While there is nothing funny at all about the painful public disintegration of the Mayor’s marriage, the resulting moral confusion among conservative pundits is comical indeed. Watching Rudy Giuliani prance along the boulevard with his new amour while his wife, Donna Hanover, and their young children took refuge with her parents in California must have been a wrenching experience for his erstwhile admirers. The strange behavior of their hero has caught them with their rhetorical pants down.
It is true that Mr. Giuliani, cultivating popularity in a sinful metropolis, has generally avoided the posturing about “family values” so common among his fellow Republicans. On the issues dearest to social conservatives, including abortion and gay rights, the Mayor is an unrepentant moderate.
But over the course of his mayoralty he has frequently taken a bullying, hectoring approach to certain categories of sinners such as squeegee men and pot smokers. And in recent months, as he sought to coax money and votes from the religious rightists who despise Hillary Rodham Clinton, his direct-mail appeals have adopted an increasingly self-righteous tone.
So what can the “pro-family” columnists say about the inquisitorial Mayor who made his reputation by shutting down the city’s sex-oriented businesses, who has advocated the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, who avenged his own outraged Catholic piety by censoring an offensive art exhibit, and who questioned the religious convictions of his opponent, now that he disports himself openly in an illicit relationship? What can they say about a politician whose humiliated wife has accused him of carrying on a relationship with a staff member whom he promoted and compensated lavishly? How can they explain their long-standing silence about the conduct of a man whom they praised as an exemplar, when they were aware of his peccadilloes all along?
They change the subject, of course. Among the Rorschach-like themes that have emerged in the continuing commentary is an unflattering comparison with President Clinton. What’s important about Rudy to many conservatives is not that he betrayed his wife but that he is still a better man than Bill.
The Wall Street Journal ‘s Peggy Noonan, in the midst of urging Mr. Giuliani to step aside from the Senate race because his candidacy “isn’t going to work,” nevertheless praises the Mayor for his “unscripted” and “human” if somewhat abrupt dumping of his wife. What Ms. Noonan would have written if the President unilaterally announced an impending separation from his wife at a press conference, and later cavorted publicly with Monica Lewinsky, may well be imagined (or in Ms. Noonan’s case, perhaps dreamed).
The National Review reassures us that our Mayor is “a real class act” with enough “respect for [his] constituents to be forthright and honest.” Besides, as these exponents of strict Catholic morality note breezily, “Everyone has known that Rudy and Donna have been past-tense for years. It is and has been no secret.”
No more of a secret, at least, than former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s cheating on his second wife with a young House staff member for several years, which provoked not so much as a raised eyebrow from the likes of Ms. Noonan. Anything went as long as Mr. Gingrich served the great purposes of conservatism, principally by assailing the immorality of the Clintons.
But if the Mayor’s dalliances were in fact common knowledge, why did the news elicit such an outraged reaction from New York Post columnist Eric Fettmann? According to Mr. Fettmann, Hizzoner can no longer be held up as a beacon to the nation’s children, and therefore is wounded as a Senatorial candidate.
As an insider at the gossip-saturated tabloid, Mr. Fettmann can hardly plead ignorance about the condition of the Mayor’s marriage, which didn’t prevent his newspaper from backing Mr. Giuliani without reservation these past several years. Presumably it is the Post ‘s relentless coverage that has rendered the Mayor unfit for higher service, with page upon page of text and photos about his personal affairs.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fettmann’s colleague Steve Dunleavy doesn’t bother with any scruples whatsoever in his zeal to win next November. He candidly commends to Mr. Giuliani the example of the late Mayor Jimmy Walker, a stylish crook who abandoned his wife for a showgirl and then “won by a landslide.”
What does seem plain is that few, if any, of our conservative philosophers actually worry much about sexual immorality unless the offender happens to be a liberal, a Democrat or a welfare mother. Even the most stringent critics of situational ethics can nimbly rationalize a flexible standard when that is what political expediency demands.
So only one prediction is safe for now: Should Mr. Giuliani decide to run after all, these phonies will eagerly concoct whatever excuses he may need.