Could the United States actually elect as president a Yankee fan who has been rooting for the Red Sox? A father whose own children would boycott his inauguration? A husband whose first wife was his cousin and whose current wife can't remember how many times she married? Could the United States, for that matter, elect a cross-dresser? The Rudy Giuliani surge would be comic if its broader implications were not so grave.
Could the United States elect as president someone whose neoconservative advisers have been wrong on a decade's worth of foreign policy questions? Last week's group portrait in The New York Times of Giuliani's national security inner circle makes Rumsfeld and Cheney look like the wise men.
Gay-tolerant and prochoice, Giuliani contradicts, and even demeans, the "values" that have defined conservative America for a generation. That the former mayor of New York is so successfully overcoming what should have been candidacy-killing negatives among Republicans is an epiphany of our national condition. Why is such a figure emerging as the odds-on favorite to carry the right wing banner into the general election?
The answer is obvious. A run-of-the-mill political hack was transformed into the nation's only hero on Sept. 11, 2001. While President Bush cowered in Curtis LeMay's SAC bunker in Omaha, Giuliani was striding toward Armageddon.
For the crucial hours during and after the trauma, Giuliani provided an image of resolve and courage in which every American could glimpse a strength of character that the nation sorely needed, and for which, therefore, we were profoundly grateful. As the world's heart opened to the United States that day, Giuliani's unfeigned decency shone as a kind of beacon. Encouragement to rescuers, authority to panicked crowds, calm to television viewers, a man in charge - he was there with what was needed.
What followed was not so glorious: the outlandish hubris of his assumption that the transition to his elected successor should be postponed; the commercial exploitation of his accidental status; the partisan belligerence of the lesson he drew from the experience. Giuliani came out of the crisis as a man with a clenched fist - permanently outraged, and looking for a fight. Alas, in that, too, he embodied an essential American esprit.
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He's like a gang leader now, roving the streets, looking for some punk to bash. Iran will do. Thus, his political appeal has two components, one positive - the nobility of his instinctive performance under fire - and one negative - the bitterness of his will not so much to defend America as to avenge it. Giuliani's gritty, urban toughness seems perfectly matched to the national mood, but that's because it also carries an unmistakable, if unarticulated, edge of self-pity.
Where the world once looked toward all that Giuliani embodied with admiring compassion, today it flinches. When, for example, the newly named Nobel laureate in literature, Britain's Doris Lessing, said that the Sept. 11 attacks were "not that terrible," not as "extraordinary" as Americans seemed to feel, she was speaking for a vast population of humans for whom the shock of violence is part of life.
It is not that this country made too much of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks when they occurred, but that the nation has since constructed an unprecedented existential outlook around them. The United States has never regarded the broader world with more anxiety than it does now, and Giuliani is the tribune of warning. They are out there! They are coming at us! I will protect you.
A variety of unrelated or loosely related problems have been clenched into the one fist that is raised above this country now. Important distinctions have been lost, the way fingers disappear when the hand becomes a weapon.
Criminal terrorism, the threat of failing states, Islamic extremism, nuclear proliferation, the energy crunch - such challenges can be individually handled with practical strategies, but when they are clustered into an undifferentiated mass of global dangers, visceral dread trumps reason. Every aluminum pipe proves the existence of a nuclear weapons program. Immigrants threaten from every direction. Phone calls and e-mails must be monitored by an omnivorous and omniscient government.
What happened to an America confidently assured of its place in the world? There are no dangers that justify the massive insecurity that marks current US foreign policy, even if - punklike - that insecurity manifests itself as bullying. The biggest bully on the block turns out to be Giuliani. That would be a sad reason to make him president.