Richard Reeves

Follies and Fame in Politics

NEW YORK -- There are a lot of things in the papers these days that I don't need to know anything more about, beginning with the president's daughter flashing a false ID at a bar in Austin.

Right up there in the gimme-a-break category is the relationship between the president of Mexico and his live-in press secretary, which took up more than two columns in Friday's New York Times under the headline: "The President's Sweetheart Is Also His Spokeswoman." Until then, knowing I should know more about his views on oil production, the only thing I really knew about Vicente Fox was that he was tall.

Then there were the Clintons, not only Bill and Hillary but brother Roger and the overweight Rodhams. Now there are the Giulianis, Mayor Rudy and his legal wife, Donna Hanover. New Yorkers have become a captive audience for the bitter and long-running divorce of the two of them -- and of the perils of the mayor's new friend, Judith something-or-other. Among the things we now know are the sexual side effects of the mayor's prostate cancer medication and that Hanover is no longer getting free tickets to New York Yankees games, which she seems to feel is her legal right as the legal Mrs. Giuliani.

The Yankee tickets are the latest perk of contention in the domestic dispute from hell. Hanover's lawyers filed suit in State Supreme Court last week demanding Giuliani pay her more than $250,000 for various expenses she incurred as first lady of the Big Apple. Having to pay for Yankee tickets on Mother's Day was part of the complaint, along with $2,000 in hotel bills for her father, a Navy veteran who came to the city during Fleet Week, when ships parade around New York Harbor. Before divorce papers were filed, she said, her dad stayed at Gracie Mansion, the lovely old farmhouse on the East River, which serves as our White House.

We know, by the way, that the aggrieved Donna sleeps alone in the master bedroom of the little mansion and His Honor has been relegated to a guest room. The other woman used to stop by, but Hanover got a court order to stop that, saying that such visits were corrupting the mayoral children, who are 15 and 11.

Who cares about all this? Newspaper editors and the photographers and television cameramen who wait in ambush to get shots of the players in this marital triangle certainly care -- presuming that the public is hanging on every motion filed. Lawyers care, too. Giuliani's counsel, Raul Felder, has been getting more time on television than his client, His Honor.

How did it come to this? One man's opinion is that this all should be blamed on the Kennedys and the Clintons. In his runs for Congress and the presidency, John F. Kennedy highlighted and exploited his attractive family, first his sisters and then his wife and children, in a way rarely seen east of Hollywood or west of Buckingham Palace. JFK had learned that trade at the feet of a master, his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had owned and run a film studio -- and realized that politicians and their legal near and dear could be sold in the same way movie stars were.

All Kennedys became famous, not just the one who needed fame to become president. And all Kennedys became targets -- and not just of photographers. Fame, and its illegitimate little brother, celebrity, has been an affront to the gods since the ancient Greeks coined the word "hubris." Many, many politicians adopted the Kennedy style of winning public office, and the public, too, by using the wife and kids (rarely husband and kids) to get the power they wanted so badly, and then tried, with predictable failure, to ask press and public to give them back their privacy.

Thirty years later, Bill and Hillary Clinton practically created a new constitutional office: first lady. The job provided all the perks of power without responsibility or accountability. That was the title and position Donna Hanover coveted and attempted to imitate on a local level, becoming New York's first lady. Her role quickly deteriorated into both tragedy and parody -- for her, her children, and now for the overburdened readers of New York City.

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