Last week, the press was inevitably mocked as prudes and puritans as we turned our attention to a nice little Washington sex scandal. But even if the existence of the D.C. Madam should come as no surprise and isn’t worth clucking over, that doesn’t mean we have to shrug off every moral lapse and breach by politicians. It also doesn’t mean, for one, that only Bible-thumpers have the right to be disturbed by the personal misdeeds of Rudy Giuliani or think about their relevance to the sort of president he might be.
Giuliani’s character problem is supposed to lie exclusively with conservative Christians. The religious right, already skittish over the former New York mayor’s acceptance of abortion and gay marriage, reputedly sees his divorce-strewn past as further proof that he doesn’t share their values. “I think there’s a little difference between how Democrats view personal issues and how Republican primary voters and the caucus attendees view these personal issues, questions of character and judgment, and personal values,” commentator Stuart Rothenberg said on ABC News. “So I think former Mayor Giuliani has more problems there.” His comments came after Andrew Giuliani, Rudy’s 21-year-old son, told the New York Times that for a long stretch, he’d stopped speaking to his father. “Some evangelical Christian leaders have said that Giuliani’s three marriages would make it difficult for him to win the support of religious Republican voters,” the Los Angeles Times chimed in.
But the fact that Giuliani has been married three times hardly captures his transgressions. You can be unfazed by divorce and still despair of Rudy’s treatment of his family. This is a man whose life is filled with poisoned intimate relationships and who appears to be responsible for much of the poisoning. It’s not only the religious or the uptight that can be put off by an utter lack of personal morality in a presidential candidate.
Let’s haul out the Rudy sin list. His first marriage, to Regina Peruggi, was annulled on the grounds that they didn’t get the dispensation from the Catholic Church they needed to marry as second cousins, once removed. Annulments are a religious fiction—the obvious reason to get one is so you can be married in the church again—but after 14 years of marriage, Giuliani’s can only seem squirrelly. That’s a venial sin, though, compared with the crash and burn of his second marriage, to Donna Hanover. She found out Giuliani was divorcing her during a press conference and then accused him of carrying on a longtime affair with one of his staff members. Giuliani’s defense was that she’d fingered the wrong woman: He was involved with Judi Nathan. The mayor’s flameout with Hanover led a judge to bar Nathan from the mayoral residence at Gracie Mansion and to reprimand Giuliani for letting his lawyer call Hanover “an uncaring mother” who was “howling like a stuck pig” over leaving the mansion. Giuliani retaliated by publicly stripping Hanover of her first-lady duties and insisting that the judge was wrong to keep Nathan apart from his children. Giuliani finally moved out of Gracie when he couldn’t move Nathan in.
This isn’t a divorce—it’s a conflagration. Giuliani inflicted lots of pain on the people in his family, the people he was supposed to protect, in a manner that was both public and, to all appearances, unnecessary. To hear him shrug this episode off with “I don’t think any of us have perfect lives,” as he did to Barbara Walters, is like watching Tony Soprano play down his little violence problem. When you humiliate your spouse in public, you humiliate yourself.
You also hurt your kids. Giuliani’s were 15 and 11 at the time of his breakup with their mother. Andrew, now 21, says he still has a “problem” with Nathan, whom Giuliani married in 2003, and Andrew told the New York Times in March that he wouldn’t be campaigning for his father. He said the two were trying to patch up their relationship after at least one yearlong period when they had not spoken. Giuliani’s daughter, 17-year-old Caroline, may not have much to say to her dad either. The Times delicately referred to the “distance that appears to have developed” between them and reported that Giuliani didn’t show up for Andrew’s 2005 high-school graduation or go to Caroline’s school plays over the last year and a half.
In other words, Giuliani isn’t a dad trying to do right by his kids who just happens to be twice-divorced. He’s a father who burned his ex-wife to such a degree that his son hasn’t forgiven him six years later or made peace with his father’s new wife. Giuliani’s line to voters about this mess is the classic “Judge me by my public performance.” Cue a condescending lecture about American prudishness: If only we could be blasé and sophisticated like the Europeans, we’d figure out that a candidate’s personal foibles are no basis for deciding whether he or she will make an effective government leader.
But what exactly has this nonchalance gotten the Continent lately? This month, photographs of 70-year-old former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dandling young women on his knee appeared under the newspaper headline “Berlusconi’s Harem.” In February, when Berlusconi’s wife published a letter scolding her husband for embarrassing her with his incorrigible flirting when he was in, as well as out of, office, one Italian editor celebrated this “explosion of strange and weird vitality,” saying, ”People miss very much that style. It’s not healthy, but it’s Italian.” Maybe. But Berlusconi left his country saddled with debt and a sluggish economy after it spent five years enthralled to his cult of personality.
A past like Giuliani’s betrays a level of self-indulgence that, if nothing else, suggests that more fireworks are in store and that the show will be long-running. We’ll all be strapped into front-row seats. Giuliani’s psychodramas may or may not tell us about the sort of leader he’ll be, but we’ve already been forced to think enough about the sort of man he is. (The prospect of President Hillary Clinton and four more years of her marriage leaves me with a similar sense of dread.) All elections are trade-offs. But when a candidate starts off with a loutish and loathsome past, chances are good that his time in office will be marked by missteps and distraction and that he’ll be more irritating and less effective as a result. I’m with Andrew, who said he was too busy training to be a professional golfer to support his father’s candidacy: We’ve all got better things to do.