When Private Behavior Isn't

When Rudy Giuliani was revving up his first successful mayoral run in 1992, his wife called. Not long before, I had trashed her husband's candidacy in print, but Donna Hanover hadn't called to carp. She arranged lunch for the three of us at a nondescript neighborhood Italian restaurant, and after we'd ordered it became apparent why. As husband and wife sat side by side, she would lean in, smiling, and prompt: "Rudy, maybe she would be interested in... tell her your idea for... I know she would like to know about..." It was obvious that she was trying to humanize the guy for public consumption.

Last week, after he had announced plans for a legal separation without informing her first, Donna Hanover revealed her husband's human side on a larger scale and with less happy results. For years the couple had rarely appeared in tandem; most people thought they had merely drifted apart in the lackluster fashion of fading marriages. But Hanover stood outside their temporary home at Gracie Mansion, her chin quivering, and told a more dramatic, passionate and compelling story.

She suggested that the mayor had cheated on her with a former press secretary, and had turned his back on a recent reconciliation to become involved with another woman who accompanied him to a slew of public events, including--the ultimate date outrage--on New Year's Eve. Hanover made her husband seem that most human of creatures, a louse. And she added a new integer to this political equation: it's not just the crime, or even the cover-up. It's the hypocrisy.

If the mayor of New York had ever presented himself as a man of human frailty, discovering that he had been cruelly careless of the feelings of the mother of his children, who helped him get elected and then was shut out at city hall, would have been sorry enough. But the mayor is a man who always has held himself above others, expressing open contempt for his predecessors, portions of the electorate and even his own appointees.

When people questioned why he would choose to attack a man killed by police by releasing his sealed juvenile record, or why he would jettison a first-rate police commissioner and a fine schools chancellor, he behaved as though the questions were silly and stupid, two words for which he has a marked fondness. The school system, he once said, should be "blown up." One of his opponents was "a desperate and dishonest man." A policy initiative by the public advocate was "idiotic." Like more than a few prosecutors, Giuliani has difficulty with gray areas. The world is divided into friend and foe, the black hats and the white, the honest and the criminal.

Yet if his wife is to be believed, this uncompromising former U.S. attorney lied repeatedly when he denied a relationship with his onetime press secretary. And Rudy, being Rudy, couched his denial as an attack. "The story is false," he told reporters when it first emerged, adding, "You have no decency."

Is all this merely about sex? No. It is about pretending to be one sort of person when you are really another, and doing it with an air of arrogance that makes the pretense an insult to the voting public. It is why the country finally turned on Richard Nixon. The break-ins, the hush money were so at odds with the man of hyper-probity who trumpeted law and order. The private man was at odds with the public one, so that the public one finally became an extended lie. The biggest public-relations mistake Bill Clinton ever made was to wag his finger at the camera and call Monica Lewinsky "that woman," like a fire-and-brimstone parson with nothing in his pants but his wallet. When the facts were in, that scolding duplicitous gesture was a finger in the eye of every American.

The contrast between the two Rudys is just as egregious. One is a man who once said of being mayor, "I resist all the old games that are played." The other is a boss who played the oldest game in the book, authorizing a huge pay raise for a press aide with meager qualifications who his wife says was also his girlfriend. If the former Rudy was asked to pass judgment on the latter one, he would rip him to shreds, shreds being what he does best, and enjoys most.

Perhaps the voters of New York will cut their mayor some slack, see all this as simply private behavior whether he stays in city hall or runs for the Senate. Perhaps some will blame his wife, who has refused to go along quietly with the mayor's betrayal, as opposed to his possible Senate opponent, Hillary Clinton, who is frequently blamed for going along too quietly with the president's.

And perhaps they will compare this with the president's boorish behavior and shrug. But as a woman and a wife I can say that longstanding affairs with women who become constant companions are clearly more threatening to a marital partnership than cheap and transitory sex. (Although as a woman and a wife I can say unequivocally that both really stink.)

A man who builds his own pedestal had better use strong cement, or he will fall far and hard. And the world will revel in the tumble. The very best stories are about hypocrisy: the pious man of God who patronizes prostitutes, the leader of a right-wing college who is accused of sleeping with his daughter-in-law, the president who is a fond father and then talks dirty on the phone with a woman young enough to be his daughter. These are the moral equivalent of man bites dog.

The shame is not only that the mayor apparently let one woman freeze his wife out of his public life, and another take her place on public occasions. It is that he did that while being the most judgmental of men. At that lunch his wife arranged he did indeed, with her prodding, seem a more human figure than I had believed. But that was before a moral certainty about the behavior of others was leavened with a good deal of moral relativism about his own. Let Rudy have the last word, as he always does: "People make the most mistakes sometimes when they feel too powerful and too strong."