He's tough, but he isn't crazy

Why does everyone want to put Rudy Giuliani on the couch when he throws a temper tantrum?

Published March 29, 2000 11:04AM (EST)

Just a few days after a New York undercover police officer shot Patrick Dorismond during a drug sting, I was chatting with a good Brooklyn buddy -- a successful African-American record producer who involves himself in a variety of community interests. Nominally a Democrat, he's clear-headed and broad-minded enough to advise both the Urban League and the national Republican Party. In many ways, his political outlook is not very different from that of the Rev. Floyd Flake, the black former congressman from Queens, who endorsed New York Mayor Rudy Giuiliani in his 1997 reelection bid, but broke with him in the wake of the Amadou Diallo shooting.

As we headed to a New York comedy club, we discussed Giuliani's controversial reaction to the Dorismond shooting. As he usually does in such situations, Giuliani responded by offering strong support for the cops, while asking that everyone refrain from making judgments. He promptly raised the stakes by violating his own advice and releasing Dorismond's arrest record -- including his sealed juvenile offenses. It was a situation made for Al Sharpton and one which the good reverend has seized.

My buddy blurted out, "I think he's nuts. There's no other explanation. It's just crazy that he would behave this way." The conversation continued and I noted that, ironically enough, Giuliani has brought together three groups that traditionally interacted only warily -- African-Americans, West Indians and African immigrants -- albeit in hostility toward him.

The more recent immigrants don't always buy into the politics of grievance that appear to animate native-born blacks, but the three killings of unarmed men from these communities by the NYPD in 13 months has mobilized these communities. "And Palestinians, too," our driver volunteered, unsolicited.

Later, my friend amended his view of the mayor, but was still harshly critical: "He may not be nuts, but his personality may breed crime itself. Consider the law-abiding young, 20-something black male who has seen too many of his brothers incarcerated and wants to make something of himself. After being stopped and frisked three times in one night on the way home from his job, at what point does that young man just say to hell with it? People end up acting the way society expects them to. Crazy or not, Rudy Giuliani is not being a good public servant."

But is he, as Jesse Jackson ventured after the shooting, "mental"? It's an unfair accusation that can't be easily defended. But that's exactly the question that is being uttered by New Yorkers about their mayor these days.

It was clear from the beginning that Rudy Giuliani's temperament would be an issue in his Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton. Liberals feel it's a legitimate issue given that the mayor has never been perceived as Mr. Warmth and will never be confused with a "compassionate conservative."

Clinton said as much in the current New York magazine: "There's a real contrast in leadership styles. Willingness to listen to people and actually learn from people ... I would look for every possible way to work with my colleagues to try to get things done for New York. And I wouldn't expect if I disagreed with them, I could sue them or fire them." Clinton didn't say that Giuliani's temperament does not lend itself to "playing well with others." She doesn't have to.

Riding the No. 1 train this past weekend, I found myself listening to a pair of fellow strap-hangers. They were a typical white couple in their early 20s, Downtown types, maybe just out of college. Probably one of the few couples on the New York subway John Rocker would find normal. No purple hair here, though the guy's was uncombed and shoulder-length. Rudy just naturally flowed into their conversation.

Young woman: "I can't believe Mom likes Giuliani. She'd never voted for a Republican before. Doesn't she realize that he's a lunatic?"

Young man: "Well, just hope that he keeps spouting off. Maybe everyone will start thinking the same."

Jackson, Clinton, my buddy, random subway riders. I was detecting a pattern of here. But surely not everyone thinks the mayor's nuts.

Both Salon and the New York Post recently noted Giuliani's use of "projection" and other psychological terms to describe Hillary Clinton's reaction to his reaction. The Post also reported that Rudy's original skit at the annual "Inner Circle" charity event was to have featured Lorraine Bracco (psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi of "The Sopranos"), and would have placed Rudy on the couch. The punch line had him leaving and running into Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). The two would have said simultaneously: "Don't tell anyone you saw me here today." Unfortunately, Bracco and Gandolfini had scheduling conflicts.

