The Giuliani code

According to Newsweek, the ex-mayor's situational ethics derive from his working-class Italian Catholic background. Where's Bill Donohue when you need him?

Published November 26, 2007 9:30PM (EST)

Nobody loves a detailed portrait of Rudy Giuliani's background and character more than I do. I don't know Giuliani personally, but I feel like I do. We share the same ethnic New York Catholic roots. Though his family is Italian and mine is Irish, our paths have been similar. He moved from Flatbush to Long Island's Nassau County as a child, and so did I. He had uncles and cousins in the New York Police Department, and so did I. He was taught by Christian Brothers; my father was a Christian Brother, until he met and married my mother. In fact, my father even taught at the Christian Brothers high School Giuliani attended, Bishop Laughlin, although not at the same time. My mother's first cousin went to Manhattan College with Giuliani and worked on one of his early student government political campaigns. (Remember, Rudy was a Democrat back then.)

So I looked forward to settling in with Newsweek's cover story, "Growing Up Giuliani," and I was hugely disappointed when I finished it. Disappointed, and almost insulted. It purports to show us the religious and tribal roots behind Giuliani's famed situational ethics -- you know, the way a good Catholic boy who almost joined the priesthood could cheat on his wives and wind up married three times, or how a former U.S. attorney known for his strict law-and-order views could recommend a Mafia-connected crook to become the head of Homeland Security. The answer: His Catholic upbringing gave him a lot of tolerance for good and evil, saints and sinners, and a belief in the possibility of redemption. The piece by Evan Thomas and Suzanne Smalley manages to exoticize Catholic ethnics in an amazingly condescending way.

We learn that Giuliani had not only cops but crooks in his family, and maybe some crooked cops. His father served a year in Sing Sing for an armed mugging, and later had a "nervous breakdown," and was found in a public restroom with his pants around his ankles. This colorful, sometimes scandal-clouded childhood apparently gave Giuliani a tolerance for "saints and sinners," Newsweek tells us. But the piece glosses over some of Giuliani's greatest moral failings. For a story that's heavily about his Catholicism, it spends almost no time on the controversial annulment of his first marriage to Regina Peruggi, who was his second cousin. We get only two sentences at the bottom of the sixth of seven pages (on the Web) about his boyhood friend, Monsigneur Alan Placa. We learn Placa was accused of but never charged with child molestation, but the piece tells us nothing of Placa's well-documented role fighting claims that other priests molested children in the Diocese of Rockville Centre (where I grew up, by the way), and doesn't mention that Placa still works at Giuliani Partners. And for an article that uses Bernie Kerik as a jumping-off point, it tells us almost nothing about the trail of evidence showing how much Giuliani knew about Kerik's corruption.

It's always struck me as lamentable that Giuliani's apparently eccentric ethnic background -- those stern Christian Brothers! That strange love of opera! The no-good uncles and cousins! -- comes in for so much more attention than mundane but crucial facts about his mayoral record. Wayne Barrett's disturbing Village Voice scoop about discrepancies between Giuliani's anti-terror campaign-trail boasting and his humiliating testimony to the 9/11 Commission -- most notably his confession that despite al-Qaida's many threats against New York, he'd never been briefed about the terror group until after the 2001 massacre -- sank like a stone last month, and doesn't even get a mention in the long Newsweek profile.

Reading it, I found myself thinking about a bizarre experience I had a couple of weeks ago on MSNBC's "Hardball," when the Weekly Standard's Matt Continetti blamed Giuliani and Kerik's moral sleaze on the fact that both were New Yorkers. I was on with the New York Times' Bob Herbert and I tried to get Continetti to take back his anti-New York slur. The Newsweek piece reminded me a little of Continetti's argument: Giuliani's moral failings are the result of his working-class, ethnic Catholic New York background. That's insulting to those of us from the same background who've never used our religion to justify moral shape-shifting, and who've managed not to become the patron and employer of corrupt cops and power-abusing priests like Bernie Kerik and Alan Placa. Try again, Newsweek.

By Joan Walsh

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

2008 Elections Catholicism Democratic Party Msnbc Religion Rudy Giuliani