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This Changes Everything

Giuliani's sudden announcement of cancer casts him in an unlikely new role.

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Last Thursday morning, about an hour after he confirmed to the City Hall press corps that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, Rudy Giuliani marched out of the building with his retinue at his side and hopped into his white GMC to make his rounds. A routine activity, not worth remarking upon under normal circumstances. But these circumstances were, of course, far from normal. Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a prostate-cancer survivor himself, whose recent feud with Giuliani led him to pronounce the mayor a "liar," was standing at the bottom of the City Hall steps. He saw the mayor on the portico and bounded up to shake his hand and wish him well. Bruce Teitelbaum, the mayor's campaign manager, was ashen-faced, his voice, which usually comes at you with the force of a barreling No. 5 train, barely audible, as he assured reporters that "we haven't changed anything. His plans haven't changed."

That may be. By the time you read this, we will know whether the mayor held fast to his plan to speak before a gathering of the Independence Party in Buffalo on Saturday, or whether he'll continue on with a trip to Rochester scheduled for midweek. We may have a better idea of how serious the mayor's condition is, and what sort of treatment will be required. But even before knowing the answers to any of those questions, we can see already that things have indeed changed.

Politics, and political journalism, assigns people roles that they rarely transcend, and that are usually their undoing. Bill Clinton was assigned the role of playboy. He played the part, con brio, and it nearly ruined him. George W. Bush has been assigned the role of doofus frat boy, and if he loses to Al Gore, it will be, at bottom, because he never escaped that tag. Rudy Giuliani has also played his assigned role, of authoritarian tough guy, with considerable zest, and, just lately, it hadn't been doing him much good.

Well, this changes everything. It's almost like a macabre punch line to a joke: What would it take for the citizenry to feel genuine and universal sympathy for him? The night before the mayor made his announcement, a friend went to hear Amiri Baraka give a reading at St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery. One of Baraka's poems was a flesh-ripping denunciation of the mayor. The poem's fury was cheered by the packed church. Just another night in the East Village, of course; but surely many in the audience had to feel a twinge the next day.

And so the mayor takes on a new role: victim of forces that none of us, whether mayors or subway motormen, can persuade to pass by our door once they decide to knock. He averred to City Hall reporters that the diagnosis would not make him nicer. But it will make his political enemies nicer. It will make Hillary Clinton think twice (or three times) before her next attack. It will make Rick Lazio, already playing an Eve Harrington-ish role in this Senate race, cool it, and treat the mayor with a respectful tendresse until the mayor decides whether he'll go through with this race. Whether he does or not, his image -- the way we write and talk and think about him -- has been altered permanently.


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