The latest development, or maybe the last straw, in New York’s soap opera, Mayor , is that the daughter of Judith Nathan, girlfriend of Mayor Giuliani and rival of scorned wife Donna Hanover, is revealed to be “battling anorexia” and has just been mauled by a dog. The introduction of matters involving pathetic, irritating, vulnerable teenagers always lowers the tone of anything, no matter how low it was before. Some New Yorkers, apparently, had felt terminally disgusted with the unfolding saga of Mayor Giuliani’s divorce battle long before this, maybe at the point when his wife had to ask for a court order to keep the Mayor’s girlfriend out of the house, or perhaps when the dread subject of impotence was mentioned. Everyone, it seems, is disgusted now–but fascinated to know where it will end. Like spectators at some terminal gladiatorial game of Humiliation, they are powerless to turn it off or avert their eyes.
We Californians had focused briefly and sympathetically on Mayor Giuliani last fall at the time of the primaries, when it came out about his prostate cancer and he was replaced as a contender by what seemed an interchangeable Italian-American Republican, Rick Lazio; but the West Coast press has not been paying such close attention since then. What a world of events has passed, what a lot of moral confusion to untangle, what an absence of victims as these principals scramble for the leading role in some sort of sweepstakes to be the worst villain, least sympathetic human being and biggest groveling, publicity-seeking, seemingly oblivious fool.
Since the beginning of the Giuliani-Hanover-Nathan saga, it has been hard to decide which is the most fascinating aspect of what has been, for New Yorkers, a long, slowly unfolding drama: the resolute compulsion to humiliation; the depth of marital hate (so unlike political and other forms of hate); the absence of shame; the sheer mismanagement; the intrusive and strident nature of the press coverage; the lawyers ( always the lawyers); the riddle of how Americans get these public officials anyhow; the satisfaction of seeing that other people’s families are worse than one’s own, that art cannot come up to life (soap opera, Sopranos ) for sheer disgusting excess, unless we think of a play like John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi for the thrilling Elizabethan quality of the mighty overreacher’s fall. A friend recently pointed out to me that the denouement of the Nepalese royal dinner party played like the end of Hamlet .
Family hate, Nepalese-style–though more dramatic than we have reason to expect from the Giulianis–leaves no doubt about the irrational intensity of household passions. Marital hate, with its annual toll of batterings and corpses, is especially intense because of the large component of self-hate. How can I have been such a fool? Will this person, to whom I have revealed my weakest and silliest selves, reveal them in turn to the person who will take my place? The chagrin of knowing that once one loved a person now so clearly revealed to be faithless, ugly, poor, altogether unworthy and unsuccessful! What this shameful blunder says about oneself is nearly unbearable. Logically, we ought to wish the wildest success on the person who leaves us. We never do.
The slow unrolling of events–each day a new, dismal installment–gives an effect that’s absorbing and suspenseful. Yet taken all together, the Giuliani divorce isn’t much worse than anyone else’s divorce: The girlfriend is always a problem, teenagers always add an exasperating note, money is always an issue (like all divorcing men, this deadbeat is claiming to have only $7,000 to his name), the injured party is always bitterest–and Ms. Hanover is bitter. So is Ms. Nathan when it comes to her custody battle–nothing new, really.
Among them, this crew has some experience with divorces and annulments: one failed marriage each among the principals (and this without knowing the marital history of Mr. Nathan and Mr. Hanover). Experience might have helped them avoid some of the mistakes they seem eager to make. Provocations–like the Mayor inviting Ms. Nathan into the family home–should have been prevented by responsible lawyers if Rudy and Judi didn’t have common sense themselves.
It’s too bad. Divorce probably ought to be thought of and presented more positively. It can be a happy experience, or at least a relief, freeing the bridled spirit from a disagreeable bond, reconstituting a bleak future, setting everyone up for the better. Usually it is not, but maybe only because society views it negatively, sometimes even forbids it, and really hasn’t worked out any adequate rules about those important components, kids and money, that the Giulianis and Nathans are thrashing out in our view.
And here the difference is that politics and publicity are involved, and also what the courts have called a tangible and material asset, that which the lawyers refer to as the “celebrity status” of the principals, though who would want such celebrity can be answered briefly: Only they would. All three, or four, or eight (counting judge and lawyers) seem to cling to the futile idea that if somehow a public-relations battle could be won, the war would be won, rather like Palestinians. Meantime the poor couple has broken the cardinal rule of successful divorce: hold no face-to-face discussions. They have faced off in the public arena, and everyone hates all sides. (Though I have the impression that Donna Hanover may have a slight edge, owing to the Mayor’s tarnished record–wasn’t there someone called Christyne?) The lawyers are trying to get the rest of us to break the cardinal rule about friends’ divorces: don’t take sides. “Remember,” our mothers used to say, “there are always two sides to every story.” But not to choose sides would spoil the bit of fun we’re entitled to, for bearing our own feelings of regret and responsibility for voting these people into office.
