WITH the new president heading off to his Texas vacation during that slow news month of August 2001, I wrote a column about a man who would never be president: Rudy Giuliani. Banished from Gracie Mansion after dumping his second wife for Judith Nathan, New York’s lame-duck mayor had been bunking for two months with a gay couple. No brand-name American politician had ever publicly done such a thing, so I decided to pay a visit to Rudy’s home away from home.
His Honor was out that day, but Howard Koeppel, a garrulous Queens car dealer, and his partner, Mark Hsiao, a Juilliard-trained pianist, were gracious tour guides to their 32nd-floor apartment on East 57th Street. I asked Mr. Koeppel, a born comic, whether it was unexpected that Rudy would live with an openly gay couple. “I don’t know if it’s any more unusual than him wearing a dress,” he deadpanned. On a more sober note, Mr. Koeppel told me that the connubially challenged mayor was an admirer of his and Mr. Hsiao’s relatively “idyllic life” and had assured them that “if they ever legalized gay marriages, we would be the first one he would do.”
That this same Rudy Giuliani would emerge as the front-runner in the Republican pack six years later is the great surprise of the 2008 presidential campaign to date, especially to the political press. Since the dawn of the new century, it has been the rarely questioned conventional wisdom, handed down by Karl Rove, that no Republican can rise to the top of the party or win the presidency without pandering as slavishly as George W. Bush has to the most bullying and gay-baiting power brokers of the religious right.
When Rudy’s candidacy started to show legs, pundits and family values activists alike assumed that ignorant voters knew only his 9/11 video reel and not his personal history or his stands on issues. “Americans do not yet realize how far outside of the mainstream of conservative thought that Mayor Giuliani’s social views really are,” declared Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council leader, in February. But despite Rudy’s fleeting stabs at fudging his views, they are well known now, and still he leads in national polls of Republican voters and is neck and neck with Fred Thompson in the Bible Belt sanctuary of South Carolina.
There are various explanations for this. One is that 9/11 and terrorism fears trump everything. Another is that the rest of the field is weak. But the most obvious explanation is the one that Washington resists because it contradicts the city’s long-running story line. Namely, that the political clout ritualistically ascribed to Mr. Perkins, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Gary Bauer of American Values and their ilk is a sham.
These self-promoting values hacks don’t speak for the American mainstream. They don’t speak for the Republican Party. They no longer speak for many evangelical ministers and their flocks. The emperors of morality have in fact had no clothes for some time. Should Rudy Giuliani end up doing a victory dance at the Republican convention, it will be on their graves.
Part of their demise, of course, can be attributed to the pileup of personal hypocrisies that have always undone Elmer Gantrys in America, from Jimmy Swaggart to Jim Bakker. The Ted Haggard revelations were in that tawdry tradition, and so was the news that the Christian Coalition’s front man, Ralph Reed, looked forward, as he put it, to “humping in corporate accounts” in collaboration with the now-jailed K Street lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Their fall from grace was synergistically augmented by their scandal-prone family-values allies on Capitol Hill. Even now, the virulent marriage defender David Vitter retains his Senate seat despite having confessed to unspecified sins after his name surfaced in bordello scandals in both Washington and New Orleans.
Also staying put in the Senate is Larry Craig, who, consciously or not, is calling the whole moral brigade’s bluff. After he was busted in the Minneapolis airport, Republicans insisted he undergo an ethics committee investigation on the assumption that he’d disappear before they could conduct it. Now they will have to make good on their word.
Mr. Craig is not just refusing to leave, but, as he demonstrated to Matt Lauer, he is ready, willing and able to re-enact his toilet pas de deux on national television. The Larry Craig show could be C-Span’s hit of the election season. It will culminate with its star’s return to the scene of the crime during the Republican National Convention, which, as perverse poetic justice would have it, is taking place in Minneapolis.
