McCarthy vs. Auster on whether Giuliani’s behavior disqualifies him for the presidency
February I posted an entry
about Andrew McCarthy’s support for Giuliani. In that thread I quoted what Giuliani’ lawyer Raoul Felder said on Mother’s Day 2001.
Just a few months ago, the mayor would not have won many popularity contests. Estranged from his wife, television personality Donna Hanover, he broke the news to her that he was leaving her for another woman—at a news conference.
On Mother’s Day, his celebrity divorce lawyer tried to shame Ms. Hanover into leaving Gracie Mansion, where she was staying with their two children. “She’s howling like a stuck pig,” Raoul Felder said. “I suppose we’re going to have to pry her off the chandelier to get her out of there.”
That’s what Giuliani’s mouthpiece said publicly about the mother of Giuliani’s children, so that Giuliani could remove his wife and his children from their home and he could begin living publicly at Gracie Mansion with his new squeeze, Judith Nathan, now his third wife.
I asked Mr. McCarthy about the meaning of such behavior by a public man, a candidate for the presidency, namely what will be the impact on the American people’s ability to speak about moral issues if, in order to support Giuliani for the presidency, we must give him a pass on such behavior? Does support for Giuliani as president entail acceptance by the American people of such behavior by their leaders? And if so, then how can decent behavior be expected of anyone? Indeed, how can anyone call for decent behavior? (The earlier blog entry has much more.)
Mr. McCarthy kindly expressed interest in replying to my questions, but because of various commitments was unable to do so until now. Below is his reply, followed by my reply.
Andrew McCarthy writes:
Due to delays on my end, it’s been a while since we visited this topic. So it’s worth rehearsing that you asked me, with regard to both certain details about Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s estrangement from his then-wife, Donna Hanover, and some very unflattering comments about her attributed to the mayor’s attorney, Raoul Felder, “does support for Giuliani as president entail acceptance by the American people of such behavior by their leaders? And if so, then how can decent behavior be expected of anyone?” Moreover, at least some of your readers suggest I have argued that the public must overlook these and other aspects of Giuliani’s personal life on the ground that these are private matters, not public concerns.
Before delving into this, I want to be clear that I do not presume to tell any voter that the concerns raised here are an invalid basis for voting a particular way. I personally believe Mayor Giuliani would make a superb president—and the best president of the alternatives available to us. (I think there are others who would be good presidents as well.) There is no one running, however, who perfectly aligns with my views; Giuliani most closely and persuasively aligns with my views on the national security and economic issues I believe are most salient in an election for president. (I would rank the issues differently if we were talking about, say, choosing a Supreme Court justice.) But I do not at all suggest that the social issues your readers (and you) refer to are insignificant. Far from it. My support for the mayor is based on a personal assessment of the positives and negatives, how I rank the importance of the issues in terms of what impact a president is likely to have on them, and a comparison of the available alternatives. But I well understand that others I greatly respect and with whom I generally agree draw a different conclusion.
To move to your questions, I am surprised because the presumptions behind them seem unconservative to me. We appear to be pretty far apart on two core issues: the nature of man and the nature of government.
I believe we are all essentially sinners and that the struggle is to become good and to do good for its own sake. I reject the Leftist notion that man is essentially good and perfectible—especially by government. Government, for me, is a necessary evil. Good government would be limited government that does well the few things we need it to do, undergirded by a balance of divided powers that check each other. That is, we hope to get people of good character in important positions, but we do not bank on naive hopes about the inherent goodness of people. Our fail-safe, instead, is a practical expectation that people will act in their own political interests and protect their own prerogatives. Separation of powers and the ballot box, not a public official’s personal morality, are our best defenses against excess.
That said, character is very important. I hope I have a good character—I think I do. But that doesn’t change the fact (and in many ways it is due to the fact) that I have made bad choices, hurt people, and done many things I would do differently if I had the chance. I find I have learned a lot more from my mistakes than anything else, and that if I’ve become a better person (as we all must struggle to do), it is largely because of regret, guilt or shame about my errors and sins. I’ve learned a lot from the things that have gone well, too. But I find the humility that comes with understanding how flawed I am, and how relatively small my achievements are in the greater scheme of things, makes it easier to be magnanimous in the good times—and to empathize with others who fail or err or sin.
From all this, I come away with a few relevant conclusions.
