November 15, 2007

Giuliani's existential crisis

He is a sick man—an angry man. He is a brutish man. He is an elusive and ambiguous man. He is an endlessly contradictory man. He is the ultimate politico. He is Rudy Giuliani. But who the hell is that?

Perhaps cribbing from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground is a bit out of hand for American politics, but given the current crop of presidential contenders, how could one resist? The crusty New Yorker in particular seems most suited for an existential novel. With each new foray atop the public stage, how he thinks, how he speaks, and how he acts seem to evolve—or devolve—into pure performance. There is a void where his individual human stamp should be and it’s unlikely to be found in this world or in our lifetime.

I can already hear the opposition’s criticisms in my ears: Surely you must realize that all candidates put on a performance for each audience. Bending positions to the tastes of whomever they happen to be courting is as integral to the political game as kissing babies. If nominated or elected, Guliani would no doubt revert back to his more moderate first principles. Why fault him for trying to win?

Of course a presidential election is as much a popularity contest as anything in celebrity culture, and playing to the audience is essential to getting more than a passing caption in a notable news source. Describing an election in such terms is in no way profound or intellectually daring. What is surprising is the assumption that Giuliani will stop his crowd-pleasing as soon as victory is assured—as if he could wipe off his clown makeup and get down to business. Well, when does his performance stop? When he comes back home to nestle with a snifter of brandy? When he lies his head down to sleep? Indeed, it seems highly unlikely, not only that Giuliani will stop bending to opinion polls, but that there is some core to his being that is not subject to popular opinion.

But don’t you remember his mayorship in New York? Giuliani was a liberal Republican—pro-choice and a supporter of gun-control policies. Does that count for nothing? Sure he’s acting like the rugged, religious Republican now, but why would he ultimately cast off the tried-and-true policies that made his name?

Giuliani was indeed a politico of a different stripe in his New York days, but if he can shed those principles posthaste, upon what grounds can we say that the Giuliani of New York was the genuine one? Save for the general contempt he shows his foes and enemies, there are no visible threads of consistency in his thought patterns. The political dialogue is quite fond of employing the term “flip-flopper” to illustrate the fickleness of candidates. It should be interesting to see what snappy label gets attached to unending intellectual, emotional, and political shape-shifting.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, agree that Rudy Giuliani stands as nothing more than a regurgitation of mass public opinion. Does this not represent democracy at its purest? Aren’t candidates supposed to represent the will of the people? Isn’t it a bit elitist, if not authoritarian, to demand a leader who is indifferent, if not hostile, to the mass public? Do you really want another George W. Bush?

Admittedly President Bush demonstrates indifference and stubbornness to the will of the public, but that should hardly translate into a condemnation of resisting the passing fancies of mass opinion. It is precisely the willingness to preserve one’s uniqueness in the face of the anonymous societal mass that makes an individual worth his or her salt.

Giuliani’s campaign of shifting performances illustrates the very lack of character, thought or action that is distinguishable from a mass collective representing everyone and no one. It is an existential nightmare in the highest degree. While one can never be completely immune from desire to simply “go with the flow,” the nation’s chief executive must be free from this impulse. Simply put, if Rudy Giuliani is successfully elected to the presidency, then the idea that individual uniqueness has value would truly be a dead notion in this country.

Steven Michalkow is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science and philosophy.