Gracious Mayor Makes Politics Look Small

After Mayor Giuliani broke the news of his prostate cancer, I wondered if some news-cycler might hit the brakes to talk, if only for a moment, about the Mayor’s children, who will be asked to be brave as their father battles the disease that killed his father. Instead, we got the kind of remarks we would have expected if Mr. Giuliani had made an incorrect notation on his financial disclosure statement. This will hurt his fund-raising, we were told. Rick Lazio and Mike Long are waiting in the wings, others informed us. Hillary Clinton’s forces will have to recalibrate their attacks, still others insisted. The subtext to all of this insight, of course, was the cult of the political television talk show: Stunned pundits and insiders were gripped with the fear that this long-discussed Senate race might become less important, resulting in fewer gasbag opportunities on MSNBC.

Searching for the slightest bit of humanity from those who dwell in the small, insular world of local politics may, in fact, be a mission suited only for the likes of Ponce de León. Experience teaches that one would hardly expect the operatives and pundits to consider, even for a moment, that the Mayor is more than just another piece of electoral meat, that, in fact, he is the father of two children whose combined age barely qualifies for a legal drink. The news-cyclers make their living jabbering on about things they know little of-i.e., what a particular campaign or candidate may or may not do-so why shouldn’t they remain in character by pontificating on the unknowable when decency might have suggested a respectful silence?

Of the many graceful phrases Mayor Giuliani used in revealing his cancer diagnosis, one rang particularly true: Asked-inevitably-whether he will continue with his Senate campaign, Mr. Giuliani said, “I don’t know the answer to that yet. I hope that I’d be able to run.” He also said that he didn’t think “it’s fair to answer questions about the Senate race right now.” First on his mind, he reminded his audience, was “the treatment that gives me the best opportunity to have a full and complete cure.” Only after that takes place can he, should he, begin to think about politics again.

Bravo. But this straightforward statement of what ought to be obvious- the man has more important things on his mind-did little to stop those questions from being asked. Indeed, his very answer inspired insiders to note that he had done little to clear up the campaign’s sudden confusion. Based on the reaction of the punditry, one would think that the Mayor’s first obligation was to politics and this particular campaign.

Somebody, somewhere, ought to have told inquiring reporters that this was a private, not a political, moment, and that the Mayor has every right to say he simply doesn’t know what the immediate future holds. He had just been told that he had the disease that claimed his father nearly 20 years ago. His trademark sense of invulnerability had been shattered; the memory of his father’s illness revived. In a touching moment, he spoke of his father’s cancer, and said that not a day went by that he didn’t miss his dad. But the media didn’t want pathos. If it’s pathos you want, tune in to another channel, mister. This is politics, hardball politics, baby: No time for tears or indecision. The media apparently expected a definitive statement on his political intentions, and, lacking it, concluded that the Mayor was leaving himself a way out, that the Republicans would begin searching for alternatives, blah, blah, blah.

Meanwhile, as the air becomes hotter with insensitive and indeed ignorant speculation, a 55-year-old father-of-two ponders his course of treatment, a drama that makes the New York Senate race look like the circus it had, in fact, become. While underemployed yahoos scramble for the latest bit of political intelligence so that they might pass it along, attached with appropriate lies that make the sender seem mightily well-informed, the Mayor ponders not the next election, but his life. Melodramatic though it may sound, Mr. Giuliani admitted as much. “Just the contemplation of [the disease] for the last two weeks makes you think about what’s important in life and what are the most important things,” he said.

Some who heard those words thought they detected ambivalence, which, they decided tastefully, could be more damaging to his political health than his cancer might be to his physical health.

Actually, those were the words of a man contemplating some of life’s basic questions. Unfamiliar as such meanderings are to many who inhabit the political bubble, perhaps it is no wonder that few knew what to make of them.