But the most significant — and happiest — explanation for the values czars’ demise as a political force is that white evangelical Christians and a new generation of evangelical leaders have themselves steadily tacked a different course from the Dobson crowd. A CBS News poll this month parallels what the Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick found in his examination of evangelicals for today’s Times Magazine. Like most other Americans, they are more interested in hearing from presidential candidates about the war in Iraq and health care than about any other issues.
Abortion and same-sex marriage landed at the bottom of that list; fighting poverty outpolled abortion as a personal priority by a 3-to-2 margin. To see just how large a gap separates that evangelical electorate from the values organizations that purport to speak in its name, just look at the Values Voter Summit that the Family Research Council convened to much press attention in Washington last weekend. In a survey of participants to determine which issue would be “most important” in choosing a presidential candidate, the summit’s organizers didn’t even think to list the war, health care or fighting poverty among the 12 hot-button options.
The Values Voter Summit’s survey of the attendees’ presidential preferences showed just as large a disconnect. Rudy Giuliani came in next to last (behind Tom Tancredo, ahead of John McCain) in the field of nine candidates, earning only 1.85 percent of the vote. By contrast, among white evangelicals nationwide in the CBS News poll, he was in a statistical dead heat for first place with Fred Thompson; indeed, Mr. Giuliani’s 26 percent among evangelicals nearly matches his showing among all Republican voters. The discrepancy between the CBS poll and the summit survey leaves you wondering who exactly follows Dr. Dobson and Mr. Perkins beyond the ticket buyers who showed up for their media circus last weekend at the Washington Hilton.
Of late Dr. Dobson has been throwing a hissy fit about Rudy’s rise, reminiscent of his 2005 condemnation of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants for appearing in what he labeled a “pro-homosexual video.” Apparently suffering from the delusion that he has the pull on the right that Ralph Nader once did on the left, he has threatened to bolt to a third party. But for all this huffing and puffing, Dr. Dobson and his stop-Rudy brigade are as politically hypocritical as the Reverend Haggard was sexually hypocritical.
If they really believed uncompromisingly in their issues and principles, they would have long since endorsed either Sam Brownback, the zealous Kansas senator fond of using fetus photos as political props, or Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who spent 15 years as a Baptist preacher, calls abortion a “holocaust” and believes in intelligent design rather than evolution.
But they gave Senator Brownback so little moral and financial support that he folded his candidacy a week ago. And they continue to stop well short of embracing Mr. Huckabee, no matter how many rave reviews his affable personality receives on the campaign trail. They shun him because they know he’ll lose, and they would rather compromise principle than back a loser.
Backing a loser, they know, would even further diminish their waning Washington status in a post-Rove, post-Bush G.O.P. The more they shed their illusion of power, the more they imperil their ability to rake in big bucks from their apocalyptic direct-mail campaigns. They must choose mammon over God if they are to maintain the many values rackets that make up their various business empires.
Hilariously enough, some other big names on the right, typified by Sean Hannity of Fox News, are capitulating to the Giuliani candidacy by pretending that he, like the incessantly flip-flopping Mitt Romney, is reversing his previously liberal record on social issues. The straw they cling to is Rudy’s promise to appoint “strict constructionist” judges to the Supreme Court.
Even leaving aside the Giuliani record in New York (where his judicial appointees were mostly Democrats), the more Democratic Senate likely to emerge after 2008 is a poor bet to confirm a Scalia or Alito even should a Republican president nominate one. No matter how you slice it, the Giuliani positions on abortion, gay rights and gun control remain indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s.
“You have absolutely nothing to fear from me,” Rudy disingenuously told the assembled at the Values Voter Summit last weekend. Actually, there’s plenty for everyone to fear from a Giuliani presidency, starting with the mad neocon bombers shaping his apocalyptic policy toward Iran. But that’s another story. Whichever candidate or party lands in the White House, this much is certain: Inauguration Day 2009 is at the very least Armageddon for the reigning ayatollahs of the American right.