Well, we all knew that when Hillary Clinton entered the race, we’d have a soap opera on our hands.
We just figured it would be hers.
On second thought, maybe, in a way, it is: Would Rudy’s life be collapsing like this if he weren’t running against Hillary? Richard Mellon Scaife has probably hired detectives to prove that the mayor’s prostate cancer is the result of some Clintonian curse; on this side of the loony bin, though, we can agree that he would have received the diagnosis in any event.
That may be the only one among these heart-stopping recent developments that would have gone down in the same way. Suppose Rudy had been running all this time against, say, Nita Lowey. First of all, we in the press would barely have started writing about it yet. Nita wouldn’t have kissed Suha Arafat. Rudy wouldn’t have hired right-wing direct-mail hit man Richard Viguerie to raise gajillions, because against Lowey he wouldn’t have needed gajillions. The Senate race would have started, in that hubba-hubba, hot-story way, after Labor Day. The way Senate races always do.
But along comes Hillary. The race starts in July. Of 1999. If I knew more about science, I’d say something devastatingly intelligent here about the unpredictability of the behavior of bodies in a totally alien and unstable environment. I don’t, so I can’t, but I do know this: There is no precedent in American political history – none in New York; none even at the presidential level – for a contest that is so picked over so incessantly by so many for so long. Or for one that was so weirdly delicious to begin with. That kind of hectic, acid-trip circus has to make people do weird things.
It had to contribute, somehow, to Donna’s putting her cards on the table and agreeing to that part in The Vagina Monologues. Oh, she clearly hates him. But she wanted to embarrass him – incinerate him – and there’s no time like a heated election for an angry wife to do that. The charged atmosphere also had to make the tabloids itchier to give Rudy and the gal pal up. Do you think for a second that if he were, quote-unquote, just the mayor, cruising toward finishing out a lame-duck term in relative comity save the occasional cop imbroglio, the tabs would have ratted him out? It even, on some level deep in the mayor’s psyche, had to make him bring Judith Nathan to town-hall meetings and, of all things, the Inner Circle dinner – the cry for help, the old alcoholic-leaving-the-bottle-in-the-microwave trick.
“The idea that a man can battle cancer and get a divorce and romance a sweetie and be the mayor and win a Senate race doesn’t have many takers.”
Rudy has always been about control. Every circumstance and opponent he’s faced in New York, he’s been able to control. David Dinkins? Pshaw. Street thugs? No problem. The press? You gotta be kidding. Cabbies? Gimme a break. Mark Green, Ruth Messinger? Please.
With this race, things got out of his control. Not that Hillary did anything of her own volition to change things. She’s far too cautious to play a game of chicken with him, least of all about marriage and the scarlet A. It was just the fact of the race, being, looming, consuming. It changed the game. No – the rules. Rudy has always played by Rudy’s rules, and Rudy’s rules worked just fine when the playground was his hometown and the other kids just weren’t quite his size. The Clintons are his size. In their southern, or in her case midwestern, velvet-glove sort of way, they know how to raise the stakes and how to fight. Their presence changed the rules, and Rudy couldn’t see the change coming.
Does he still run? He may well be out by the time you’re reading this. But if he’s not, well, if the past three weeks have taught us anything, it’s this: Don’t predict. By now, polls have probably been published announcing that voters think it doesn’t matter. And maybe it doesn’t. Except upstate, where there are more Catholics, and more conservatives. This is the mayor, after all, who wanted to post the Ten Commandments, with that pesky No. 7, in the schools, and who got his first marriage (back in the mix) annulled on grounds that have never been entirely clear. Or maybe least of all upstate – I check the upstate papers every morning on the Web, and when the Judith Nathan story broke, they carried scarcely a word. So who knows?
We tend to base all our conclusions on polls these days. But what voters think in a poll right now is basically irrelevant because, as with Bill Clinton, what’s relevant is that the story will continue, there will be new revelations, and the narrative will change. More details will trickle out, maybe now, maybe six weeks from now. The Cristyne Lategano angle is sure to be hashed over again and again; there’s the real mind-blower, Donna’s deciding to throw that one in. An issue, speaking of control, that the mayor managed to control spectacularly at the time, despite evidence presented in several publications, including this one, that she’d been named to her $150,000-a-year taxpayer-funded job by a search committee that never held a meeting or interviewed a candidate. It’s not as though she didn’t make an enemy or two who might enjoy leaking something. Maybe there’s yet another woman. I’m just saying that when these things start, they tend never to stop.
Last Thursday, I talked to lots of people and watched others on TV. He’s in. He’s out. Can’t possibly run. Doesn’t change a thing. I noticed an interesting divide between journalists, who almost all said he’s out (my hunch, for what it’s worth), and political consultants, whose view was that he should soldier on. Consultants think spin and movement of votes, and when they say Giuliani can spin this sympathetically and that no one will desert him for Hillary because of this and it won’t be on voters’ minds come Election Day, they might be right. Journalists, on the other hand, share an instinct about what we’ll buy. The idea that a man can battle cancer and get a divorce and romance a sweetie and explain away a relationship with an old girlfriend and be the mayor and run a Senate race doesn’t have many takers.
It’s too bad, really. I’ve been on record defending Rudy’s private space before, and Bill Clinton’s private space. I’d still prefer not having learned any of it, and I don’t particularly like second-guessing others on matters of the heart. New York, compared with Washington, didn’t really handle this too badly; whereas Washington smote Clinton with all its fury, New York let the story sit, for several years, behind a protective wink and handshake. We contained ourselves, for a while, content to pass rumors over barstools and let Giuliani have his own strange way in his love life.
The race changed all that. It exposed Rudy to a harsher light than he’s ever been exposed to. It is, to be sure, the kind of light to which he has exposed others, notably Patrick Dorismond and his family. And it’s a light to which Mrs. Clinton, as we know, is well accustomed – there’s probably a good reason she tries not to say interesting things very often. Strange to think of that: Is she somehow tougher than he is? Or, conversely, and just as strangely, is he in some way softer than she? Or is Donna the toughest one of all? (Maybe she should run.) Whatever the case, the rules of the game are no longer Rudy’s.