But, still, isn't it a stretch to go from saying that someone has a temperament ill-suited to working with others to suggesting that they are "mental" as Jesse Jackson remarked last week?

It's unprecedented, but not completely unheard of. It reminds me of what happened to John McCain just five months ago, when a similar sotto voce campaign was waged against the then presidential candidate by various unnamed senators, who insinuated that his stay at the Hanoi Hilton may have left him permanently unhinged. It was dark and anonymous.

Fortunately, McCain had a secret weapon to fend off the comments: Records from the psychologists he regularly met with for nine years following his 1973 release from Vietnam. Rudy doesn't have that luxury. The early whisper campaign came back to haunt McCain as his campaign began to unravel before Super Tuesday. Under normal circumstances, when a campaign starts to slip, the talk is of various strategies that are no longer working or the other candidate's superior message. Instead, columnist Robert Novak chimed in with this: "The fabled temper of John McCain, admirably kept under control in his rise from obscurity to Republican presidential contention, finally may have done him in."

All the previous associations, valid or not, came rushing back. Bill Bennett, who just a few weeks before had been touting McCain as having the best shot of beating Al Gore, broke ranks. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal that McCain's attacks on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were "highly irresponsible and intemperate." He then rattled off to the Washington Post that McCain's derision of the two religious right figures as "evil" was a "very odd thing ... I don't know what's going on. I'm not a psychiatrist."

The McCain comparison is especially poignant now that the two tempestuous maverick Republicans have bonded. Though Giuliani endorsed Bush, he pointedly refused to join in the state GOP's all-out assault on McCain. The Arizona senator returned the favor by citing Giuliani as someone he would definitely be campaigning for this year.

The similar accusations leveled at the two men makes one wonder if they might not be reaping the downside of being "Mars" politicians -- testosterone-filled, uncompromising and bombastic -- in a "Venus" political environment whose watchwords are "compassion" and "doing it for the children." That is, Giuliani and McCain, regardless of their actual personalities, seem like "warriors" -- unflinching in the battle for their beliefs in a society at peace.

Bill Clinton may be a gut-level street fighter, but he smiles and talks about "feeling your pain." The McCain-Giuliani response is to inflict pain of their own by going for the jugular. And both men seem to face their harshest criticism coming to the defense of allies. Ex-Navy flyer McCain started to go off message when Robertson attacked his close friend Warren Rudman; Giuliani's present stumble comes from a preemptive strike in support of the police.

But in today's political calculus, an in-your-face, aggressive public posture opens candidates like Giuliani and McCain up to the charge of being out-of-step or "crazy."

A John Zogby poll released last Sunday demonstrated that Giuliani's handling of the Dorismond shooting has taken its toll. Clinton has moved ahead of him by 3 percentage points statewide and Giuliani is bleeding support from almost every demographic group, even the upstate voters he is counting on to carry him to victory. Of course, the day before the poll was released, a riot broke out at Dorismond's funeral and several cops were injured. So, sympathy and support may swing back to Giuliani.

The difficulty Giuliani now faces may be seen in Carol and John, a couple typical of the young white professionals who have flocked to New York during its late-'90s renaissance. Carol works for a wire service; John attends business school and dabbles in dot-com ventures. They met while working on George Bush's 1992 reelection campaign and have been married for three years. John even worked for a Republican congressman in the mid-'90s. These should be the ideal Rudy voters. But Giuliani can only count on John to vote for him.

Carol is concerned about Republican policies on education and the environment: "I'm a disgruntled customer, so I'm registering my disgust by shopping elsewhere," she says. Carol reserves her toughest words for the mayor: "Yes, the city is safer. But Giuliani is unstable. This is not an ideological decision. When I vote it will be more strongly against him than for her."

These sentiments were uttered in November, months before the Dorismond shooting.

By Robert A. George

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Crime Hillary Rodham Clinton Republican Party Rudy Giuliani