Comparing Chumps 

Boner didn’t enjoy the same tolerance Rudy’s getting for his indiscretions

Boner didn’t enjoy the same tolerance Rudy’s getting for his indiscretions

Nashvillians with attention spans longer than seven hours may have detected something familiar in the news lately—a sordid mayoral marital saga. This one is a good one, however, because it’s always more fun to view such things from a distance when nobody has to own up to voting for the bounder in the first place.

This year’s star is New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, currently engaged in a nasty divorce fight with his wife, former TV news personality Donna Hanover. The Giuliani situation has been going on for over a year now since the mayor started showing up in public places with his girlfriend, Judith Nathan. Rudy subsequently announced to the press his intentions for divorce—without having mentioned the matter to Donna, who replied by denouncing him for having previous carryings-on with his press secretary.

The flap over his personal life, coupled with his diagnosis for prostate cancer, ultimately forced Giuliani to abandon his campaign for the U.S. Senate (which was just as well, as he probably would have lost to Hillary Clinton). But Giuliani generally does not back down from things, even when it is in his interest, and the marital wars continued.

What has given this fight special momentum lately is that particularly New York obsession: real estate. Currently getting rent-free digs at Gracie Mansion, the official mayoral residence, neither party wants to move out and pay market rates for housing, since comparable property in the city is really not to be had for love or money. So the two of them continue to live together in proximal estrangement.

In a more down-to-earth state with down-to-earth housing prices, it wouldn’t be nearly as critical. In Mississippi a few years ago, for example, Gov. Kirk Fordice simply moved out on his wife, leaving her behind in the governor’s mansion while he lived in a suburban rancher with the woman he claimed was the true love of his life.

Hanover went to court to ask Rudy to quit bringing his new chick over to the mansion, where she and their two children were still living. Giuliani lawyer Raoul Felder, whose truculent style nicely matches Rudy’s own, gallantly responded by characterizing her response to the divorce as “howling like a stuck pig.” When Hanover prevailed in court on the visits to Gracie Mansion, Giuliani responded by seeking to terminate Hanover’s role as first lady of the city—duties she had continued to perform despite the transparent myth her marriage had become. All of this has provided a mother lode of new material for New York’s vigorous tabloid press.

It is noteworthy testimony to the distance our culture was dragged downward during the Clinton years that Giuliani’s defenders point out that his cancer treatment has rendered him impotent, and hence, he couldn’t really be defiling the people’s mansion.

In the most recent flare-up of the ongoing dispute, Giuliani has begun plans to reassign his wife’s three-detective security detail to his new flame. This is the kind of pettiness for which Giuliani has been famous in attacking his political enemies. New York’s divorce laws, meanwhile, do not encourage “no-fault” divorces and, therefore, also add fuel to the fire. Giuliani is trying to divorce his wife on the grounds of “mental cruelty,” even as he commits flagrant adultery. Beyond all that, Giuliani is lining up a $3 million book deal for when he leaves office, so there’s more on the table than just petty squabbling.

Giuliani has certainly paid a price for all this in terms of political popularity, especially since he has been fairly strident in telling New Yorkers how to live their lives. But the price has been remarkably small when one considers the charges of hypocrisy that he’s open to. He still can talk realistically about running for further political office (although his current term as mayor ends this year, and he is prohibited by the city charter from running for reelection). And, as an adulterer, he was able to appoint a panel, generally referred to as the Decency Commission, to review the appropriateness of publicly supported art without getting laughed out of town.

The public certainly has treated Giuliani more kindly than Nashville’s former Mayor William Hill (Bill) Boner during the darkest days of his administration. Boner, while estranged but not yet divorced from his wife Betty, carried on a rather public—and rather dashing—courtship of nightclub singer Traci Peel that culminated in marriage and an appearance on the Phil Donahue show.

Nashvillians tended to view the whole episode as one of profound civic embarrassment. Boner, whose popularity had taken a beating over the city’s fiscal problems and his inability to pull together a credible solid-waste management plan, lost all political grip and soon discarded plans to run for reelection. After he left office, his life became a fairly muddled mess, including an unsuccessful stint as manager of a wooden pallet company in Kentucky, time as a radio talk show host, a narrow election to the Legislature, and failure in another bid for countywide office.

Bad feelings in the community about the Boner years lingered for almost as long as Boner was mayor. But his story also gives an indication of how forgiving voters may be—and how furious they can get when embarrassed too much.

Giuliani is a polarizing figure in New York—widely reviled in parts of the community, beloved in others. While he probably has lost some popularity over his marital travails, he retains a core of support based on his success as mayor. Among scholars of city politics, he is generally regarded as the second most effective mayor of the last 100 years after Fiorello LaGuardia. If nothing else, he succeeded in bringing down crime in the city. More broadly, he presided over a new boom that helped the city turn a corner toward governability. Notwithstanding the somewhat loony quality of the way he goes about things, Giuliani ultimately has a foundation of accomplishment as mayor that gains him some tolerance for the way he leads his private life.

Boner never quite got that slack from the public. He came to office after winning a rather close election in 1987 when he had been under fire for questions about his personal ethics. He took office at a time of a slowing local economy and troublesome financial problems for the city. His background as a glad-handing backbencher in Congress hardly prepared him for the challenges he would face. On the basis of his problems and his difficulties in handling them, he may or may not have survived politically for reelection in 1991.

Nashvillians were not particularly angry with him for not being up to the challenges of the job. What they were upset about was that he seemed to quit trying. The electorate viewed Boner’s set of romantic adventures as a way of avoiding the more nettlesome challenges of being mayor.

Nobody likes to feel cheated. No wonder they were so angry.

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