Friday, November 30, 2007

Rudy twists on the trysts

Rudy Giuliani has been busted, and it doesn't appear he'll be able to spin his way out of this one any time soon.

The news reports about how he expensed some of his extramarital trysts to the taxpayer and hid the evidence in obscure city agency budgets...granted, that's seamy stuff, and perhaps his frequent falsehoods about his mayoral record should command far more public attention; indeed, his security firm's ties to a suspected al Qaeda sympathizer are arguably more substantive. Nevertheless, the Judith Nathan tryst story is politically important, because it serves as shorthand for the character questions that have long been raised about Rudy, particularly by skeptical Republican primary voters.

Many of those voters apparently have been prepared to say, OK, the guy has led a checkered private life, but that's his business. On the other hand, if the guy has been spending the taxpayer's money and squirreling it away in obscure public agencies in order to lead that checkered private life...well, that makes it the public's business.

Which brings us to the issue of veracity. By my count, the Rudy camp has now employed six different defenses - five of them in the past 36 hours. Let us review:

1. The stonewall defense. This was the original strategy, back in 2002, when city auditors first raised questions about why the security costs for Rudy's trips to the Hamptons had shown up on the books of agencies that (a) regulated loft space, (b) advocated for the disabled, and (c) provided legal aid to the indigent. The auditors tried to get answers, but Rudy's office stiffed them with silence.

2. The denial defense. As I wrote here yesterday, Rudy said in the GOP debate on Wednesday night that the story, broken by the Politico website, was simply not true, because, in his view, the expenses had all been handled "appropriately." This defense was dead by the first commercial break.

3. The Bill Clinton defense. Rudy tried this one last night on CBS, complaining that the story was "a typical political hit job," a "dirty trick" hatched by his enemies - which is the kind of thing that Clinton used to say back when he was besieged with damaging stories that turned out to be true.

4. The security threat defense. Rudy argued during the debate that he needed his security detail at all times, because he was constantly under threat even before 9/11, yet can't offer any details because such threats must remain confidential. This attempt at a blanket defense doesn't begin to address the creative accounting issue at the core of the tryst story.

5. The "support the troops" defense. This one surfaced yesterday. A former Rudy aide came forward to say that the security costs for Rudy's trips were spread around to the obscure city agencies because, that way, the police officers assigned to Rudy would get their travel expenses paid a lot faster than if they went through normal police department channels. The aide told the Associated Press that cops don't make a lot of money, so this accounting practice was actually designed to help them out. (If this was really the reason, then how come Rudy's camp stonewalled the auditors, rather than simply explain what they were doing?)

6. The "everybody does it" defense. For awhile yesterday, a former Rudy aide insisted that hiding security expenses in obscure city agencies was a common practice that long predated the Rudy regime. But after he was informed that mayoral predecessors Ed Koch and David Dinkins had done no such thing, the aide caved and said, "I'm going to reverse myself...I'm just going to talk about the Giuliani era. I should only talk about what I know about." (The current Bloomberg administration doesn't engage in the creative accounting practice, either.)

The bottom line is, Rudy is trying to woo primary voters who put great stock in a candidate's moral character, yet this story - and his various responses - could make his task more difficult. He risks looking like a guy with an instinct for unwarranted secrecy, a guy with a credibility problem who employs shifting defenses in order to defend the indefensible.

Which sounds a lot like the guy he seeks to succeed.