When his political enemies circulated rumors about his wife, Rachel, and the sanctity of their union, Andrew Jackson-in an apparent role reversal that today might be cited as evidence of a 21st-century man-stood by his woman, defied his critics and chose the briar-laden path of confrontation. He persevered, and is remembered for his magnificent defiance, a non-politician who sought public office to administer what he called “a general cleansing” of corrupt government.
When Jimmy Walker discovered that it was one thing to live the good life before the Great Depression, and quite another thing to do so afterward, he gathered his showgirl mistress, quit his office and set up shop in a first-class cabin bound for Europe. He skulked off, and is remembered today as a rogue and a lightweight.
In his desperate hour, Rudolph Giuliani will have to choose between Andrew Jackson and Jimmy Walker. And, as he contemplates his options, it is hard to imagine that he would embrace a strategy recalling the spats-wearing libertine whose malfeasance led directly to the election of Mr. Giuliani’s hero, the roly-poly reformer, Fiorello La Guardia. He seemed to indicate as much on May 15 when, speaking about the Senate campaign, he told supporters at a fund-raiser that “I’m very much inclined to do this.”
Elliot Cuker, the businessman who doubles as Mr. Giuliani’s personal confidant, indicated that the Mayor understood the implications of his decision. “Great men at a crossroads in their lives come up with decisions which either prove them to be great or prove them to be not great,” Mr. Cuker told The Observer in a rare public comment about his friend. “Rudy happens to be a great man, and I feel … that whatever decision he comes to will [display] his greatness.”
The only Republican with the star status to take Mr. Giuliani’s place, Governor George Pataki, is not so inclined. In fact, Mr. Pataki has begun talking about a third term, if only-perhaps-to box in the Mayor, who is not the Governor’s favorite Republican. According to Pataki adviser Kieran Mahoney, the Governor isn’t necessarily looking for new worlds to conquer. “He’s already slain the dragon,” Mr. Mahoney said, referring to the Governor’s defeat of Mario Cuomo in 1994. “I don’t remember St. George the double dragon-slayer.”
Nevertheless, almost a year ago the Governor toyed briefly with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate. So why not now?
“They went around that block last year,” said a friend of Mr. Pataki. “They decided no, for many reasons, and nothing has changed. Just because the party’s in a pickle because of Rudy doesn’t mean he’s going to jump in and save somebody’s bacon.”
Attorney Edward Hayes, a law-school classmate of Mr. Pataki’s, asserted that those who don’t understand Mr. Pataki’s reluctance simply don’t understand the man, or his environs. “This guy doesn’t want to go too far from the Hudson River,” Mr. Hayes said. “He needs to be able to stick his toes in it.”
So if Mr. Giuliani is to remain a formidable force in city and state politics, it’s clear that his political options are not nearly as complex as the choices he must make for his cancer treatment. If he doesn’t run, he will have left the state Republicans-the party he betrayed in 1994 to support Mr. Cuomo’s doomed re-election bid-without a high-profile candidate in the most-watched Senate race in the nation on the eve of their nominating convention. It would be fair to assume that Republicans will be somewhat less than eager to place their trust in him in some future race, like, say, the gubernatorial campaign of 2002. A sense of how Republicans would view a Giuliani withdrawal was evident in Fred Dicker’s column in the New York Post on May 16. Mr. Dicker noted that without Mr. Giuliani as a candidate, the state Republicans could lose the seat itself, their control over the State Senate, two congressional seats and a chance to help presidential candidate George W. Bush. “Judas Giuliani indeed!” Mr. Dicker concluded.
It is one thing to be branded a traitor. Indeed, in Mr. Giuliani’s world, such a label is tantamount to ratifying his self-image as a maverick wedded to nothing but the truth. It is quite another thing, however, to be thought of as yesterday’s news, to be an only child no longer at the center of the universe. Should he choose to remain in City Hall, he will be regarded as a spent force during the last 18 months of his lame-duck term, a Shakespearean ending for a man who believed he could change a great metropolis by force of will alone. Mr. Giuliani delights in the notion that whether he is loved or hated, he cannot be ignored. But he can be, and will be, if he drops out of the Senate race to become a full-time lame duck. By 2001, when the meter runs out on the Giuliani administration, Mr. Giuliani will know exactly how Al Smith felt in 1928. At 55, his career was over, and he was an impotent witness to the success of men and women who had served him.
