|Backstage at Tempe: Giuliani spinning the third debate on NBC. (Photo credit: Stephanie Sinclair)|
The Rudy Giuliani roadshow has touched down today in Macon, Georgia. As usual, it’s sold-out.
New York’s former mayor has come to middle Georgia—as he’s gone to the Pacific Northwest and the Ohio Valley; to Las Cruces, New Mexico, Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Manchester, New Hampshire—to lend his celebrity to a Republican candidate. Today’s beneficiary is Johnny Isakson, a three-term congressman representing the suburban Atlanta district that sent Newt Gingrich to Washington, who wants to be promoted to U.S. senator. In the Republican Senate primary, Isakson was considered the raving moderate because he was the only candidate willing to allow abortions in the event of rape or incest. In the general election, he’s the favorite in a race to succeed the retiring, nominally Democratic Zell Miller.
Macon has a small stretch of grand, lovingly restored antebellum mansions. This pristine tourist district is surrounded, however, by crumbling shotgun shacks. Manufacturing jobs have been deserting the city, while last year the crime rate climbed to ninth-highest in the nation. Now locals are worried that the Pentagon will shut the nearby Robins Air Force Base.
So what issues does Isakson highlight as he speaks to a luncheon fund-raiser for 200 prosperous supporters? Guns, God, and terrorism. “They don’t want you to own a firearm legally, to be able to hunt and fish or protect yourself,” Isakson says in a way that artfully blurs the line between Muslim extremists and the Democratic Party. (Does Al Qaeda really have a position on shooting fish?) “They don’t want you to worship on Saturday or Sunday in any way you want. . . . If you have a child, the odds are one in three the child will take a class in terrorism before they’re 12 years old.” Isakson neatly concludes this picture of Americans under imminent threat of enslavement with apocalyptic language straight out of the Left Behind novels: “We are,” he says, “in the ultimate battle between good and evil.”
At a table in the front row of the all-white audience, nodding and applauding, sits Giuliani. He’s the reason the Tuesday-afternoon event inside a boardroom at Mercer University is standing-room-only and will add as much as $75,000 to Isakson’s campaign bank account. Giuliani is, inevitably, a “man who needs absolutely no introduction,” but Isakson goes ahead and gives him a lavish one anyway. “On September 11, 2001, when our way of life and the world was threatened, Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York City took that city to his breast, comforted the afflicted, gave hope and courage to those for the days ahead, with his sheer willpower and his sheer will,” Isakson says. “New York rose from tragic ashes to its continuing greatness. And it rode there on the back of one Rudolph Giuliani. . . . As a citizen of the Earth and a child of God, I’m grateful that on a tragic day in our lives Rudy Giuliani came our way.” Cue the standing ovation.
Giuliani takes the podium grinning, looking crisp and fit in a dark-blue suit, light-blue shirt, and striped blue tie. He’s supremely confident, speaking without notes in a relaxed, conversational tone. After thanking Isakson for the kind words, though, Giuliani seems to forget him completely, dwelling almost entirely on denunciations of John Kerry and the case for reelecting President Bush. He traces his unified theory of Islamic terrorism, touching on the murder of Israeli Olympic athletes, the killing of Leon Klinghoffer, and the bombing of the USS Cole—conveniently leaving out attacks that occurred on the watches of Reagan and Bush the first. “We can’t go back to where we were before, where we were during the Clinton administration, where we weren’t responding to terrorism on a regular, consistent basis,” Giuliani says, “and where we didn’t have, as an avowed goal of our government, which is what President Bush did, that we’re going to destroy global terrorism.”
The raves that greeted Giuliani’s prime-time Republican-convention speech seem to have encouraged him to speak as long as he wants. Today, though, he is nowhere near as focused as he was in August, rambling for 45 minutes. There are stiff-upper-lip platitudes from a man who was in law school during Vietnam (“War has awful consequences. People die. Young men die. It’s unfair that this person dies and this person lives”), gibes at the French and Germans (“I don’t know about Chirac, but Schröder’s a socialist. How can you get permission from a socialist to determine whether we should defend ourselves against terror?”), and a long digression into the relative manliness of Kerry and Bush as demonstrated by their abilities to throw a baseball. And, of course, there’s the hurling of the epithet liberal at Kerry. “The reason John Kerry has a hard time with these inconsistent positions,” Giuliani says, “is because if he stayed consistent with his record, there’d be a few people in Massachusetts who’d vote for him, and one or two people on the West Side of Manhattan.” He hams it up, flirting with becoming a wacky ethnic New York mascot, like Ed Koch, with his own brand: America’s Mayortm.
