Brief Lives September 2006

The Reverend

Rudolph Giuliani learns to speak “evangelese”—and tests the waters for a presidential bid

Fireworks shoot up from the stage. A trapdoor in the ceiling opens, and red, white, and blue confetti showers the stadium. “He will always be known as a great American hero,” says the announcer, and the crowd of 18,000 begins to chant—“Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!—as he sprints onto the platform.

If this were the 2008 Republican National Convention, Rudolph Giuliani would be in heaven. Sadly, it’s not even close. This is the “Get Motivated” business seminar in downtown Des Moines, featuring a motley assortment of speakers doing extended infomercials on the secrets of success. There’s Steve Forbes on the stock market, George Foreman on his boxing (and grilling) career, and Rudy on “Leadership,” the title of his recent book.

He arrived in Iowa the night before to speak at a couple of fund-raisers and feel out the local hierarchy, to see “whether it makes sense to run for president in 2008.” (Iowa holds the first presidential caucus, and the hopefuls line up there years in advance.) There are ample reasons why it may not make sense. Giuliani, after all, is not a man who naturally channels heartland values. He loses his temper publicly, calling people “jerks” and worse; he’s lived most of his life in New York; he’s twice divorced. And that’s before we get into the actual issues (he’s pro-choice and pro–gay rights, which alienates him from Iowa’s many social conservatives).

The national reporters on early campaign duty took the time to follow Giuliani around the state, though they seemed dubious about his prospects: Don’t you think you’re out of step with the GOP mainstream? Is being a New Yorker a handicap? Is the party’s tent big enough to include you? I saw none of them at the “Get Motivated” seminar, a nonpolitical event sandwiched between political fund-raisers. If they had peeked in, they would probably have been slightly embarrassed by the perky up-speak coming through the boom mic: “Good morning! Welcome to the ‘Get Motivated’ seminar! It’s going to be an outstanding day that will change the rest of your life!” But if they had gotten past the kitsch and hyperbole, they might have seen how Giuliani can possibly fix his glaring flaws as a candidate—and witnessed perhaps his best hope for connecting to a conservative base with which he has little in common.

It’s not the first time Giuliani has been the keynote speaker for a “Get Motivated” audience: he’s been doing this, in different cities, nearly every three weeks for about the last three years. Standing there on the stage in Des Moines, surrounded by patriotic symbols and enough screaming midwesterners to fill a small town, the former mayor of New York seems like a guy who just might be presidential material.

Americans expect their president to talk like them, especially when it comes to matters of faith. This has little to do with actually going to church; it’s about the delicate art of mastering what speechwriters sometimes call “evangelese.” About 13 percent of the population constitutes what we think of as the hard-core Christian religious right; beyond them are a vaster number of what could be called “values voters.” Values voters are generally Republican and less rigid on the usual cultural issues—they might accept gay civil unions, for instance, or abortion under certain circumstances. They don’t shout their demands from the steps of the Supreme Court, nor do they much want them shouted. When they evaluate political leaders, they’re often looking for different, more subtle cues. They might want to know that a candidate’s faith was deepened by a personal experience, that his or her life can be summed up as a story of struggle, redemption, and growth. Or they might just tap into a candidate’s general sense of optimism and contentment—a belief, rooted in Genesis and coloring all of life, that things happen for a reason. “Creationism Lite,” you might call it—an affirmational creed that carries its own emotional and intellectual style of thinking and speaking.

Candidates woo values voters with varying degrees of success. George W. Bush reached them by telling the story of his recovery from a dissolute youth—how he was a fallen man, drinking and wasting his time, until Billy Graham set him straight. Hillary Clinton has so far expressed herself crudely, saying, for instance, that an immigration bill would criminalize “Jesus himself.”

Giuliani’s steadiness after 9/11 endeared him to most Americans, and at that time he called upon his faith—he’s a lifelong Catholic—at the appropriate moments: when he walked among the ruins of the Twin Towers, for instance, he famously said to each worker, “God bless you.” But in calmer times he has had a way of undercutting himself. He opens his book by thanking God for directing him to begin thinking and writing about leadership just before 9/11, when he would need it most. But in the next few paragraphs he gives the advice “Don’t assume a damn thing,” and then offhandedly mentions his marriage falling apart. At one point he tells a story about how, as a lawyer in 1992, he saw smoke coming from a historic church and rushed in to save a priest. He then saw some thieves taking a candelabrum off the altar and yelled, “Put that fucking stuff down!” This is Rudy on Rudy, so we commend him—even admire him—for his honesty. And if all America were made up of reporters and New Yorkers, such foul-mouthed candor—“anti-evangelese,” one might call it—would serve him well. But alas, much of the rest of the country is not so fond of jaded, thuggish, neurotic New Yorkers, particularly not as presidential candidates.

Presented by

Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic contributing editor, is working on a book about young evangelicals.

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