Does all this sell newspapers? Is the New York Post doing better than before all this? The role of the press need hardly be discussed, since we don’t expect any better. If the thing weren’t covered, we wouldn’t be disgusted; meantime there’s the public’s right to know, the seeming compulsion of the lawyers to say quotably revolting things, and so on. For me, the weirdest sign of a looming sensibility chasm may be when the Mayor’s lawyer, Raoul Felder, trying to vilify Ms. Hanover, announces that the Mayor, on chemotherapy for his prostate cancer, has to clean up his own vomit because he doesn’t have a wife. How even to deconstruct such a revelation? Why would the Mayor tell his lawyer such a thing? It isn’t that one wouldn’t hold the head of a loved one, it’s that–what? That the Mayor doesn’t receive adequate medical care? That intimate health care is part of a wife’s job description, no matter how weak her stomach? That the Mayor would allow someone to watch him throw up? Is cleaning up vomit expected of wives, no matter what their health-care training? (If not, of whom then?) Should the Mayor be on medical marijuana? This lawyer assumes a definition of family relationships that many people can’t imagine. Who is supposed to clean it up, actually? And are there no basins in Gracie Mansion?
Next to the Giuliani-Nathan-Hanovers, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were models of reticence, generosity toward each other and good will: “Oh, Monica is a good girl.” One hates even to advance this idea, but–can this shameless self-destruction be a Republican thing? Can the sense of election among Republicans be so profound that any sense of personal moral culpability is unknown to them?
Or is it merely religion itself, whether Catholic or fundamentalist, that intensifies in people a search for Justification? And religion also introduces the idea of confession, which the principals are so enthusiastically availing themselves of here. It’s just that these things are usually private. In either connection, think of Newt Gingrich and his many wives. Remember Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee? In the Clinton impeachment affair, the most truly embarrassing thing was the prurience of the so-called House managers, all of whom professed to be religious, and most astonishing of all was their inability to see any connection between their own acknowledged behavior and the behavior they were so anxious to excoriate–remember the famous remark by Mr. Hyde that his own infidelity was a “youthful indiscretion” (at 41) and therefore had nothing to do with the situation at hand? (In retrospect, the delicacy of Congressman Bob Livingston in resigning seems almost un-American.) But now all these proud role models are exceeded.
The ego of politicians explains a lot. The rest of us cannot imagine the serenity of such inner conviction of importance. But history affords lots of examples of the disastrous collusion of ego and power–think Nero, or Idi Amin. Originally, Mr. Giuliani presented himself as a serious and dignified person: He was the Mayor who promised to improve the quality of life of New Yorkers. He did. He got all that squeegeeing stopped, crime reduced, graffiti down; and he continues, it appears, to function as a serious Mayor, protecting the city against, among other things, ferrets. It was reported that the Mayor’s office even circulated memos like “Talking Points against the legalization of ferrets,” and that passions ran high among both pro and con. Mayor Giuliani is strongly anti-ferret. It’s not clear what sacrifices the citizens of New York will be making by having no First Lady now that the Mayor has “stripped” his wife of her duties. In any case, from being an effective Mayor with a political future after he leaves office next year, Mr. Giuliani has moved into being a public suicide.
But of course, it is celebrity–that is, publicity–that has made all the protagonists cease to be pitiable human beings, suffering and angry, and degraded them into being television-sitcom characters, especially for the rest of the country, non-New Yorkers who undoubtedly are not following as closely, and feel less keenly, any local loss of pride that may be involved here. (In San Francisco, Mayor Willie Brown was revealed to be the father of an illegitimate child, but this news was received with indifference, or actually a feeling of general satisfaction at having at least one question that has lingered locally resolved.)
New Yorker and Californian alike must feel some sympathy for the self-destructiveness of the doomed protagonists. With cancer, his fall from power, impotence and the ruin of his political future, the Mayor clings to a version of his life involving himself as a romantic protagonist sacrificing all for love, and there’s something sort of sympathetic about that. He even seems to feel a kind of relish for a smoldering finish, blood, a heap of broken bodies. Once the situation spun out of control, it became a kind of soap-box derby of powerless vehicles hurtling downhill toward an appalling crash. No one’s steering, not even the embarrassing lawyers.
There’s the 12-step idea that you have to hit bottom before you can pick yourself up. These people seem to be testing that proposition, and maybe as a country we are testing the same proposition, involved in a kind of collective cultural self-destruction, with the leading Mayor vicariously enacting the expressive role, like a priest or a ritual designated human sacrifice. Though we thought the bottom was Congress dragging the country through the mud in the name of some hypocritical version of purity thinly masking partisan hatred, now we know that at the bottom is our own surrogate dragging us all through the mud in the name of ratings.