Rudy’s Rough Week: An Embattled Mayor Is Facing His Limits

It was early in the morning on May 27, the day before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s 57th birthday, and Mr. Giuliani was already in a rage. The front page of the Sunday Daily News had a screaming headline about “Rudy’s Crumbling World,” with an accompanying story depicting an out-of-touch, barely-there Mayor who was adrift in the final stretch of his administration.

Mr. Giuliani picked up the telephone to call a top executive at the Daily News . He was very upset. The picture on page 1 showed him bent forward in a chair, glowering at the ground in what appeared to be a state of despair. With his graying head receding between two hunched shoulders, the Mayor looked like he was on a heavy dose of downers.

Mr. Giuliani had good reason to be enraged. The Daily News is run by longtime boosters of his: Publisher Mortimer Zuckerman’s support helped get him elected Mayor in 1993; executive editor Michael Goodwin was often kind to City Hall as editor of the editorial page; and Richard Schwartz, Mr. Goodwin’s replacement on the editorial page, was once a top adviser to Mr. Giuliani. But now, it seemed, his onetime allies had turned on him. The lurid two-page spread included a sidebar comparing his life, with its fractured marriage and mid-life romance with Judith Nathan, to a B-movie. There was no mistaking the message: The News essentially pronounced him irrelevant-just in time for his birthday. When Mr. Giuliani looked at the front page that morning, it must have been a bit like that episode of The Twilight Zone where a man looks into a mirror and is startled to see an unrecognizably old and decrepit version of himself gazing back.

For Mr. Giuliani, a tightly coiled man who detests untidiness and disarray, it is all unraveling at once-his health, his marriage, his Mayoralty and, perhaps, his hopes for a political future. Mr. Giuliani’s identity has long been bound up with power: the acquisition of power, the consolidation of power, the exercise of power to bend a stubborn, unwieldy city to his will. But now he is no longer in charge of his body; the treatment he chose for his prostate cancer has left him impotent. On Jan. 1, Mr. Giuliani will surrender command of the city to a new Mayor. And, according to sources, Mr. Giuliani is upset with himself for losing control of the story of his personal travails.

“His comments and actions show that the countdown is getting to him,” said former Mayor Edward Koch. “But it shouldn’t. He should just do his business as if he is going to be there forever. And then, on Dec. 31, he should allow the [Police Department] Emerald Society to bagpipe him out of City Hall. They did it for me, and I enjoyed it.”

As Mr. Giuliani looks on, the final chapter of his tenure is being written for him, and it’s all about his collapsing marriage and his grounded sex life. His Mayoralty, a reign comparable to that of Fiorello La Guardia, his hero and role model, is ending with neither a bang nor a whimper, but rather a barrage of sordid and salacious headlines.

Watching Mr. Giuliani go about his daily business, you can tell that the countdown is weighing on him. According to sources, Mr. Giuliani is acting increasingly sentimental in private about the mundane trappings and duties of the Mayoralty, even those that once held less interest for him.

At public events, he sometimes seems preoccupied, even introverted. At a Memorial Day parade in Queens on May 27, for instance, Mr. Giuliani was striding forward alongside Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman who is a likely candidate for Mayor. When Mr. Bloomberg suddenly veered off to introduce himself to some little girls holding “I like Mike” signs on the parade’s sidelines, photographers swooped after him in pursuit. But rather than join his fellow Republican in a bit of gripping and grinning, Mr. Giuliani marched on, quickening his step and fixing his gaze on the ground.

After the parade, Mr. Giuliani shared a stage alongside some veterans. As the old soldiers stiffened to salute the flag, the Mayor put his hand over his heart. He began to stare at the floor. With his mouth bent in a rigid, upside-down U, he seemed entirely preoccupied and withdrawn, and held that position for a full 30 seconds, his figure as still as his wax double at Madame Tussaud’s museum. He was entirely unaware that the veterans had long since dropped their salutes.

Moments like these have grown more frequent. After all, Mr. Giuliani didn’t want it to end this way. He is upset, sources said, because the story of his messy divorce got away from him. And, as he well knows, it’s partly his fault. He is all too aware that his decision to allow his surrogates to leak the intimate details of his life in Gracie Mansion has backfired. By bringing Ms. Nathan into Gracie Mansion for civic ceremonies, by turning his impotence into the subject of a public-service announcement, and by stripping his estranged wife, Donna Hanover, of some of her duties as First Lady, he has merely made it easier for Ms. Hanover to play the role of the aggrieved party.

