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The sex scandal we've been waiting for.

All last week, moralizing pundits urged New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to drop out of the New York Senate race because his personal life had become extraordinarily embarrassing. I don't know whether he will take their advice; at press time, he said he was inclined to run. For the sake of the nation, he should. Giuliani has given us the first pristine example of adultery in the post-Gary Hart era, uncluttered by the usual ginned-up secondary charges of perjury, abuse of power, and hypocrisy. By continuing with his campaign, Giuliani would allow the public to do something it couldn't do in the case of Hart (who dropped out of the presidential race), Bob Livingston (who resigned) , Newt Gingrich (who retired), or even Bill Clinton (who can't run for a third term): judge the political significance of adultery in the democratic arena.

The most sophisticated conservative call for Giuliani to throw in the towel comes from William Safire of The New York Times. Giuliani's misbehavior is nothing like Clinton's, Safire insists, because "political anger at Clinton was directed at his serial obstructions, harassments and lies, which amounted to wrongdoing on a grand scale--and not at his fidelity shortfalls." But Giuliani should drop out anyway, Safire concludes, to make room for a more politically viable candidate.

This argument is unconvincing on both counts. In an age that criminalizes sex and politics, it would have been easy for a politically motivated coworker or prosecutor to start investigating Giuliani's relationship with his former communications director, Cristyne Lategano, on the grounds that the mayor committed illegal sexual favoritism when he promoted her to the post of president of New York's tourism bureau. In the end, the case would have been dismissed: courts have generally held that, although a pattern of sexual favoritism may add up to sex discrimination for disfavored workers, it's not illegal to promote an isolated paramour. But, while investigating Giuliani's relationship with Lategano, the prosecutor might well have tricked the mayor into denying the relationship under oath, since he had already denied it at a press conference. (Giuliani continues to deny his wife's allegation that his relationship with Lategano was sexual; a meticulous prosecutor might settle the matter by DNA-testing the linens at Gracie Mansion.) The fact that Giuliani, unlike Clinton, had the good luck not to be set upon by a prosecutor and hauled before a perjury-trapped grand jury doesn't excuse his conduct; it merely provides the public with an opportunity to judge it on its own terms.

Safire and others would short-circuit this valuable process of social judgment, calling on the mayor to step down because he has become, as Times columnist Bob Herbert puts it, "a toxic presence ... a target for ridicule by comedians across the country." This attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophecy about Giuliani's political vulnerability is not only hasty; it is undemocratic. As in the case of Clinton, public moralizers are outraged that the public seems less outraged than they are. As soon as Kenneth Starr revealed that he was investigating Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, pundits predicted Clinton would resign immediately because he had become a subject of ridicule. But, as it turned out, initial ridicule and anger quickly gave way to more nuanced sentiments as the unscrupulousness of Clinton's prosecutors and the sanctimony and hypocrisy of his opponents were weighed against Clinton's own sins. The public ridicule to which commentators referred turned out to be mostly their own.

In Giuliani's case, public opinion may already be undergoing a similar shift. On May 12, two days after Giuliani's press conference, the Times reported that only two of the eleven undecided voters it had been tracking thought that Giuliani remained an "attractive and viable candidate" now that he had humiliated his wife. By contrast, two days later, on May 14, the Times reported that some voters were coming around to the mayor's side because his display of vulnerability had humanized him. "Now he has problems that all of us can relate to," gushed a graphic designer struck by Giuliani's emotionalism. The latest Zogby poll doesn't show a dramatic slide toward Giuliani; it shows a dead heat. Over the course of a long campaign, as more details about Giuliani's marriage emerge, public opinion may shift further still, perhaps eventually crystallizing into a social consensus whose contours, at the moment, are impossible to predict.

In contrast to its columnists, the Times' news pages have done exactly the right thing. The paper respected Giuliani's privacy when he respected it himself, neither denying nor flaunting his relationship with Judith Nathan. Once Giuliani began to act out his marital difficulties in public by announcing the end of his marriage at a press conference before informing his wife, he made his reckless personal behavior a matter of public record. But the Times has reported Giuliani's behavior responsibly, laying his actions and his deliberations before the public without allowing them to overwhelm all other aspects of the paper's coverage of the Senate campaign. The danger is that the tabloids, local TV networks, and Times columnists, by shouting down Giuliani's attempts to speak about anything other than his marriage, will create a fait accompli, preventing the public from making up its own mind.

The process of democratic judgment takes time--far more time than the weeklong news cycles during which our public dramas are expected to be presented and neatly resolved. In a hierarchical society such as sixteenth- century Spain, the partidas defined dishonor or "infamy" with legalistic precision. A woman taken in adultery, or a woman who cohabited with a man less than a year after the death of her husband, was considered shameful, rather than honorable, and suffered the social equivalent of death. By contrast, in a pluralistic democracy, people have a remarkably diverse and complicated range of beliefs and intuitions about the social significance of adultery, in all of its manifestations.

Given this diversity of views, it's all the more important, once sexual indiscretions are exposed, that as many citizens as possible have a chance to form a considered judgment, which can only emerge slowly as the full range of a public official's complicated and often contradictory character is weighed in the balance. Privacy protects most citizens from the indignity of being judged out of context in a world of short attention spans or judged on the basis of isolated bits of information rather than genuine knowledge. By contrast, transparency, despite its brutalizing effects on the individuals concerned, allows the small group of public officials who have unlimited access to the nation's attention to be evaluated whole, in all of their various dimensions.

By arguing that Giuliani should remain in the race and allow the considered judgment of the public to crystallize, I don't mean to suggest that adultery, once it is exposed, is a purely private matter that has no political or social significance. Like President Clinton, Giuliani shouldn't be allowed to take refuge behind the spurious argument that his conduct wasn't shameful merely because it wasn't illegal. (As it happens, adultery is illegal, at least in the District of Columbia, but that's a law that not even the most enthusiastic proponents of "zero tolerance" are willing to enforce.) But the public significance of Giuliani's adultery isn't yet clear. In fact, more than a decade after Gary Hart, we know a great deal about how the sanctimonious press reacts to infidelity and remarkably little about how the public does, once given the chance to weigh it at the ballot box. Now we may finally get to find out. By staying in the race and submitting himself to public judgment, Giuliani would allow the people to decide just what sort of man he is. Isn't that what democracy is for?