Identity Politics

With the personal having become the political in such undreamed-of ways, there’s more and more to identify with.

There’s Raoul Felder, for starters. Who can’t understand the impulse here? The myth of the tough lawyer is a powerful one. A tough lawyer, a real son-of-a-bitch lawyer, will save you, will avenge you, will deal with everything. You’re hiring the wrath of God, you believe.

There is, of course, no such thing. Your lawyer is either a nobody drone who, if you’re lucky, files all the papers properly and gives you a blank look when it goes poorly, which it always does, or your lawyer is a shameless self-promoter who is hustling you more than defending you (and telling you it’s going great when it’s going poorly) and taking advantage of you in your hour of need. You fall for hiring Felder (even other lawyers, like the mayor, fall for hiring Felder), or someone like him, because you think you are the righteous spouse and can buy vengeance and protection (it would be interesting to see what rate Felder is giving the mayor). Every hurt, angry, upwardly mobile divorcing person is vulnerable to such fantasies. Having a tough lawyer is the middle-class version of having mob connections. My lawyer will whack your lawyer.

Then there’s the real estate. When you consider breaking up a marriage in Manhattan, you ask yourself one certain question: Where would I go? And for all but the wealthiest, there just isn’t an answer. Who can run out and rent another apartment with room for the children? Who can plop down a down payment for a second co-op (and what co-op board wants someone in the middle of a divorce)? The Giulianis are as cash-strapped as anyone – and as stuck. So whatever you have here, whatever he-wounds-her-she-wounds-him syndrome they’ve got going, sometimes a real-estate squabble is just about real estate.

Then cancer. Impotence. Christ.

Then there’s the ailing mother complicating the situation – people get attached to other people’s parents, oddly (and sometimes mothers-in-law like their daughters-in-law better than their sons).

Then there are the kids and whatever troubles they’ve got (we don’t really want to know).

None of this is strange.

I used to think the Clinton thing was the ultimate convergence of politics and reality. Here was life in all its absurdity: the unvarnished, unlovely, unbecoming details of a middle-aged man and a young girl. But the Clinton story turns out to be a skillfully airbrushed sexual fantasy compared with the Giuliani reality. He really is the naked civil servant.

How much we are like these people may be the baseline of our political judgment. On the other hand, being able to separate ourselves from these people, being able to believe they are not of our class, provides a lot of satisfaction, too.

It’s tabloid relief.

As soon as the Passion play of the mayor and his wife – the bad blood of marriage, the sadness of middle age, the cost of ambition – gets to be too much, we’re allowed to stop identifying and think of them as just a higher-achieving version of Amy and Joey.

It’s a New York Post story, which, in a transmutation of reality, means the tawdry becomes less tawdry by becoming more tawdry. The exaggerations, the shock-shockedness, the deer-in-the-headlights photographs, the Felder leaks, the overall tabloid joie de vivre, turns this into theater and spectacle. (But, giving credit where it is due, it is the Daily News that scored the best headline – judi’s turn to cry, the News wrote the day after Judi Nathan, the mayor’s girlfriend, was barred from Gracie Mansion.)

A good tabloid story enters another moral universe. If you’re in the tabloids, you become not quite middle-class anymore – you become a sort of show folk or tabloid folk.

We start to think that your purpose is to behave badly – you’ve become a form of popular entertainment.

Of course, we understand that the tabloids not only reflect but encourage bad behavior (you’d have considerably less tabloid behavior without the tabloids). We understand, too, that our own prurient interest figures into the media matrix (you need the attention; we don’t mind giving it to you).

Out in the country, on the cover of People magazine, you have a story colored by opprobrium and pathos. Here, we can condescend to enjoy the comedy.

There’s a lot of media sophistication that shades the context of the Giuliani-Hanover mess. In a tabloid city, you come to have a greater or lesser appreciation of the difference between scandal and gossip – between what the community will not accept and what it can’t get enough of. It’s the Puffy dialectic.

Fundamentally, this is the same old Giuliani story: Is it rational or irrational behavior? Is the man in control or out of control? Is he serious or is he kidding (the ferrets)?

He’s histrionic and embarrassing in public – we know this.

We’ve encouraged it. We’ve enabled him.

The crazy-man thing works. It breaks through media clutter. It leaves a vivid (forget conventional measures of negative or positive) impression. It’s a warning. Everyone, even voters, is left slightly afraid of him – how can you predict what a crazy man will do? – and for the usual masochistic reasons, that becomes a kind of respect.

What’s more, crazy behavior provides its own excuse. Oh, that’s just his craziness. What we mean, though, is That’s just his fake craziness. His ‘tude.