For Rudy to be a viable candidate in 2008, terrorism still has to be the central issue. He could vanquish it the way he vanquished the squeegee men.
Finally, after he’s interrupted by a cell phone ringing in the audience, Giuliani doesn’t so much as conclude as take a hint that maybe he should wrap it up and let people get back to work. Not, though, before he solicits questions from the audience. It takes all the way until the third question before Giuliani is asked what many are thinking: “Mistah May-ahh,” a man says, “will we be so lucky as to have you as a presidential candidate in 2008?” When the applause dies down, Giuliani is humble, humorous, and again long-winded, launching into a story about the doctor who delivered his two children and an unrelated joke about the supposed presidential scheming of Hillary Clinton. What Giuliani doesn’t say is no.
His exit is slow, as a thick stream of people ask for autographs and snapshots. Even after Giuliani climbs into a waiting SUV, three Mercer students are knocking on the tinted window. Rudy rolls the glass down and signs scraps of paper for each of the young women, the last girl holding out her pen and jogging nimbly beside the gold Chevy as it pulls away. Why was she so determined to get a souvenir from Giuliani? The eyes of Michelle Elsey and her friends all widen as if I’m an idiot. “Why?” she repeats. “He’s a hee-row!”
Out there he certainly is. New York knows Rudy is, oh, so much more: a social liberal, in favor of gun control, immigration, and legal abortion; a two-time divorcé; a bully; a brilliant, single-minded crime-buster; a cancer survivor; and a gay-friendly roommate.
At least, he used to be. September 11 transformed much of Giuliani’s image; now, on the campaign trail, Giuliani is a politician in the midst of another . . . evolution. He’s become President Bush’s most loyal, most visible surrogate, with only John McCain a possible challenger in pure star wattage, and an eager endorser of such right-wing nuts as New Hampshire’s Bob Smith. He’s frequently the Republicans’ designated attack dog, showing up at the Democratic convention in Boston to rip John Kerry, then again at Kerry’s debate-prep hideaway in Wisconsin, then spinning cheerfully after the debate at Tempe, as on message as Karen Hughes. For New Yorkers, there’s a cognitive dissonance in seeing him in these situations—could this be the real Rudy? Is he one of them, or one of us?
The GOP’s infatuation with Rudy shows no sign of abating. But is this a long-term romance, one that might continue into the next primary season? Or is it a passing, terrorism-anxiety-induced fling? And does he really, truly believe that he could be president?
Giuliani deflects questions about his political future by proclaiming his paramount concern for Bush’s electoral success. He also fantasizes that the Republican Party will change enough that he won’t have to. “Our party is a much broader party than it’s given credit for,” Giuliani says, sitting in a Florida hotel room between fund-raisers. “We’ll have to see what it’s like a year or two from now.”
Outside the Macon fund-raiser, Judith Pearson, a 59-year-old health-care executive, expresses her unalloyed admiration for Giuliani’s September 11 leadership; when his social beliefs are listed, Pearson literally bites her lip. “I didn’t know about that,” she says. “Being pro-life is very important to me. I’m conservative on all issues. I’d have to look at the whole picture if he were to run for president.”
Giuliani’s 9/11 halo makes all other issues look minor today. For Rudy to be a viable candidate in 2008, terrorism must still loom as the central issue in the race. Then he’d present himself as the man who could stamp out a more lethal version of the squeegee men he (temporarily) banished from the city. But Giuliani’s journey isn’t simply about raking in millions for Bush and other Republican candidates, or accumulating political chits in equally prodigious numbers. It’s a personal trip, a Republican On the Road. As he travels thousands of miles for Bush, Giuliani knows that his prospects as a Republican presidential contender will also depend in large part on how far he’s willing and able to leave his New York principles behind.