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
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.
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
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.