To much of America, Rudy Giuliani is a genuine hero, but not to his ex-wife or their children. So which images will have more power? America’s Mayor or Broadway Rudy? The Faithful Leader or The Unfaithful Husband? The Able Manager or The Absent Dad?
Many contradictions are clouding Giuliani’s quest for the Republican nomination. This is a man of enormous strengths and serious flaws, a modern-day version of an ancient Greek hero, thunderous in battle and yet plagued by an Achilles ego.
The smart political money still believes that Giuliani’s negatives will outweigh his positives, that the flaws will prove fatal before he reaches the Oval Office. But firm predictions are foolish and outside events could clear his path.
Rudy faces a weak field, and his Republican rivals could knock each other off, much the way Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean did in 2004, opening the Democratic nomination for John Kerry. Another terrorist attack could forcefully remind voters of Rudy’s shining hour, his courageous response to Sept. 11.
And in truth, Giuliani possesses the one quality that Americans always look for in a president, executive experience, the habit of command. Lawmakers never run anything, which is why they generally make terrible candidates. They are also based in Washington, another huge handicap. Rudy’s home river is the Hudson, not the Potomac.
Mayor of New York is a huge job, and even Giuliani’s critics agree he was good at it – cutting down crime, cleaning up streets, improving the quality of life. You have to like a guy who puts a sign on his desk saying “I’m responsible,” two little words that are hardly ever uttered in Washington.
Moreover, there’s a rebellion in Republican ranks against the power of the Religious Right. Almost half of all GOP moderates told pollsters last fall that evangelicals had “gone too far” in imposing their religious values, so the time might be right for a more flexible figure who supports abortion and gay rights.
When Time asked Republicans to pick a candidate, Giuliani led the field, with John McCain 14 points behind. When Newsweek pitted just the two leaders against each other, Rudy won easily, 59 to 34.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. In Newsweek’s survey, only 1-in-3 Republicans knew of Giuliani’s pro-choice position on abortion. Once informed of those views, 40 percent said they’d be less likely to support him, while half of all “social conservatives” reacted negatively.
Both parties have litmus tests on abortion, and it’s hard to imagine how today’s Republican Party, with its heavy reliance on religious conservatives, picks a pro-choice candidate (the last one was Gerald Ford 30 years ago). Another New York Republican with progressive views on social issues thought about running a few years ago and decided he could never win the nomination. That was Colin Powell. What does the mayor know that the general didn’t?
Besides, New York is not exactly Plains or Crawford. Americans have a profound love/hate relationship with the Big Apple. They’re attracted – and repelled – by its reputation as Sin City, so they’re eager to visit and eager to leave and suspicious of anybody who actually wants to live in such a noisy, dirty, crowded place.
History and geography matter. Since 1960, the center of political gravity has shifted to the South and the West. The last seven presidents have come from Texas (Johnson, both Bushes), California (Nixon, Reagan) or small Southern states (Carter, Clinton). The last New Yorker was elected president 74 years ago; the last northerner (and only Catholic) 46 years ago.
Then there’s Rudy’s messy personal life. Yes, we’ve elected a divorced man who didn’t speak to his kids, but that was Ronald Reagan, and he got away with a lot of things that plague lesser mortals.
Giuliani’s first marriage, to his second cousin, was annulled. His second wife heard he was dumping her on TV. His third wife was on the scene long before his divorce from Wife No. 2. Now his son is giving interviews, saying he barely speaks to his father and won’t campaign for him.
Finally, there’s what Rich Lowry of National Review calls the Temperament Primary. Rudy is widely known for his “ridiculously thin skin and mile-wide mean streak,” as Jonathan Alter put it in Newsweek, and those qualities are likely to emerge during the intense scrutiny of a national campaign.
America’s Mayor has a legitimate shot at the White House. But Broadway Rudy would have a much tougher time.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.