Rudy the Zealot Courts Right Wing

This could be the moment when Rudolph Giuliani’s crudeness

overwhelms his craftiness-a peril that arises at some point in the career of

every successful demagogue. By staging a bogus and potentially costly

controversy over a single provocative canvas at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, he

has quite likely solved one of the most difficult problems of his potential

Senate candidacy. But he may also have done irreparable damage his ambition.

The sincerity of the Mayor’s current crusade against what

another officeholder long ago termed “degenerate art” is difficult to assess. It

is hard to believe he hasn’t realized that his machinations against the museum

are providing publicity that collector Charles Saatchi’s enormous fortune could

never buy. Then again, Hizzoner may simply be unable to resist his impulse to

suppress, even when it’s obviously producing a result opposite to his declared

intention.

That eye-bulging grimace

of his certainly looks real, and he does have a history of this sort of

behavior. By now his authoritarian approach to cultural criticism is as wearily

familiar as his urge to stifle speech that displeases him.

Occasionally, his

targets seem deserving, as in the case of the hateful Khallid Abdul Muhammad;

often they are more sympathetic figures, such as demonstrating cabdrivers and

AIDS protesters. Although he always loses when his victims sue to protect their

First Amendment rights, he seems to enjoy these situations.

In this instance, posing as defender of the faith against

the hellish advocates of “Catholic-bashing” gives the Mayor a thrilling shiver

of religious righteousness. Acting out this medieval melodrama probably permits

him the emotional relief of expressing hostile feelings. And yet despite all

the convincing evidence of pathology, there may also be a method to the madness

at City Hall.

As a direct result of Mr. Giuliani’s artistic inquisition, a

small but very important organization has improved its opinion of him (and it’s

not People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Applauding his action are the

leaders of the New York State Conservative Party, many of whom are staunch

Catholics. Until recently, they had suggested that they would prefer someone

else as a Senate candidate. Soft on abortion and gay rights and a perennial

candidate of the Liberal Party, the Mayor has never been their kind of guy.

That distaste for his

opinions wouldn’t necessarily have kept the Conservative Party from endorsing

Mr. Giuliani next year. Though once fiercely independent of the G.O.P., the

Conservatives are increasingly dependent on the state’s Republican officeholders

for patronage and pelf. They’ve already sold out their principles on social

issues  to maintain ties with Gov.

George Pataki and former Senator Alfonse D’Amato.

The Conservatives take their

cues from Albany, and ever since the Governor made his uneasy peace with the

Mayor and reluctantly endorsed his Senate candidacy, they were bound to

reconcile themselves to him. Now he has made that inevitable compromise much

easier for them. Conservative Party chairman Michael Long may even be able to

muster some enthusiasm for him among the rank and file. 

The only remaining

obstacle to a Conservative cross-endorsement of the Mayor is any possibility

that he might appear on the Liberal Party’s ballot line. Everyone knows there

have been no real liberals in that organization for decades, but the

Conservative faithful still shun the Liberal heathens as a matter of principle.

Much as he might like to, the Mayor cannot run as a

Republican-Conservative-Liberal.

For Mr. Giuliani, the electoral equation has nothing to do

with ideology: In a statewide race, the Conservatives always garner many

thousands more votes than the Liberals. To insure that no rump Conservative

drains away the votes he will need to defeat likely Democratic nominee Hillary

Rodham Clinton, the Mayor must part company with the Liberal Party and its

leader and lobbyist, Ray Harding. (How will they handle this awkward

separation? The Liberals could pretend to be concerned about Mr. Giuliani’s

illiberal attitude toward free speech, except that no one would believe them.)

But don’t expect the

Liberal Party to endorse Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Harding is far more inclined to seek

another way to help Mr. Giuliani, his family’s longtime patron-by nominating a

straw candidate to siphon away Democratic votes. The most effective tactic

might involve a Hispanic woman, who would mount the Liberal soapbox to denounce

the First Lady’s flip-flop on the pardon of the F.A.L.N. prisoners.

Meanwhile, however, the Mayor’s alliance with conservative

authoritarians is alienating moderate and liberal Democrats, whose support in

past elections has made him seem invincible. The New York Times ‘ editorial board has noticed Mr. Giuliani’s

disturbing disregard for constitutional rights. Indulging himself at the

expense of the First Amendment in Brooklyn could well cost him the Times endorsement next year-and

sometimes that alone is enough to turn a close election.