A lot is going well for Rudy Giuliani's campaign. His fund raising is strong. He outstrips his GOP rivals in national polls. His speeches on taxes and health care were solid. He picked up some foreign-policy gravitas with a successful trip to London.
But there is a fly in the ointment. Even members of Mr. Giuliani's own staff are appalled at how he handled the incident in which he answered a phone call from his wife, Judith, right in the middle of a nationally televised speech to the National Rifle Association.
What was that about? Columnist Robert Novak cites "supporters from outside the Giuliani staff" who claim that taking phone calls from his wife as been "part of his political bag of tricks all year." But Mr. Giuliani's deputy press secretary Jason Miller told me the NRA incident was definitely not a stunt. Instead it was a "candid and spontaneous moment" that would humanize the tough-guy former mayor with voters.
Nice try. Just in case this isn't obviously ridiculous, Fox News commissioned a poll on the subject. It found that only 9% of Americans think a candidate should ever interrupt a speech to accept a call from his spouse.
The fact is that people inside the Giuliani campaign are appalled at the number of times their candidate has felt compelled to interrupt public appearances to take calls from his wife. The estimate from those in a position to know is that he has taken such calls more than 40 times in the middle of speeches, conferences and presentations to large donors. "If it's a stunt, it's not one coming from him," says one Giuliani staffer. "It's an ongoing problem that he won't take advice on."
And in trying to explain his odd behavior, Mr. Giuliani has only dug himself in deeper. On Friday he told David Brody of CBN News that since 9/11, when he and Mrs. Giuliani get on a plane, "most of the time . . . we talk to each other and just reaffirm the fact that we love each other." He admitted he had taken calls from his wife "before in engagements, and I didn't realize it would create any kind of controversy." That's hardly possible. Giuliani staffers say he has been warned over and over again that the phone calls are rude and inappropriate and have alienated everyone from local officials to top donors to close friends.
Consider a spring incident in Oklahoma City. Mr. Giuliani spoke twice at the Oklahoma History Center, first at a small private roundtable for $2,300 donors and then to 150 people who donated $500 apiece. Ten minutes into the roundtable, Mr. Giuliani's phone rang. He left the room to take the call, apparently from Mrs. Giuliani, and never returned. The snubbed donors received no explanation. "The people there viewed it as disrespectful and cheesy," says Pat McGuigan, a local newspaper editor who was asked by the Giuliani campaign to moderate the roundtable.
An hour or so later, Mr. Giuliani was speaking to the bigger group of donors when his phone rang again. While he spoke with his wife, he invited her to say hello to the assembled crowd. "It was remarkable, and was not viewed by the audience in a positive way," public relations executive Brenda Jones told me.
I've been told of many other incidents, from a California fund-raiser to a Florida speech to a gathering with top donors at Bear Stearns in New York. At the Bear Stearns meeting, Mr. Giuliani took a call from his wife and then noting the strained faces of his supporters, he sheepishly tried a joke. "I've been married three times," he explained. "I can't afford to lose another one. I'm sure you understand." (Mr. Giuliani's media office didn't return a call I made to them on Friday afternoon.)
Mr. Giuliani understands that such behavior is rude when other people do it. A year ago Hanna Rosin reported in The Atlantic Monthly on a speech Mr. Giuliani gave at a motivational seminar in Iowa before he became a candidate:
Giuliani was up to principle No. 2 ("Follow your hopes and dreams") when he was interrupted. From down in the audience, just beyond the stage, he heard a cell phone ring. He stopped in the middle of telling a story. "It's okay, you can answer your cell phone," he said. "You won't interrupt me." The woman whose phone had rung was mortified; he had just embarrassed her in front of 18,000 people. In the "town hall" meetings he used to conduct as mayor of New York, through a radio show, Giuliani was not known for his good-natured populism. He was known for making fun of constituents who called him with what he thought were petty problems. This is the dark Giuliani, and here he was, making an unwelcome appearance.
He shifted to a long digression about the scene in "Dr. Strangelove" where General Buck Turgidson answers a call in the middle of a crisis and whispers sweet nothings to his girl on the phone, as the nation's political and military leadership looks on impatiently. "Just tell him you love him so I can go on with my speech," Giuliani said. No one was laughing. Giuliani actually waited for the woman to hang up. Then, after a painful minute or so, he was back in candidate mode, talking about Vince Lombardi and the mind of a champion.
Mr. Giuliani is not the only presidential candidate whose spouse has become an issue. Elizabeth Edwards battled Ann Coulter on national television, Michelle Obama made embarrassing comments about her husband's personal habits, and Jeri Thompson alienated now-former campaign staffers with her early micromanaging of the campaign. And then there's Bill Clinton.
But Giuliani staffers say Judith Giuliani is in a league of her own. Many of the complaints are inside baseball: Staffers have been fired, advisers shut out of meetings, schedules changed based on her whim. But it was her idea for Mr. Giuliani to suggest on national TV that he might let her attend cabinet meetings. Her high-handed behavior prompted a series of negative profiles this summer, including a vicious one in Vanity Fair, which were said to have prompted her to retreat from day-to-day involvement in the campaign.
But not for long. The staff remains "terrified" of her, according to a former staffer. "Mollifying Judith is at the top of the to-do list for far too many people on the campaign," one person close to Mr. Giuliani told me. Another says: "The biggest concern is that if not corrected it will stir up questions about his judgment closer to when people vote either before the early primaries or before the general election. It's a ticking time bomb."
Mr. Giuliani has so far managed to keep this question largely at bay by asking voters to respect his privacy. In August he faced down a woman in New Hampshire who questioned how he could expect loyalty from voters when he isn't getting it from his own children. His crisp answer: "I love my family very, very much and will do anything for them. There are complexities in every family in America. The best thing I can say is kind of, 'leave my family alone,' just like I'll leave your family alone." The audience applauded.
But if Mr. Giuliani wants voters to respect his privacy, he ought to show some respect for basic manners. When he arrives for a public appearance, he should check his cell phone at the door.