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Enfant Terrible : New Yorkers can’t decide if the mayor’s son is a cute sidekick or a spoiled imp. But their real worry: Is Giuliani a softy?

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

What a face. What a city.

New Yorkers have been chuckling and clucking over the last three weeks since the new mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, was upstaged during his inaugural address by his 7-year-old son, Andrew.

During the swearing-in of the 107th mayor, the boy--a chubster with a blond mop, Chiclets teeth and a winning grin--joined his dad--a stern-faced former prosecutor--at the lectern as he delivered the most important speech of his career.

While the mayor opined for 17 minutes about pressing public problems, young Andrew was busy mugging, waving and blowing kisses. He yanked his dad’s sleeve, gestured to his little buddies in the audience and, in the middle of the outdoor speech, toppled a pitcher, spilling cold water down his dad’s leg.

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When the father bemoaned the city’s “structural deficit,” the son gave a lion-sized yawn; when Dad declared that New York would again be the “capital of the world,” the boy belted out the next line with him: “It should be so and it will be.”

“Mayor Dinkins, I salute your accomplishments,” said Papa Bear to his predecessor.

“Me, too!” added Baby Bear.

No kidding.

With his Alfred E. Neuman smile (What me worry?) and pudgy fingers, young Andrew brought the clown center stage--a proverbial fresh breeze at a hot-air event where most adults are usually too guarded to let their clowns loose.

In fact, young Andrew is precisely the kind of kid New Yorkers either love or savage. He has a perfect face for urban Angst .

And by 6 the next morning, talk radio was at him.

“Get the fat kid off the stage!” screamed host Don Imus, New York’s equivalent to a cup of black coffee with a raw egg. In his view, the kid was obnoxious, a distraction from the event.

“No normal kid could get by with that,” Imus said during a recent interview.

After hearing the on-air harping, father Giuliani called in to get him to lay off. Imus immediately put the mayor on the radio.

“I liked him,” Imus said, “but I told him very rapidly we could get very sick of this kid in New York.”

Plus, he added: “We don’t lay off anybody.”

In the days that followed, there was a lot of Andrew-joking on shows like Letterman, as well as arm-chair psychoanalysis about Rudy and Donna Hanover Giuliani’s parenting skills.

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And of course there was the usual dose of irony. Oh, so this is how Mr. Law and Order is finally playing in a liberal city--he can’t even control his own kid. Ha ha ha.

Perhaps during the inauguration the mother should have affectionately restrained the boy or ushered him back to his seat, suggested one television analyst. Or maybe beforehand Andrew should have been prepared with an explanation of the seriousness of the event, a pediatrician was quoted as saying.

Anny C. Dietz, a dean of discipline at a junior high school in Queens, wrote a letter to the editor of New York Newsday saying she found Andrew’s behavior “abusive to the spectator” who wanted to hear the new mayor’s speech.

“I personally voted for the mayor,” Dietz said, “but now I have misgivings about his ability to fight abusive behavior in a city of millions when he cannot do that in his own family of four.”

Nevertheless, most of the criticism was aimed at Andrew’s mother, a television reporter for most of her career. No one expected the father to tussle with the boy during the speech, but perhaps the mother could have.

The Giulianis, who also have a 4-year-old named Caroline, defended Andrew’s antics, explaining that during many campaign appearances with his father over the last four years, Andrew had often stood by his dad at the podium. And more relevantly, the night before the inaugural address Andrew had practiced the speech with his dad.

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“This was the normal course of events,” said his mother during an interview last week. She recalled how on election night, Andrew was up until 3 a.m. to hear his father give their victory speech.

“We have let Andrew understand that even if Daddy is making a speech, if Andrew wants to be with his dad, he can be there,” she said. “That’s important to his self-esteem.”

When asked if perhaps her son is hyperactive--a question raised by observers of his rambunctiousness--she was offended by the personal nature of the query and briefly stopped the interview.

“I don’t think you should ask that kind of question and I don’t think we should answer that kind of question,” she snapped.

She also said she had turned down all requests for interviews with Andrew. “That’s out of the question,” she said. “He’s a child and shouldn’t be put on the spot like that.”

*

The media machine and coffee-shop chatter has been revved up, analyzing and over-analyzing as New York is once again exposed to the criticism of not knowing whether it has a Nerf ball or a nuclear bomb in hand.

(To further explain New York’s relationship with the media, the Village Voice devoted its entire Media column--last week titled “Honey I Blew Up the Kid”--to the Andrew thing.)

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Even “Saturday Night Live” got into the act with an Andrew skit that was not nearly as cruel as it was to Chelsea Clinton when her dad got his new job.

Of course, many New Yorkers were quietly thrilled by this deviation from the dull inaugural script.

It’s rare that something human is injected into the barbaric process that allows politicians to ceaselessly bore people with platitudes. And after all, this was the third ceremonial oath-taking since Giuliani won election Nov. 2. Who could blame the kid for getting into the act? By Jan 2., it was a bit old.

In the great tradition of using political kids as an means to an ends, Giuliani milked Andrew’s headlines. The boy had managed in one morning to humanize a cold robotic image that had plagued Giuliani during four years of campaigning that started when he lost to David Dinkins in 1989.

Although aides had quietly carped to reporters about giving the kid so much coverage, the new mayor didn’t miss an opportunity to go on every talk show, with a denouement appearance on David Letterman’s “Late Night” last week.

Clearly, Letterman didn’t want Giuliani there to talk about privatization of city services.

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As he strode through a side entrance to the Ed Sullivan Theater, and even before reporters could ask set-up questions, the mayor was popping off one-liners.

“I talked to Andrew before I came here and he gave me a lot of good material,” the mayor said, uncharacteristically grinning. This from a man who, as one political reporter described, “views arrogance as virtue, the tough decisions as sacrament.”

Letterman opened the show by explaining that the mayor was a fill-in guest.

“We wanted to have his son Andrew, but tonight Andrew is with Koppel on ‘Nightline,’ ” deadpanned Letterman.

If the Giulianis deflected criticism that their son was a distraction from the inauguration, Andrew did turn out to be the ultimate distraction.

Rather than focusing on a possible 10,000 layoffs, some New Yorkers were guffawing over Andrew’s antics and his dad’s conclusion that they were a “really sweet thing.”

The 49-year-old mayor’s best friend from childhood, Msgr. Alan Placa, vice chancellor of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, says the mayor is not an indulgent older father.

“An indulgent parent buys a lot of junk for his kids and pays no attention to them,” says Placa, who adds that he and Giuliani were fellow pranksters in high school.

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But the mayor sure showed America that he might be a softy.

On “Letterman,” Giuliani said that for Andrew’s eighth birthday at the end of the month, he wanted a really big dog. But his daughter, Caroline, wanted a really small dog.

“So we’re going to compromise,” the mayor said. “We’re going to get both--a big one and a small one.”

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