First, character is important in our political leaders, but not to the exclusion of everything else. It is part of a larger package which includes intelligence, competence, philosophy, decisiveness, persuasiveness, patriotism and other factors. Truly bad character would be disqualifying, but impeccable character would not make someone irrefutably qualified. Competence is important but not to the exclusion of imagination and charisma. Philosophical coherence is great, but governance is often about what is practical and achievable; it requires compromise, which those single-mindedly dedicated to intellectual purity are not notably good at. We never want rash decisions, but sometimes a timely bad decision is better than a good decision arrived at with too much temporizing. A genius who is unable to connect with people and to inspire would not be a good leader. And we want our leaders to be patriotic—we want to feel confident that they have our country’s best interests and traditions at heart; but blind patriotism can be dangerous, or at the very least ineffectual. This is a mixed bag, there is no perfect formula, and what is right for one era and set of challenges may not be the best combination for a different time.
Second, there is a public realm and a private realm. I agree that aspects of the private realm are matters of legitimate public interest, but some things are nobody’s business—e.g., I don’t think Catholic candidates should be asked whether they receive the sacraments, and I don’t think Jews should be asked whether they go to synagogue and observe the holy days; but I think whether they are believing Catholics or Jews is pertinent.
Nevertheless, the private realm, even where it is relevant, is simply not as important to our consideration of fitness for public office as the public realm: matters of philosophy, judgment, experience and consistency in the public sphere—the parts of our lives that are governed and affected by public policy and law. Here again, there is no set formula. A person of high character and peerless personal comportment could make a terrible president. A person of lesser character with lots of personal baggage could be a great president.
In the modern celebrity culture, we make too much of the private side. We’ve become salacious. Yes, we need to know enough to make a discriminating appraisal of a candidate’s character. But we are driving many good people out of public life with our 24/7 media and out preternatural interest in the private realm. Most people do not want to put themselves and their families through that grinder.
Third, the notion of government officials as role models is way overdone. I don’t think that is government’s job. Whether an office holder is highly moral in his personal life is irrelevant to me if he doesn’t do his job well; if he is flawed in his personal life but it does not affect how he carries out his public responsibilities, that is not much of a concern for me. When I hear an argument like the one you are making, I frankly hear overtones of the Left-liberal view that government can raise us up and make us better if only we have the right system and exemplary people in place. Those arguments usually make me grab my wallet. I want government to do much less; I don’t want it functioning as chief morality instructor, and those who would put it in that role would increase its importance in our lives—which means it will do more things, which in turn means more things will not be done well.
You ask, How can decent behavior be expected of anyone if we tolerate indecent behavior from our political leaders in their private affairs? I am surprised this question is asked by someone of your sophistication. There is not a politician in the world who, by virtue of how he lives his private life, has ever influenced the way I live mine. I would be embarrassed by the suggestion that my bad behavior should be excused or mitigated because X politician did something worse; and when I have done good, it’s never once occurred to me to say, “I owe it to the shining example of politician Y.” Anyone who blames his bad behavior on politicians is rationalizing; anyone who credits them for his good behavior is almost surely electioneering.
I have known too many politicians to have inordinately high expectations of public officials. I believe most reasonable people feel the same way. And on the specific subject you raise, I happen to have been divorced once, nearly 20 years ago. It was a very unpleasant experience, unlike any I have ever gone through. I don’t think affairs of the heart or tactics in domestic relations litigation (including statements made by the lawyers, which may or may not be authorized by the clients) are much of a window into how people conduct their everyday lives or how aspirants will perform in public office.
Two final things. First, when I say such things, people often ask: What about President Clinton? That is a much different situation. If Clinton had simply had an affair, or even serial affairs, while he was in office, I would not have approved of that, but it would not have been much of a concern for me—except to the extent he could have been blackmailed and thus compromised in the performance of his public duties. (The tawdriness of the phone-sex business with Ms. Lewinsky, for example, was not the image we want of our president, but the practical problem with it was that it could have been intercepted by a foreign intelligence service.) What was most objectionable about Clinton was his portrayal of himself as a champion of women’s causes (including harassment in the workplace) even as he preyed on a young White House intern; cavorted with her in the office while doing the public’s business; lied under oath; and used the privileges and machinery of government to obstruct a legitimate official inquiry (though he was the public official responsible for nominating federal judges and prosecutors). He was untrustworthy and dishonorable in his public duties. And note that Paula Jones would not have had a lawsuit to bring had not politicians like Clinton promoted policies that turned lasciviousness into a federal cause of action—I think he was particularly ill-suited to make the “private behavior” defense since he is one of the people who turned such private behavior into a matter of public litigation.
