Too-Straight-Talk Express

Illustration by Darrow

Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign had a bizarre moment last week. A couple, actually. Strangest of all, neither of them had anything to do with secret marriages, dog-stomach-stapling techniques, or the possible federal indictment of Bernie Kerik. No, these odd episodes centered on the two issues—economic policy and the fight against terrorism—that Giuliani himself says are the most important facing the country, and are his supposed areas of expertise. Neither made the front page, or any other page, of a city paper.

The foreign-policy weirdness came when Giuliani left his second home, a front-row seat next to the Yankees dugout, and flew to New Hampshire, still home to the first presidential primary. Asked about Congress’s setting deadlines for a troop withdrawal from Iraq, Giuliani initially stuck to his routine response, calling the vote “irresponsible and dangerous.” Then he began floating options about what might happen after a presidential veto of the bill. “Would the president have the constitutional authority to support them [the troops] anyway?” Giuliani mused. “He has the inherent authority.” Giuliani went on to say that “Bush has the power to redirect the money” from other places in the budget. Was he suggesting an end run around Congress? Hard to say; Giuliani was back on the bus, leaving confusion in his wake.

That was nothing compared with the former mayor’s befuddling statements about income taxes. Three days after staging a Wall Street event to accept the endorsement of Steve Forbes—and cozying up to Forbes’s signature issue, the flat tax—Giuliani was in South Florida speaking to the ultracapitalist Club for Growth. Why is Rudy now in favor of the flat tax, given that he’d ridiculed the idea as “a disaster” in 1996? “I didn’t favor it,” Giuliani said. “I said something academic. What I said was—and it was not a joke, but it was half-jocular—what I said was that if we didn’t have an income tax, in other words—when did we pass the income tax, 1916?—in the early part of the twentieth century, way back there when we had no tax, no income tax, what would I favor? First, I’d favor no tax; that would be my first position. My second position would be probably for a flat tax … But that I thought, both then and now, meaning the last time I expressed myself on it, and now, that that would probably not be feasible given the way our economy has developed.” Oh. The half-joke is on Steve Forbes.

We’re conditioned to think of political consultants as evil, for draining all the complexity and humanity out of candidates and replacing them with focus-grouped “words that work.” John Kerry is the most recent Democratic victim of overhandling; John McCain, late of the Straight Talk Express, seems to have lost his bearings this time around, after making a devil’s bargain with some of the Bush operatives who trashed him in 2000. Giuliani’s poll and fund-raising numbers are quite healthy. But he’s in need of some adult supervision.

Giuliani’s presidential campaign has staffed up in all the standard, necessary ways: a press secretary with Iowa experience, a campaign manager who’s worked for the Republican National Committee, a Bush-connected Texas moneyman as fund-raising chairman, a solidly Republican pollster. His New York brain trust remains onboard. The one major vacancy on Giuliani’s team is that of strategic guru. When he ran for mayor, Giuliani had a stormy but productive relationship with the legendary David Garth, but it was always clear who was calling the shots. “Rudy,” a former campaign adviser says, “is one of the least consultant-driven politicians in the country.”

Which sounds healthy. But Giuliani’s recent statements on everything from the flat tax to “strict constructionist” judges aren’t a refreshing display of spontaneity or nuance. They betray a man who didn’t completely expect to be running, who has a long public record as mayor that isn’t entirely helpful to his current ambitions, and who hasn’t sorted out what he believes. Without a heavyweight strategist around—no James Carville or Karl Rove—there’s been no one to add some discipline and force the candidate to determine what he thinks.

Into some of that void has stepped Judith Giuliani. She’s deeply involved in personnel decisions and image-making gambits, roles that aren’t unusual for a political spouse. Most, though, are able to perform them without becoming public lightning rods. In New York, the 2008 presidential campaign frequently feels more like the soap-operatic spring of 2000: On one recent morning, Rudy, Judi, and Bernie dominated the front pages of all three city dailies. Yet the local frenzy hasn’t significantly damaged Giuliani’s national standing. “Outside of New York, what people think matters is leadership on economic issues, leadership on foreign-policy issues, not this silliness,” Giuliani media adviser Michael McKeon says.

Maybe. But it’s serious issues that are tying Giuliani in the worst knots. Running for mayor, he arrived at a carefully calibrated pro-choice stance only after much public agonizing. Once he picked a side, though, he stuck with it. Now, like all candidates post-Kerry, Giuliani lives in mortal fear of being labeled a flip-flopper. So he’s trying to have it both ways: emphasizing that abortion remains a constitutional right, saying he still supports federal financing, while—wink, nod—adding that he’d appoint judges like Antonin Scalia. “It’s disingenuous,” says Fran Reiter, who played a key role in both of Giuliani’s winning mayoral campaigns. “My sense is he’s not comfortable with a lot of what’s coming out of his mouth. He’s all over the place.”

Giuliani’s presidential camp is more worried about his appalling baloney-slicing on guns, especially when it comes to the Republican primaries. “Gun owners, those folks actually vote,” a Rudy operative says. “They don’t care about the sophisticated urbanite explanation of ‘Well, crime and guns …’ That’s going to be a problem. Rudy’s been saying, ‘We’ll let cities and whomever decide to restrict guns however they want to.’ That’s a nightmare for [NRA leader] Chris Cox and his people.”

Giuliani’s candidacy is founded in his image as September 11 hero. I’ve always believed his stature has as much to do with the public’s hunger for something uplifting to emerge from the tragedy as it does with Giuliani’s actions. Regardless, his emotional bond with voters remains real and strong. It may even be enough to turn all the messy social issues into an irrelevant sideshow. But Giuliani’s squirming on anything other than crime or September 11 threatens to erode his aura as a resolute leader. And just when you think he’s matured, the goofball Giuliani resurfaces, mooning over Judi on 20/20. As mayor, Giuliani’s glorious eccentricities, both politically and personally, fit the city and the times. It’s hard to see how those traits are what the country needs in a 21st-century president.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.

Too-Straight-Talk Express