But while we’ve accepted (or at least we’re not too bothered by) the way he’s turned this craziness against museums, can we also accept his turning it against his wife and family? Or has he gone too far now? (This in itself is part of the Giuliani reverse charm – we always think he’s about to go too far, but by going too far his ridiculousness gets to be ridiculous enough for everyone to know it’s ridiculous.)

Oddly, his excuse this time around (or the excuse we make for him) may be that his present crazy behavior could actually reflect that he is crazy. We can’t discount that he may be coming apart.

He may be dying. The therapy may not be working. This may be an endgame.

If not dying, he’s got to have the fear of dying.

My God, he must be depressed. It’s not just impotence he has to deal with (words we hate: deal with); there are other biological transformations. The estrogen therapy, for instance. Might that explain why the mayor is so willing to talk about his impotence (while public language is changing, public talk of impotence seems like a big new leap)? This is not a political or public-relations strategy but, possibly, a chemical sea change. The transformation of the alpha male.

And then he’s losing his job. He is, obviously, defined by this job to as great a degree as any man who is overly defined by his job. So what does he do in January? Who will he be?

All this bad behavior has got to be, in part, a howl of rage.

There are people, surely, who enjoy this. He walked into it, you could say.

Still, it takes the most hardened Giuliani hater not to relate on some level. To see him having vulnerabilities is not quite touching, but it is at least reassuring.

For better or worse, you could never understand the family dynamic in the Clinton thing – what secrets were they harboring? What deals were they making between themselves behind closed doors? The Giuliani family, on the other hand, for better or worse, is entirely transparent. There isn’t much of a political overlay. These are just unpleasant people with unpleasant ways.

He sees his job as war (on squeegee men, on art, on adversaries) and undoubtedly has seen his personal life as war, too. His preferred tactic is all manner of public humiliation. Nor is it hard to imagine the private confrontations. Has he ever slugged her? What are the odds on that?

As for Donna, she’s an actress. Her rage, her sullenness, her self-dramatizing impulses may be as great as his. Her provocations have had a certain flare: a precariously married woman living off the city in Gracie Mansion getting the courts to restrict who can enter the premises; The Vagina Monologues; and the ultimate slap, publicly indicating during his last race that she wouldn’t be voting for him. And really, what is this shpilkes about the Nathan woman? Does Donna think it’s a secret? Does she hold out hope for the marriage? What does she think she’ll gain?

On the other hand, we really aren’t asking for explanations. We aren’t shocked by the details. We don’t need anyone to confess or apologize. We understand what this is. We get it totally.

This is a bad scene. Life sucks. Most people are unhappy. All bad marriages are the same.

Politics, I think, goes in either of two directions from here. There will be a new litmus test for how a politician deals with his family. If you can’t control your spouse’s discretion, loyalty, finances, mood swings, then why should we think you deserve the public trust?

What more potent test of character, and management ability, is there?

Or – and this is where I think we’re heading – it goes in the Hollywood direction. We’ll just accept that public people (and politicians are as public as movie people) have lives as messy as private people, and understand that their mess will, from time to time, become public. We might even begin to accept that public lives are, in general, messier than private lives. All that exposure, all that ambition, all that ego, all that attention-craving, is bound to wreak some havoc. Why pretend otherwise?

And as with Hollywood people, we’ll even come to enjoy it – see it as just part of the contemporary morality play.

What is the mayor’s future? Besides divorce.

It seems certain the present contretemps will mean no Bush appointment.

I suspect that there is a longer medical battle to be fought. This is another element of public lives that we have yet to accept. There will have to be an allowance for getting sick and being treated – difficult, unpleasant, precarious treatments.

But let us hope and assume a satisfactory recovery.

Does he then go into the private sector and make a load of money?

Another part of Rudy’s anti-charm charm is that such an outcome seems unlikely, or, at least, it seems uncomfortable. It’s hard to see Rudy as a corporate guy, a smooth guy, a behind-the-scenes guy.

Do you hire him for his connections? As a rainmaker? As a deal-maker?

Personally, I have a lot of trouble thinking of Rudy as a guy who is going to deliver the big money. (He wasn’t so good at it when he tried it the first time.)

Maybe you hire him as your head of security.

Beyond that he has to wait four years before he can run for mayor again (there’s only Schumer’s seat opening up in the interim – not that he would want some other office anyway). That’s four years for the Democrats to do what it should always be possible to do in New York, which is to make sure no Republican can become mayor – except by the strangest of flukes.

But let’s give Rudy the benefit of a weakened economy, and of a Democratic mayor whose natural reluctance to insult and confront makes him seem like a pawn of the multitude of New York interest groups. And let’s say the former mayor manages to get divorced and remarried.

It’s always possible. But I can’t see this story ending happily.


Identity Politics