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Rudy's Choice

After three weeks of remarkable melodrama, Mayor Giuliani's withdrawal from the race showed him to be a different man -- humble, grateful, ready to reach out. What changed him? His illness -- and his romance.

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Rudolph Giuliani has never been a man to do things by half, to exercise restraint, to show moderation. He loves grand opera, and throughout his career on the public stage, he has performed with the full-throated gestures of a tenor playing to the last row. Subtlety has never been part of his repertoire. His style has been marked by an enthusiasm for overacting and overreacting, whether he's dragging stockbrokers out of their offices in handcuffs as U.S. Attorney or trying, as mayor, to slash museum funding when he didn't like an exhibit.

So perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise that when the glorious, soaring music of Giuliani's success began to give way in recent weeks to the darker chords of serious trouble, the shift was one of sweeping, third-act operatic proportions. And when the curtain came down on his Senate run, we were left with the image of a man who seemed to have been transformed.

His performance at his withdrawal last Friday was truly moving. He seemed to have shed his hard outer shell like an old suit. He focused on the personal and talked about striving to be a better person. And he wanted to reach out to those who felt ignored. Stunningly, here was the mayor saying all the things so many people have been trying to get him to say for so long.

As the mayor stood there talking about how lucky he was because of all the people who loved him and all the people he loved, it was impossible not to think about the speed at which his life has been changed. First the cancer diagnosis and then the Nathan-Hanover-Lategano drama. It all had a through-the-looking-glass quality -- after all, this was Rudolph Giuliani. Not exactly a man known for self-examination. Not exactly a slave to his emotions. Giuliani has built his entire public life on the themes of discipline, personal accountability, and control. Every fire, every shooting, every water-main break, Giuliani was there in his windbreaker letting everyone know he was in charge. It was always his cops and his crime-control strategies that made the city safe. Ask him why the schools are failing, and he'll say it's because he doesn't control them. But it turns out that the arrogant tough guy, a politician who ridicules and exploits weakness in others, is just like everybody else.

"The Rudy that ran New York was the great moralist, the guy who was operating by his own description from a deep sense of right and wrong," says Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "Now we learn he's not the Rudy people thought they knew."

"It's very difficult to watch someone who's been in control just lose it this way and have it all crumble at his feet," says a veteran insider.

Many in the mayor's inner circle were devastated by events of the past several weeks. "I can't even begin to tell you how I feel," says one of his confidants, sounding on the verge of tears. "He's obviously in pain right now, and I'm worried about him. But clearly the first priority is his health. Everything else can be dealt with later."

Another Giuliani insider, now out of the administration, sums up the situation thus: "It's very difficult to watch somebody who's been so in control just lose it this way and have it all crumble at his feet. And I have to say I don't understand what's going on here. I mean, I don't understand his public pronouncements. I don't understand Donna's public pronouncements. And I don't understand parading Judi Nathan around in public. I don't understand it, and I don't know why he's doing it."

Many longtime Giuliani insiders were crushed by all the damage they felt he'd done to himself politically. After all the years of work, and all the single-minded effort to build an unimpeachable record as an activist and a reformer, so much was lost so quickly. And the great irony was that despite the mayor's overactive paranoia reflex, there was no convenient, culpable enemy: no great left-wing conspiracy to point to and no despicable Democrat to blame. Giuliani couldn't even claim the usual suspects, the media, had done it. For the simple fact was, Giuliani himself had made his private life public, and his most potent enemy seemed to be his wife.

While Giuliani weighed his political options last week, he looked, aides said, eerily Hamlet-like in his inability to pull the trigger. Day to day, and sometimes more than once a day, he changed his mind about whether to run for the Senate.

Throughout this excruciatingly difficult period, the mayor was relying on the counsel of his two closest friends, former deputy mayor Peter Powers and Elliot Cuker, the restaurant owner, car dealer, and sometime actor. Both, according to sources, were telling the mayor not to run.

"Peter was very concerned about his health as well as the whole Catholic thing and the propriety of it all," says one source. "He firmly believes family comes first. Elliot, on the other hand, is telling the mayor to get in touch with his feelings, to reach deep down, to feel his heartbeat, and to listen to his soul."

Arrayed against Powers and Cuker were most of Giuliani's political people, who obviously had a vested interest in Giuliani's continuing the race. "Once he got his medical situation worked out," says one of these men, "everything else, all the personal stuff, would have gone away by September, and I still think he would have beaten her."

But finally, on an appropriately dark and rain-soaked Friday morning, the mayor made the decision that seemed -- at least for him personally -- to make the most sense all along. One after another, the people who work for him were summoned in groups: deputy mayors, top commissioners, key campaign staff. "He simply told us that the reason he's not running is his health," says one disappointed loyalist. "He said it's simply too serious a disease to deal with and to take on a major campaign as well. People certainly weren't surprised, and there were no tears. But everyone's blown away. There's a malaise here now, a dark cloud hanging over City Hall."

But with all the questions raised in the past few weeks, the one that has hardly been asked at all is, in many respects, the most interesting. Why has he behaved so bizarrely? Why does the straitlaced Giuliani, who sees the world in stark black-and-white, good-and-evil, with-him-or-against-him terms, suddenly look like an indecisive, introspective, flawed hero in a Verdi opera? Why has the man who humiliated any reporter with the temerity to ask about his personal life (and for five years, there's been plenty of reason to ask) suddenly laid himself bare in public?


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