Second, I don’t pretend to be a close friend, but I happen to know Mayor Giuliani personally—having been hired by him and having worked for him for several years as a young prosecutor in the 1980s. I am very fond of him. He is a uniquely gifted and visionary public servant and, in my personal experience, a man of strength, integrity and humanity—and from whom I learned a lot.
I don’t know or wish to know the details about the break-up of his marriage. I don’t know if the things that have been reported are true. As I’ve said, I’ve been through a similar experience, it is indescribably painful when children are involved, and people on the outside who think they know all the relevant facts tend to be wrong. It’s a free country and people have a right to give a politician’s marital history what weight they believe it’s worth. For me, that is not much. Moreover, because it is private, I can’t help but think that drawing attention to it must make life very uncomfortable for those who were involved, especially the Giuliani children. Because of my own experience, I know how difficult carrying out the duties of a public official can be on one’s family members—who suffer through all the criticism (and sometimes the threats) leveled at the public official, but who are not in a position to do much other than suffer. I don’t think it makes sense to use the pain caused to someone’s family members as a point of argument; the inevitable result of that very argument is to cause those same family members additional pain.
- end of initial entry -
Your basic approach is to treat the whole Giuliani issue as a generic matter of “bad behavior,” as though those criticizing Giuliani are initiating some new, unprecedented kind of search into a public man’s private life. In my view, that seriously misconstrues what has happened here. If there is new territory that has been opened, it has not been opened by Giuliani’s critics, but by Giuliani himself, whose behavior was (1) not private but public, (2) not merely generically sinful but unprecedentedly transgressive and offensive for a person in his position. New territory has also been opened by Giuliani’s supporters who are attempting to expand vastly the types of behaviors we must accept in a politician.
Thus you write:
“You ask, How can decent behavior be expected of anyone if we tolerate indecent behavior from our political leaders in their private affairs?”
This is misstating my position. I wasn’t talking of just any bad behavior. I was talking about Giuliani’s known bad behavior and his stated contempt for moral standards. More particularly, when I said “we,” I was not talking about anyone, but about conservatives. If conservatives elect Giuliani, how can they ever again say that traditional morality—family values, adherence to marital vows, staying together for the sake of the children—matters?
You ignore or cover over the unprecedented nature of the Giuliani case: a man thrice married, with two public or semi-public adulterous relationships while he was mayor of New York; his press conference announcing his intent to divorce his wife—who learned about his intentions not from him but from the tv news; his public attempt to force his wife and children to leave their home; his lawyer’s public humiliation of his then wife; his destruction of his relationship with his children. And this is not to mention his cross-dressing, his annual marching with child molesters, and all the rest of it.
This is not an otherwise good man who has failed in some instances to have decent behavior, as all of us have done, and who feels bad about it. This is a man who stomps all over decent behavior and soullessly boasts of it.
“There is not a politician in the world who, by virtue of how he lives his private life … ”
I repeat that this is a misstatement of the issue.
“I would be embarrassed by the suggestion that my bad behavior should be excused or mitigated because X politician did something worse; and when I have done good, it’s never once occurred to me to say, ‘I owe it to the shining example of politician Y.’”
Again you are entirely misstating the issue. The question is not the behavior of one man, but the standards that are upheld by society, and more deeply, society’s moral capacity to uphold standards.
“I don’t know or wish to know the details about the break-up of his marriage. I don’t know if the things that have been reported are true.”
I don’t know what you are talking about. This was not a matter of private things being exposed by nosy reporters. This was a matter of public behavior that no one could fail to know about. And there are no issues of fact that are at controversy here. All these things happened in the light of day, brought into the light of day and made public by Giuliani himself: the adulteries, the attempt to force his then-wife out of the Mayor’s mansion, the third marriage conducted at the home where he had lived with his second wife, and so on.
But then you add:
“Truly bad character would be disqualifying…”
Well, I rest my case! Giuliani’s character is truly bad, and therefore he is disqualified.
“As I’ve said, I’ve been through a similar experience, it is indescribably painful when children are involved, and people on the outside who think they know all the relevant facts tend to be wrong.”
Instead of understanding the Giuliani situation as it really is, you are seeing it through the filter of your personal experience. You are “assimilating” the Giuliani situation into some generic pattern of: “Divorces are very painful, we should not look into what ‘s going on in people’s private lives.”
“Moreover, because it is private, I can’t help but think that drawing attention to it must make life very uncomfortable for those who were involved, especially the Giuliani children.”