It is history, not his life, that could yet spin out of Mr. Giuliani’s tight control. His much-coveted place in the mayoral pantheon is not quite as secure as his supporters seem to believe. At the moment, he could well be portrayed as a one-term wonder whose hubris and infidelity tainted his second term and cost him a chance to break the hex that has spoiled the ambitions of every New York City Mayor since the long-forgotten John T. Hoffman, the Reconstruction-era Mayor who became Governor in 1869. He risks, for the remainder of his time in office, becoming the butt of a thousand nudge-nudge jokes. (Some are already in circulation: The Mayor has endorsed the placement of the Nine Commandments in public schools; Deni Green, wife of Public Advocate Mark Green, has been appointed First Lady to fill the vacancy left by Donna Hanover.) One can hardly imagine a more humiliating end for a man convinced of his own righteousness, a man who believes that he has saved the city from its moral and civic corruptions.
By choosing to continue his campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton (assuming that his cancer is, in fact, as routine as such things can be), he would achieve for himself what Scrooge asked of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: He would expunge the writing on his gravestone. He would be remembered not as a latter-day Walker, linked forever to tabloid headlines and tales of illicit love, but as a solitary, Jacksonian figure who rowed willingly into an unforgiving sea, at which point his victory or defeat are almost besides the point, for the admiration of future observers will be assured.
Particularly in an age that values personality above all, lasting images of politicians are not of legislation signed or programs initiated, but of personal traits that either served or betrayed in moments of crises. Mario Cuomo may be best remembered for what might have been. Grover Cleveland persevered in 1884 when the country learned that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. Winston Churchill survived his wilderness years to become … Winston Churchill. Ed Muskie could not control his rage in the snows of New Hampshire.
Concern for his legacy, for how others will view him in 50 years, should compel Mr. Giuliani to stand and fight, particularly since so many, wishing him well or ill politically, believe he has no choice but to fold. Mr. Giuliani has made a career of insisting that he spurns the wisdom of keepers of accepted truths. To play it safe now would be to admit that, in fact, they are correct.
Meanwhile, Republicans and mayoral allies-not understanding Mr. Giuliani in the least-have been doing everything possible to force a decision by leaking stories designed to push him one way or the other. To no avail, of course.
As night fell around City Hall one evening, two reporters lurked outside of City Hall’s press room, Room 9, and peeked into the room at a lone reporter who was staying late, his face illuminated by the glare of his computer screen.
“What’s he got?” one of the reporters anxiously asked, even as the two reassured each other that it was probably nothing important.
Without diminishing the gravity of the health choice that awaits him, it is impossible not to notice the relish with which he is holding reporters, the public, his opponent and his would-be successors is suspense. The Mayor seems to be content to surprise even his closest advisers, never mind his wife, as he lives out a midlife crisis in public. According to an associate of the Mayor, Giuliani campaign manager Bruce Teitelbaum was, like Ms. Hanover, caught by surprise when the Mayor announced his pending separation from his wife at a routine press conference in Bryant Park on May 10.
It was entirely predictable that his May 15 news conference would consist of nothing. Hadn’t Newsweek reported that he would drop out the race? Weren’t the newspapers and airwaves filled with blather about his imminent withdrawal? So, of course, he used the occasion to say that no decision has been reached, and that when such a decision has, in fact, been made, we will hear about it from him. And only him. At a time when the thoughts of others might turn to fears of impotence, Mr. Giuliani is flaunting his omnipotence. He is in charge of events. He controlled what words Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton used to address the Democratic state convention in Albany on May 16. And he will control when and how the next stage of his personal narrative will be written.
Additional reporting by Andrea Bernstein