NEW YORK — It is a politician's dread: a private life laid out in tabloid fashion. Perhaps a marriage dissected, an extramarital relationship exposed, the D-word - divorce - bandied about.
Suddenly, like a National Enquirer delivery truck gone wild, all this has hit New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani - and cast doubts on whether he will stay in the Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton. The public news that Mr. Giuliani will seek a separation from his wife of 16 years raises a broader question: How much does morality and divorce matter to the electorate?
"Shockingly, little," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Most Americans have become either so jaded or so tolerant when it comes to the private lives of public officials that infidelity alone may no longer be enough to turn voters away from a candidate. "I don't think it means we don't care," says former Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder. "It means we're a little more realistic about the fact that we're electing human beings and not angels. I think people have been able to identify with what their lives would look like under that kind of limelight."
In modern times, that tawdry limelight has hit its share of politicians, including President Clinton, former Speaker of the House Robert Livingston, and former presidential candidate Gary Hart, among others. But even today it is rare for a candidate to announce he is separating from his spouse in the middle of a campaign.
The public's reaction varies from region to region. In the South, a candidate who cheats on his wife is less likely to survive than a candidate in another part of the country. It's the kind of split in public opinion that was seen during Mr. Clinton's trials over the Lewinsky matter - when he enjoyed high approval ratings in the midst of being impeached.
"We know because of Lewinsky that two-thirds of the country is willing to give a long leash to political leaders," says Todd Gitlin, a cultural analyst at New York University. "But the one-third that doesn't feel that way is concentrated in the Republican Party, and that poses problems for Republican candidates."
He says this could be a kind of bellwether test for the Republican Party. "Let's suppose Giuliani fails. What's the lesson?" he asks. "The lesson is that to be a Republican, you've got to be clean. If he gets away with it, however, if he gets the nomination and wins, then that is the nail in the coffin for the moralists ... on these questions."
GOP political consultants don't think Giuliani's separation will kill his candidacy. "It's been in the air for some time about Rudy - I think it's already been discounted in the polls," says Joseph Mercurio, who often consults for Republicans in the state.
He points out that other New York Republicans, such as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and former Sen. Alphonse D'Amato, have had marital problems and been reelected. But Rockefeller's very public divorce probably kept him from becoming the Republican presidential candidate. On Wednesday night, following Giuliani's surprise statement, GOP leaders maintained it was a personal issue for Giuliani, not something the voters cared about.
Almost half of New York's voters are Roman Catholic, however, and half of that number are Italian-American. Giuliani, a defender of traditional beliefs, has a strong appeal to many of those voters. "With some people he will lose some votes," says Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac College Poll. "There will be some people who don't approve of this kind of stuff."
What may make it more difficult for Giuliani are the allegations of his wife, actress Donna Hanover, that their marital problems started when the mayor had an affair with a top aide. She says she tried to save the marriage, but Giuliani chose a separate path. Today, the mayor openly admits he has a different close female friend, whom he has taken to official functions.
"I believe an extramarital affair that is private and kept private does not have any major impact," says former Mayor Edward Koch. "But Catholics refer to it as scandalous when you flaunt it, and Rudy is flaunting it."
Mr. Koch says the separation may ultimately cost Giuliani 3 to 4 percent of the vote. "It would be enough to defeat him," says Koch, who predicts: "His next announcement will be his withdrawal."
For his part, Giuliani says he'll make a decision soon. "I'm not thinking about politics.... Politics comes at least second, maybe third, maybe fourth, somewhere else," he said Wednesday.
One of Giuliani's main concerns is his health. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer recently and is in the process of deciding on the type of treatment.
For decades, public leaders' private lives were off-limits: From Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy, the press knew a lot about marital infidelities, but seldom wrote about them.
All that changed, however, in the late 1980s, when Democratic presidential candidate Mr. Hart essentially dared the press to prove that he was cheating on his wife. The media took up the challenge, easily documenting Hart's infidelity - and bringing down his campaign. The momentum continued into Clinton's campaign, when CNN went live with Gennifer Flowers's tale of an affair - thereby forcing other news organizations to take the story seriously. "Clearly, there was a decision on the part of the pack that everything was open," says Mr. Gitlin, "that politicians were not entitled to private lives because morality is public. That consensus ruled through 1998 and early 1999 and almost brought down the president. Except that it turned out not to be the prevailing opinion of the country."
The public's apathy about politicians' conduct perplexes some. "Why is this society so deep in the sewer?" asks Mr. Sabato, who says Giuliani's announcement brought back the revulsion he felt over the Lewinsky matter. "It almost made my blood boil," he says. "There ought to be limits to a society that has standards."
But Michael Genovese, director of the Institute for Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, says this will fade as an issue in a week or two, providing there are no ongoing revelations. "This is a pretty common thing. It's pretty minor.
"It's part of the culture nowadays."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society