Peru's President Alberto Fujimori and New York's Mayor Rudy Giuliani both employ ruthless means to achieve good ends (in Fujimori's case, the subduing of terrorism and inflation; in Giuliani's, the repression of crime). But in both of them, ruthlessness has been playing footsy for a long time with totalitarian temptation. In Peru this week, the gathering of presidential election returns (long delays in getting ballots from the polling places to the counting house, for example) has created a widespread suspicion that Fujimori has put in the executive fix against his opponent, Alejandro Toledo.
Giuliani, by contrast, is not a crook. He is something else, a bully mostly with the approval of his following, who believe (with some cause) that only a bully can clean up New York City.
The bully rationale has its persuasions. As a New Yorker, I subscribe to it myself, up to a point. But lately Giuliani has proved himself to be that dangerous thing an irrational bully. Beware when bullying ceases to be tough managerial technique and becomes, instead, compulsion. For a bully's compulsion shades toward sadism, or grandiosity, and in such unwholesome moods, politicians are inclined either to become monsters or to assassinate themselves by accident.
Giuliani has always won by playing the long game ignoring captious howls of the moment from civil libertarians and the editorial board of the New York Times until, in the fullness of time, he found himself vindicated by, say, lower crime rates. He has won in part by ignoring protests from New York's blacks (although last year he ruthlessly put a stop to the practice of cab drivers' refusing to pick up blacks; he simply confiscated a couple of cabs, and it seems to have worked). But Giuliani's performance lately in the matters of innocent black men abused (or shot to death) by his aggressive police his refusal to say the human thing, to treat the families of these innocent men, or black people in general, with respect and dignity has caused a surge in the public opinion polls for his opponent in the New York Senate race, Hillary Clinton. Even those inclined to support Giuliani find themselves wondering if there is something wrong with him. The word "fascist" has regularly been used at dinner parties on the Upper West Side to describe Giuliani, but now you hear it in less liberal parts of town as well.
Maybe this is the electoral year for choosing the lesser of two evils. Let's not say evils, but rather, the lesser of disappointing, defective possibilities. Hillary... Rudy: an unappetizing choice. If there is something wrong with Giuliani, there's a world wrong with Hillary Clinton, a compulsive of a different stripe. Al Gore... George W. Bush: That's an unappetizing choice, too. But maybe we have no right to be perfectionists in our politics. Is it true that we get the candidates that we deserve?
In the case of the New York race, we can console ourselves with the splendid casting of it, and the sheer entertainment ahead. This is a classic matchup of personalities: cobra and mongoose, Coke and Pepsi. What connoisseur of politics can resist a race pitting 1) the carpetbagging saint of the White House, the politically tin-eared passive-aggressive opportunist/careerist with her surpassing self-absorption and a readiness to distort the truth that almost rivals her husband's, against 2) the snarling law-and-order bullycop who loves to pick fights (and, weirdly enough, to dress up now and then in women's clothes for satirical revues). I am not sure I can bring myself to vote for either of them. But I think I am going to enjoy the campaign immensely.