Southern Discomfort

This column was written by Michael Tomasky

If I were doing the television ads for one of the Republican presidential candidates running against Rudy Giuliani, I know the ad I'd prepare for 'round about the time of the South Carolina primary.

I'd open with images of September 11 — the huge clouds of dark smoke, the mangled steel, the army of people fleeing across the Brooklyn Bridge, the head shots of the fatigued fire fighters and cops. Against appropriately somber, Russian-style music, my voice-over starts:

Rudy Giuliani was a hero, all right, on the day of September 11. He directed his city's response. He comforted grieving families. He himself was almost killed by falling debris.

Then I'd cut to a visual of the inside of an elevator. The camera gives the viewer the vantage point of a person standing in the elevator and is trained on the floor buttons above the doors as they light up as the elevator ascends — 21, 22, 23, 24 ... The Russian music has faded, and now we hear just the bells going off in coordination with the lights. The elevator doors open; the camera takes the viewer down a hallway of what is clearly an apartment building. My voice-over continues:

But when the exhausted hero finally went home that night [now, the door to an apartment opens], he returned not to the mayor's residence to be at his wife's side, but to the bedroom where he'd been sleeping, in the apartment of his good friends, a couple he knew. One was named Howard. The other was named ... Mark!

The new visual is a photo of the happy couple, preferably in some sort of lighthearted summer embrace at some Fire Island soiree or another. New background music rises; a schmaltzy instrumental version of "Where the Boys Are." The voice-over continues:

That's right. After his wife threw him out for cheating on her, Giuliani moved in with a gay couple. They were great friends. One of the men even told the press that every morning before he left for work, Giuliani gave the men a peck on the cheek. "We always get a little kiss. It's cute," one of the men said.

"Where the Boys Are" stops cold; dead silence; a still photograph now of "Rudia," Hizzoner's drag-queen alter-ego. The camera tightens on that face, that heavily pancaked, harlot-dowager's face. The voice-over asks: "Is this really your idea of a hero? We didn't think so."

I think that would be rather effective, don't you? Yes, there would be complaints from some pundits about it being over-the-top. But the complaints, of course, would have a fraction of the impact of the ad itself; and no ad, not even this one, could possibly be more over-the-top than Giuliani himself.

Certain customs of New York City politics just don't translate nationally, especially to Southern Christian conservatives, whose verdict on GOP presidential candidates tends to be decisive. The instantly famous pilfered dossier that speaks of "insurmountable" problems faced by the former mayor warns of $100 million being spent by opponents on ads like mine above.

And there is not only the question of his marriages and his liberal positions on social issues. There is something else that's often overlooked in these deliberations, his personal style: It's far too razor-sharp for southerners. One of his greatly admirable traits — his penchant for saying what he actually thinks — could destroy him in a region of the country where by habit and training people rarely do that. The culture clash between Rudy Giuliani and the South seems insurmountable indeed.

Long ago, A.J. Liebling wrote a wonderful book on Earl Long called "The Earl of Louisiana." The first sentences of the book are pricelessly memorable: "Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch. By the time they reach New York, they are like Golden Bantam that has been trucked up from Texas — stale and unprofitable. The consumer forgets that corn tastes different where it grows."

Liebling wrote those graceful sentences around 1959, and who would have argued, then, with their truth? Two Texans, Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, may have risen to head both branches of Congress; but their success was owed to the peculiar power structure of that institution, not the preferences of the American people. Americans did not want southerners running things then. (Yes, Eisenhower was born in Texas, but he's really Pennsylvania Dutch — he retired to Gettysburg — and, as the great Allied commander, transcended such regionalisms anyway.)

Now, of course, the opposite is the case. Today, New York political personalities, like H & H Bagels, travel badly. They lose texture with every mile from the Upper West Side. By the time they reach South Carolina, they're like zeppole that have been trucked down from Mulberry Street — alien and unpalatable. The Carolinian forgets that zeppole taste different where they're baked. But that doesn't do the zeppole much good.
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved