Après Moi, le Déluge

Sometime in 1995, I was planted in the makeup chair at WCBS-TV, getting ready for a taping of Sunday Edition, when who barged in but Rudy Giuliani (who was doing a frightful amount of barging in those days).

He was feuding with the City Council, which was suing him over some business around the budget. I was prepared to see the usual run of State Assembly members or agency heads but not the actual mayor, so I sat for a moment trying to think of a mot juste that never came.

Well, I finally said, it looks like the speaker is trying to flex a little muscle. Giuliani didn’t bother containing his contempt: “Pffffff! Peter Vallone! Gimme a break!”

For most of his first term, Giuliani feuded with – and belittled – Vallone, in public as well as in makeup rooms. Now, Vallone is his candidate. No, he hasn’t endorsed Vallone, and likely won’t. But key Giuliani aides have been pushing the mayor toward Vallone for months, and once Rudy started tearing into Alan Hevesi (who’s competing with Vallone for Queens votes), you didn’t have to be Philip Marlowe to piece together the clues.

So what’s happened?

Specifically, two things. First, Hevesi, who was supposed to be Rudy’s candidate, turned on him, and nothing motivates Giuliani so much as(perceived) betrayal. Sidney Zion speculated in his column last week that Rudy is attacking Hevesi because the mayor wants to run again in 2005 and sees the comptroller as the only person he’d have trouble beating. It’s a little too fancy for me. Giuliani doesn’t usually think that far ahead – he goes on gut more than intellect.

Second, I assume it’s become apparent to Giuliani that Mike Bloomberg won’t be the next mayor. Giuliani will continue to say lovely things about Bloomberg, and even, assuming Vallone doesn’t get the Democratic nomination, campaign with him, just as he campaigned with Rick Lazio in the final days of the Senate election. But the mayor is an intelligent man. He was under no illusion by the end of that campaign that Lazio was going to Washington, and he’s similarly clearheaded about the mountainous odds confronting the Boston mangler.

More generally, Rudy is protecting what he sees as his legacy. If there’s one thing a lame-duck politician can smell (again: instinct, not intellect), it’s the thick odor of his own obsolescence. So what Giuliani wants most of all is for the Giuliani years to continue. Obviously, Mark Green and Freddy Ferrer are no good for that. Hevesi was supposed to be, but he scratched himself off the dance card. Bloomberg won’t win, and Herman Badillo, for some reason, he’s grown tired of. That leaves Vallone.

Of course,Rudy isn’t the only one interested in protecting Rudy’s legacy. The permanent government – chamber-of-commerce types, real-estate interests, editorial boards (especially the tabloids’) – would be delighted to continue the Giuliani era, and it, too, has decided that Vallone may be the man for the job. The Post signaled this as far back as July 20, a month before it actually endorsed Vallone, with the one-two punch of a laudatory editorial and a John Podhoretz column.

If you’re thinking that all this will help Vallone, think again. First of all, he’s just boring. While he has a base and seems like a safe, process-of-elimination choice to the city’s elites, he inspires in most voters afrantic need to find the remote; watching him for seven weeks carry his party’s standard as the 1998 gubernatorial nominee was about as gripping as watching a houseplant die. I think Giuliani knows this, too, and the part of Zion’s thesis that I do buy is that Rudy wants his successor to be someone who looks flimsy and unsubstantial by comparison.

Also, the rest of the city doesn’t necessarily agree with Rudy and the permanent government about what his legacy is. In a recent Times poll, his approval-disapproval rating was 55 to 30. That’s pretty strong, but if you polled themembers of the permanent government, those numbers would be about 91 to 9. In other words, venture outside the opinion-making precincts – and factor out the moneyed interests to whom the opinion-makers speak – and the view of Giuliani is far more mixed. This is only partly because the city is full of wacko liberals; it’s also because Giuliani has done somethings very well, and other things rather poorly, and many people think he’s been on the scene long enough.

This is why, in that same Times poll, most respondents who said they would probably vote for Giuliani again, but can’t because of term limits, were still sanguine about the city’s future without him. Some of the changes Giuliani forced will stick no matter who becomes mayor; there will be no tolerance for going back on crime. At the same time, as the Times’s pollees understand, there are matters Giuliani has left undone that need someone new to attend to them.

The question is, who? The entire race, at bottom, has been about striking the balance that would most properly reflect the above reality – being like Rudy in some ways, unlike him in others – and the winner will be the candidate who does that most successfully. Vallone is now positioning himself as too much the heir. Ferrer is at the opposite end – he may make a runoff, but it’s hard to envision him getting any further. Embracing Al Sharpton as though he were Martin Luther King, Ferrer is running what is essentially a protest candidacy at a time when it’s unlikely that 51 percent of the electorate is in the mood for protest.

Green struck the balance deftly for most of the year, but what matters is how well he’s perceived as striking it on September 11. Lately, Green’s campaign has lacked the the maticclarity that’s brought him this far. He’s still the front-runner, but he’s left Hevesi an opening. The comptroller has chosen to fill that opening – actually, given the mayor’s broadsides against him, he didn’t have much choice – by whacking Rudy and Rupert Murdoch. It’s a high-risk strategy – he had to resort to it because of his consultant’s errors and his own timidity about criticizing the mayor over the past seven years – and it may finish him off. But it’s also the first real risk Hevesi has taken in years, and it could turnout to be well-timed for voters just now tuning in.

Whatever Hevesi’s fate, this primary season’s final week will be, in concentrated form, about the man it has really been about since it started. And he’s not even on the ballot.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

Après Moi, le Déluge