Excuse me, but who has been doing anything to make Giuliani’s children uncomfortable but Giuliani himself? By carrying on his public adulteries while he was mayor; by publicly attacking their mother and trying to force them to move out of their home and so alienating them; by having his third marriage performed at Gracie Mansion, the home where he had lived with his second wife and his children, a deliberate slap at his second wife and his children; by insisting that his children can only visit with him if they also visit his present wife at the same time, a demand that practically ended his relationship with them; and by his running for president, an office for which is wholly unqualified because of his behavior and character, thus drawing more public attention to his destroyed relationship with his children.
Also let us remember that it was not prying reporters, not Giuliani’s critics, but Giuliani’s son himself who publicized the alienation. But, as you’ve suggested, it appears you have not followed this and other aspects of the Giuliani story, as, the more you know about it, the harder it would be for you to go on justifying Giuliani.
“Because of my own experience, I know how difficult carrying out the duties of a public official can be on one’s family members—who suffer through all the criticism (and sometimes the threats) leveled at the public official, but who are not in a position to do much other than suffer. I don’t think it makes sense to use the pain caused to someone’s family members as a point of argument; the inevitable result of that very argument is to cause those same family members additional pain.”
Again, you are not looking at the actual situation here. Your argument is similar to that of a child of immigrants, dealing with the immigration issue by saying, “I’m descended from immigrants, therefore I side with immigrants, and it’s wrong to have any restrictions on immigration.” In much the same way you are saying, “I’ve been divorced, divorce is very painful and private, therefore we should have no public discussion of Giuliani’s marital history and what it shows about his character and fitness for the nation’s highest office.”
On Clinton, do you deny that the public’s approval of Clinton had an effect on moral values in America? It was in fact catastrophic, and we are still living with the results today. Nothing mattered any more. “EVERYBODY DOES IT.” Everything had to be excused, because we had excused Clinton. Oral sex became a commonplace among teenagers—because it’s “not sex.” A palpable lowering of the tone of American life followed directly from the Clinton presidency and the public’s approval of him and it persists to this day.
Finally, you have not addressed the question I posed to you at the beginning of this exchange. Namely, given Giuliani’s public and known behaviors, and his utter lack of remorse for them: (1) How could Giuliani as president stand for morality? (2) How could a Republican party that has nominated and elected Giuliani ever again stand for morality? (3) How could a conservative movement that has supported Giuliani stand for morality? And (4) how could individual conservatives who have supported Giuliani ever stand for morality? I think the answer to these question is that they could not. The nomination and election of Giuliani would do to the right half of the American people what the approval of Clinton did to the left half of the American people, which is, to cauterize their sense of morality, and thus remove from American life any organized resistance to the leftist campaign to destroy what remains of traditional morality in this country.
Thanks again very much for taking the time to reply. I think it’s been a useful debate.
Paul K. writes:
Your exchange with Andy McCarthy reminds me why I read VFR but do not read The Corner. I find the logical disconnect in the arguments of people like McCarthy disconcerting. I am accustomed to the thought processes of liberals: they disagree with everything I stand for and therefore arrive at opposite conclusions. McCarthy, however, would seem to agree with much of what I stand for and yet, after numerous paragraphs of explication, he ends up making no sense to me.
Laura W. writes:
I’m sure Andrew McCarthy sincerely believes he is not condoning outrageous barbarity, but he strikes me as hopelessly out of touch. The last thing this country needs is to grant adults more license in their ongoing war against children. Never before in the history of humankind have the basic needs of children for stability and order been so contemptuously abused by adults. Make no mistake about it: this has been a power grab by adults, by one generation over the next. There are Giuliani-like fathers and mothers everywhere and Giuliani wannabes just waiting for encouragement. Does McCarthy truly believe they wouldn’t be heartened by the election of such a man?
Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 20, 2007 11:50 AM | Send
What does McCarthy think of the rising generation? Has he talked to them? Has he probed their thinking? If he does he might find them to possess the sort of crippling cynicism and emptiness that results from a childhood in which adults refuse to honor their basic duties to the next generation. Oh, but let’s not worry about that. After all, this is just a private issue. Why should we care one whit that the next generation or the one after that is incapable of confidence and leadership. Heck, they’ll muddle through somehow.
Private matter indeed! It is one of the great public issues of our time. We are all implicated in it. When the public looks away and says, “Oh well, that’s none of our business,” it is making its cruel indifference known. Thus do we send our paltry selves and our indifference into the far distant future.