Inside the Cathedral: A Transporting Day As Candidates Mourn

Assuming that he is still following New York politics, Cardinal John O’Connor must be having a field day recapping his funeral.

Just two among the eminences, honorables and excellencies gathered for the glamorous mourning at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the afternoon of Monday, May 8, Senate rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani both bowed their heads and prayed. They prayed, of course, for the peaceful repose of the soul of the Cardinal, many of whose most cherished principles they had both spent years ignoring, slighting and thwarting, but whose memory they seemed sincerely keen on honoring. Being seated so close to such a heavily priested altar through such a long ritual at such a bizarre and tentative phase in their conflict, however, the First Lady and the Mayor could both be forgiven for slipping in a few of their own personal intentions. And far from insulting the man in the dark wood casket, they would be paying him a tribute that he had spent 16 years earning. To sit there among the mourners and contemplate the three lightning rods situated so close to one another was to be struck by exactly how much the two who were living could stand to learn from the one who was dead. The lessons would spring not from his virtues as a prelate, but from his virtuosity as a politician. For as a New York politician-even after handicapping for his handsome advantages in long-term job security and public-opinion-proof clarity of moral mandate-the Cardinal could run rings around them both before breakfast.

Considering the couple of weeks that he has been through, Mr. Giuliani no doubt had a longer, more urgent list of requests to take up with the Lord. First, of course, he had reason to pray to be cured of his cancer; preferably with a drama quotient that would enhance, rather than inhibit, his political aspirations. (“I want to look embattled but not stricken.… We’re going for sympathy, but not pity.”) And that his fellow mourner, Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, would be completely unsuccessful in his own all-but-audible prayer, for a candidate who could drag the Mayor down in a rightward-running undertow of shoulda-been-Republican votes. But above all, Mr. Giuliani had just cause to pray for-or rather about-his wife, Donna Hanover. On the afternoon of Saturday, May 6, on her way to pay her own respects to His Eminence, Ms. Hanover had met the press outside St. Patrick’s. With precisely the tremulous dignity that every elected philanderer fears most, she spoke to reporters of “this marriage and this man [that] have been very precious to me.”

Uh-oh.

However cynical, self-serving or maritally blameworthy Ms. Hanover may actually be-and The Observer has no idea-but she seemed, at that moment shaken, sad, and sympathetic. And however cynical, sophisticated, or generally French the public may have pronounced itself about such matters, the public was, at that moment, given pause. For Mr. Giuliani, who already radiates the approximate warmth of a meat locker, such a pause is pregnant with politically unfortunate possibilities.

“O Lord,” the Mayor therefore murmured, if there be a brain in his head, “please don’t let Donna shred my career like carrots in a Cuisinart.”

For her part, if she was true to form, Mrs. Clinton was praying for a few obvious tactical benisons. She no doubt prayed that if-as some on her team have come to assume will happen-illness and, um, very, very good friendship should drive Mr. Giuliani from the race, God would give her a Republican opponent who was sufficiently right wing, lightweight and underfinanced, so as to wipe out her chronic, if currently de-emphasized, problems in running against the Mayor: namely, that he is moderate, accomplished and swimming in money. But if, on the other hand, the Mayor was in the fight to stay, Mrs. Clinton presumably prayed that perpetual light would continue to shine upon his endlessly permutating problems, and therefore leave in a cool, comforting darkness the ironies, inconsistencies and vacancies that are still causing cracks in her own candidacy.

But above all, Mrs. Clinton must have been praying for something that she could use no matter what: a healthy dose of whatever it was that the Cardinal had, that had enabled him to hail from Pennsylvania via Vietnam, and yet fit into the life of New York as if he had written the city for himself to star in.

In so many obvious ways, the Cardinal made no sense for the New York political stage, and yet he turned out to be perfect. The perfect illogic came out at the most extravagantly documented moment during his funeral. That was the moment when, in the course of his homily, Cardinal Bernard Law cited the need for the church to be unambiguously pro-life, and everyone, from the veiled Sisters of Life to the President who vetoed the ban on late-term abortion, rose and stood in a rolling sea of applause. The moment, too, made no real sense, and yet it was perfect. And that, to paraphrase the Mass, is where so much of New York politics lives and moves and has its being: in the necessity of playing to perfection those situations in which sense figures only partly.

The Mayor’s “woman problem,” if it turns out to be a problem, will make no real sense. By the laws handed down to American culture from Monica Lewinsky, the state of Mr. Giuliani’s marriage should not matter one whit. After all, he has not broken the law. He has not broken any continuity with his own public proclamations about his private life; there have been virtually no such proclamations in a matter of years. In terms of how embarrassing a sex scandal might have been, he has not come close to a 10 on the squalid-prurience meter: Purported paramour Judith Nathan is in her 40’s, she does not work in City Hall and the Mayor has been spotted eating with her, not sucking her champagne-doused toes. And unlike many political spouses, his wife has not been dragged around very much-not physically, to daises on which to fawn, and not metaphorically, into the self-softening, family-anecdote passages that he keeps out of his speeches. In other words, it is not as if he is being serviced by a 21-year-old intern while on the telephone with a congressman and then had his wife go on television to defend him untruthfully. To be sure, Bill Clinton survived, in part, because the country liked the job he was doing. But he also survived because his wife wanted him to; and because he could draw from a store of the public’s personal regard. The President has always been someone to whom many people felt they could relate, which helped him to be someone on whom they did not want to pass judgment.