Amid this administration’s final months, there does appear to be a certain amount of consistency on Mr. Giuliani’s part. The mother of his children-like Patrick Dorismond, like former Police Commissioner William Bratton, like a succession of schools chancellors, like the traders he handcuffed in the late 1980′s, like the mobsters he tore apart in cross-examination as U.S. Attorney-was treated as just another enemy to be vanquished. In Mr. Giuliani’s universe, enemies always meet the same fate: They are marginalized by a careful campaign of leaks carried out by members of his entourage.

But, as Ms. Hanover may have suspected would happen all along, Mr. Giuliani has become the unwitting victim of his final act of aggression. Having lived with him throughout his years as a prosecutor and as Mayor, Ms. Hanover could have predicted that, by asking a judge to bar Ms. Nathan from Gracie Mansion, she could get Mr. Giuliani to flip into vanquish-the-enemy mode and hence damage himself. In light of these latest episodes, after all, it seems hard to imagine that Mr. Giuliani could run for Governor next year or return to City Hall in 2005.

The Fun’s Gone

Whatever pleasure Mr. Giuliani once took in his daily sparring with reporters seems to have waned. It isn’t that he no longer has any taste for fighting with the press when he thinks they’ve been unfair-he launched a fierce counterattack on the Daily News on May 27-it’s that he no longer seems to take even a glimmer of pleasure in combat, as he once did. The game sometimes seems to bore him.

On a recent morning in City Hall’s Blue Room, after a routine press conference detailing a new initiative involving the city’s Children’s Services Administration, for instance, Mr. Giuliani was asked to comment on the latest developments in his divorce case. After getting double-teamed by a pair of reporters for a few minutes, Mr. Giuliani said: “Why don’t you both debate each other? Maybe you’ll be more comfortable debating with each other. I’m not going to discuss the matter. Would you like to ask me again? Or would you like to ask me about [this initiative], that actually could affect the lives of babies and children in the city?”

There was a time when Mr. Giuliani would have reveled in the contempt he felt for the press corps. But this time, he just seemed dispirited, even depressed, by the tedium of it all.

A similar dynamic was at play at a press availability on the edge of a cemetery after the May 27 Memorial Day parade in Queens. The Mayor gripped a portable lectern and hunched over it, as if trying to push it into the ground, into its own grave alongside the dead populating this modest resting place.

Asked for his response to the Daily News story, Mr. Giuliani went on the attack. “I think the newspaper should be ashamed of itself,” he said. “It not only has descended to levels of indecency where it’s following people around and jumping out of bushes to take their pictures …. It now has descended to the level of total and absolute dishonesty.”

Where Mr. Giuliani once would have been animated by his counterassault, this time he just seemed subdued, as if he was weary of stewing about the News story and just wanted to finish up the arduous task of completing this scripted counterassault.

In many ways, the final months of Mr. Giuliani’s Mayoralty are similar to the last days of Ed Koch in 1989. Like Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Koch had experienced a brush with mortality in his final term; he had a stroke in 1987. Like Mr. Giuliani, whose domestic life is in shambles, Mr. Koch, a lifelong bachelor, had no family to turn to as his Mayoralty came to an end. Mr. Giuliani himself has said that he hopes his relationship with Ms. Nathan lasts forever, a clear sign he intends to turn to her for solace in what will certainly be a difficult period in his life. And like Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Koch’s identity was entirely bound up with being Mayor. Indeed, many of Mr. Koch’s friends were worried about how he would adjust to life after City Hall.

It seems safe to assume that the loss of City Hall will weigh even more heavily on Mr. Giuliani than it did on Mr. Koch, who lost his bid for a fourth term (this was before term limits). Mayor Koch was more of a talker and performer, and thus could more easily adjust to a post–City Hall life as a pundit and radio personality. For Mr. Koch, the Mayoralty was a stage; for Mr. Giuliani, a manager to his core, it has been a vast control panel. It’s hard to imagine him being content, as Mr. Koch has been, dispensing justice on The People’s Court or squaring off against Alfonse D’Amato in an “I’m Right, You’re Wrong” column in New York magazine.

But, inevitably, Mr. Giuliani will have to adjust, because the day will come when the bagpipes sound for him.