New Yorkers make distinctions in marital slugfest

Many discount Mayor Giuliani's personal life in giving approval ratings.

The tabloids are feasting on New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's unpleasant divorce. And the pugnacious mayor is providing a steady supply of fodder - from very personal revelations about his health to his lawyer's unseemly characterizations of his soon-to-be former wife.

As one Chicago columnist recently noted, there's just "way too much information" out there about the mayor and his personal life.

Political experts disagree about whether this marital slugfest will in the end tarnish Mr. Giuliani's legacy. But they do agree that the relish with which the tabloids are digging in, and the relative ease with which the public is digesting it, indicates a significant shift in standards and values in American political culture.

Mayor Giuliani is the latest example of what can be called the Bill Clinton effect - the public's clear delineation between the personal and the political, where human fallibility no longer acts as justification for an automatic disqualification from office.

"We have a kind of soap-opera politics today," says Larry Sabato, a political expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Twenty years ago, Giuliani would be serving his final few months in his last public office. Today, there will be absolutely no effective consequence in the state of New York - whether he wins or loses [in the future] will depend on other factors."

How pollsters see it

So far, according to pollsters, the mayor's job-approval ratings are holding steady at 51 percent. There's been a slight slippage in the past month, but it's within the margin of error.

That can be attributed, in large part, to fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. At the time, more Americans than ever made a distinction between personal failings and political effectiveness. And experts say they use those two calculations differently when deciding whether to pull a lever for a public servant.

Still, some experts believe that the reports of pitbull-like lawyers scrapping over rights to visit Gracie Mansion - along with crass characterizations of Giuliani's wife over Mother's Day weekend - may be too much for some New Yorkers. Pollster John Zogby says the unrelenting tabloid coverage has made people uncomfortable because there are too many, "too intense and seamy" revelations.

"His allowing this to play out the way it does really shows a seamier side to him that folks don't necessarily want to buy in the bargain," says Mr. Zogby. "No one is going to accuse Bill Clinton of being mean or petty, but the meanness part on the mayor only reinforces the intensity of his opponents' criticisms of him."

The possible aftermath

Other analysts also contend that like Clinton, Giuliani could see some "legacy tarnishing" effect in the long term. While he was in office, Clinton continued to maintain high job-approval ratings, despite the scandals that nipped at his tenure in office. But once he was out, in the wake of the Marc Rich pardon, his approval ratings plummeted.

"Some of the ceremonial trimmings of office keep you afloat during a thing like this," says Lee Miringoff, a New York pollster and political scientist. "When you loose the bully pulpit of your position and the ceremonial trimmings get peeled away, you become former Mayor Giuliani, and it doesn't work as well."

But the latest revelations about the mayor's supposed "love nest" at the St. Regis Hotel, which the New York Post broke last week, may actually end up winning him some sympathy. According to a report in the competing Daily News, the hotel's public-relations firm planted the story of the mayor's visits in order to drum up business. At least two people at the public-relations firm have already been fired over the incident.

The mayor has adamantly denied the Post report and is threatening legal action. The Post is standing by its story.

Many supporters say they're sad to see his last months in office preoccupied with unpleasant personal revelations. But some political analysts believe Giuliani will be remembered for far more than his divorce.

"My guess is 20 years from now, whether you like the guy or not, he'll be judged an effective mayor who brought down the crime rate and made the city a pleasanter place to live," says New York political analyst Maurice Carroll. "The next mayor will certainly be judged by a lot of things, but one of them will be whether he's able to maintain Giuliani's law-and-order package."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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