. The story suffers, and Rudy possibly benefits, from the lack of a sympathetic victim.

Some months after the Maryland governor checked into a motel, Bootsie Mandel threw a party at the governor's mansion to which she invited all of the unhappy wives of every politician in Baltimore (or so the legend goes). Donna Hanover's equivalent party seems to me to be her decision to take a role in The Vagina Monologues.

One explanation for the timing of the revelation of the mayor's girlfriend (a not especially well guarded secret since at least January; Cindy Adams says it's been going on for three years) is a calculation, on the mayor's part, that the sympathy he'd earned from the announcement of his prostate cancer would cancel the negativity of the story of a new girlfriend.

But another explanation is that he was so enraged at the Vagina Monologues business (just imagine how he must have taken the news) that he decided to once again humiliate his wife with a public romance. If you screw with him, he will, we know, screw with you (even at further cost to himself).

His wife retaliated last week on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral. The only thing that might have kept the Giulianis' marriage off the front pages of the tabloids was the cardinal's funeral, but she took fine advantage of the cardinal's moment. She trembled and used her husband's name in public for the first time in years -- throwing down the wet hankie -- angling to be the sympathetic figure in the tale. Decisions would have to be made, she said. But this marriage and this man were precious to her -- or had been.

His countermove a few days later was dramatically out of character: Call it an anti-"Sensation" strategy. Instead of exercising his virtuous outrage, as he did toward the Brooklyn Museum, he offered his humanity, his vulnerability, his complexity -- and took the story back from her. At the microphone, about to cry, confessing his midlife crisis, naming the two women in his life (although not Hillary), he brought the press into sudden emotional kinship with him. A middle-aged man looking for what all middle-aged men are looking for, he formally announced the end of his marriage (he is the anti-Clinton, again -- man enough to break up). He made himself a sympathetic (even sexy) character and turned gossip into a political asset.

He held the high ground for about an hour.

Donna Hanover appeared outside Gracie Mansion and, on camera, characterized the mayor as a cheating husband, a serial adulterer who hurts the people who love him. By singling out his office romance with Lategano ("one staff member," she said, but her press aide clarified immediately thereafter, lest anyone be in doubt, that it was Lategano), she also characterized him as a public liar. What's more, it seemed that, like Bootsie Mandel, she had no intention of moving out of the taxpayers' home anytime soon ("We will now discuss the possibility of a legal separation").

We've entered into Duff-Perelman territory. It is worth noting that along with everything else this is -- a political issue, a media story, a public embarrassment -- it is also an Upper East Side tale. Minutes after the news broke, my children were able to home in on which private school was at issue (where they met; where her daughter went) and to put this problematic celebrity marriage side by side with other problematic celebrity and semi-celebrity marriages in the same and similar schools and at similar grade levels. (How long did you know? was, briefly last week, the East Side status game. How long, that is, did you know before the tabloids knew? Or, possibly, were you among the people who have been telling the tabloids what you know? Gossip is an extremely competitive act on the Upper East Side.)

This explains why the tabloids themselves really have had no tone of censure here. The mayor and the mayor's girlfriend and the mayor's wife are all part of a larger celebrity- and semi-celebrity-wildlife panorama. The story is about the gossip -- about the hide-and-seek, the telling and not telling -- rather than about the transgression.

But -- and this is either the largest question or an entirely irrelevant issue -- how does this play in Watertown?

Does the mayor care how it plays in Watertown? And is the mayor's lack of concern why all this is happening now?

Let us state the obvious: He doesn't want to be a senator. He doesn't want to be a conciliator, committeeman, social worker. Hillary backed him into a corner. Reflexively, he took the challenge.

I believe this is all about backing out.

Marvin! That's the name of Bootsie's husband -- maybe Rudolph wants to know.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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