Judging from the little stand-up at St. Pat’s, Mr. Giuliani has little or no control over what the missus might say or do. And judging from his well-worn habit of berating political opponents, uppity commissioners, taxi drivers, journalists, homeless people, victims of police brutality and the rest, he has done nothing to cultivate, and everything to deplete, the latter.

What a contrast with the Cardinal.

The Cardinal would never find himself so high and dry of general affection, so at the mercy of one person not to destroy him-any more than he would find himself in a, um, very, very good friendship that could imperil his effectiveness. Given their respective religious and civic roles, it reflects nothing wrong with Mr. Giuliani that the Cardinal emanated a much greater moral certitude than the Mayor ever has, about a set of views that are much less popular than any that the Mayor has ever held. But it is a slight to Mr. Giuliani that despite this, multitudes of ordinary people stood outside the cathedral for hours and baked for the chance to touch his casket. Those people were not doing that because they loved his teachings. They stood outside in the heat because they loved him .

They loved him, as the papers have been reminding us since his hour of death, because he had real humor. He had real kindness. He had the ability, and the willingness, to puncture his own pious persona on a fairly regular basis. Now, none of that erases anything that might be found harsh about any of his views, and for that, some New Yorkers, understandably enough, held him in the coldest contempt. But the political lesson for the Mayor here is that as a figure committed to a fixed message, which could be received as cold and heavy and difficult, the Cardinal went to great lengths to keep all the possible variables light and warm and easy. In short, the Cardinal was-and, more importantly, he made it his business to communicate that he was-a human being.

Mrs. Clinton has been working hard on her human-being quotient for about a year now, and it has been paying off. Even if she ultimately loses every one of the sparsely populated, resoundingly Republican counties that she has so famously been visiting, she will have gained something that will ultimately stand her in good stead: She has shown a willingness to try and learn the ropes, charm the skeptics, meet real New Yorkers where they really live. And in the process, she has unquestionably become both softer and more self-confident.

Clearly, the First Lady is getting better at how she says things. But, so far at least, what she is saying ain’t going to win any prizes.

To be sure, no one can fault her for spending the present time in something of a holding pattern. At the moment, she cannot even be sure who her opponent is, and as long as that opponent remains Mr. Giuliani, she is rightfully content to let him fry under what has lately been a very hot, unflattering spotlight. What may be a little ominous, though, is one’s sense that this semi-paralysis is the state in which her campaign feels most at home. For every step forward into boldness (her going to the Independence Party of Pat Buchanan and Lenora Fulani) there seem to be two steps back into caution (her recently released campaign commercial). Touted as a way of introducing her record on such issues as education and child advocacy, the spot fell short of short of actually doing any such thing.

One is willing-indeed inclined-to believe that Mrs. Clinton is a person of substance, who does have some real accomplishments to boast about. All the more mystifying, then, that her campaign seems to feel that the voter should have to dig for it, the way a little kid must dig for the little plastic prize floating around in the box of Lucky Charms. (Is there no simple sentence citing something she achieved as chairman of the Children’s Defense Fund? Is there no easily lifted quote from the American Lawyer Magazine as to why they named her one of the top 100 lawyers in the country?)

Actually, the vagueness is not so mystifying: Depending on what happens with regard to her opposition, Mrs. Clinton may never have to develop her own rationale. And, politically speaking, there is something to be said for keeping one’s options open; one’s mouth closed; one’s powder dry.

But what a contrast with the Cardinal.

Toward the very end of the funeral, when the Cardinal’s casket was being carried to its crypt, the congregation broke out into spontaneous and thunderous applause, and fell just short of cheering “Bravo.” It was a send-off for someone who was, very literally, a great performer. But that applause did not arise solely from the fact that the deceased was such a nice, unpretentious guy that he would sometimes don whimsical hatwear- his early photo-op with a baseball cap was a smash hit-or that he could remember the names of minor strangers or that he delivered witty one-liners with Rolex precision. Although Mrs. Clinton would be right to envy his style, she would do better to notice his substance. For the Cardinal did all that stuff in the service of something larger, deeper, stronger. To be sure, that something was regarded by many New Yorkers as a stifling, anachronistic, judgmental something indeed-and that only underscores the point: Just as Catholics are supposed to be capable of hating the sin but loving the sinner, New Yorkers seem completely capable of hating the viewpoint but loving the person who expresses it-precisely because he or she has the guts to express it. But the thing is, he or she has got to have the guts to express it.

True, Cardinal O’Connor never had to get himself elected or re-elected. He never had to fret about a tracking poll, or face a choice between voting with his conscience or his constituents, or cut deals on the scale that secular politicians must. But such realities do nothing to alter the strong sense that if, in some other life, he had wanted to run flat-out for office in New York, he could have shown these two how it was done.

Actually, he did show them. The question is whether they were watching.

Sitting somberly in the first pew, Mrs. Clinton was, if she is wise, praying for one-tenth-but granted, no more than one-tenth-of the Cardinal’s powerful certainty. Nearby, Mr. Giuliani was praying for one-tenth of his powerful humanity.

And somewhere up there, the Cardinal was loving it.

Inside the Cathedral: A Transporting Day As Candidates Mourn