Rudy's Grand Illusion

What Giuliani likes to remember about 9-11—and what he actually did (or didn't do)

"I don't know de facto who was in charge," Kelly said. "The police commissioner was the head of the organization. I don't know who was directing. I literally don't."

Kerik was with the mayor because Giuliani wanted him to be. "I need the police and fire commissioners with me," Giuliani said when he summoned Von Essen. He also reached out to Richie Sheirer—the third member of the team who would be at his side for every 9-11 press briefing, then go with him to Giuliani Partners. All three had no real management credentials until Giuliani promoted them. Von Essen and Kerik went from the lowest ranks of their departments to the very top without ever passing a promotional exam. Giuliani had begun his mayoralty with a circle of managers, like Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and OEM's Hauer, who had track records elsewhere. He was ending it with a cult of personality. When he chose Kerik over the seasoned professional Dunne, he told reporters that the decision had come to him in a moment of personal inspiration. Not surprisingly, all Kerik could think about in a moment of great crisis was protecting the leader, even if it meant leaving a void in the department he was charged with commanding.

Despite all these missteps, Giuliani was depicted almost immediately as the calmest man in the eye of the worst storm—decisive, self-sufficient, ironhearted. "It was so well orchestrated that you would have thought he had prepared for it forever," his lifelong secretary Beth Petrone-Hatton told Time. His own Time comments set the subsequent television interview tone: "There were times I was afraid. Everybody was. But the concentration was on. If I don't do what I have to do, everything falls apart. Something I learned a long time ago, from my father, is that the more emotional things get, the calmer you have to become to figure your way out. Those things have become a matter of instinct for me at 57 years old. I didn't have to invent them." He told CNN, "When it's an emergency, I'm very, very calm and very deliberate."

The day after: Giuliani tours ground zero with Schumer, Pataki, Clinton, and others.
photo: AP/Wide World
The day after: Giuliani tours ground zero with Schumer, Pataki, Clinton, and others.


From the book GRAND ILLUSION: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11 by Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins.
Copyright 2006 by Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins.
Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

If Giuliani had actually been doing all the things he now sees himself as having done that day—prioritizing, making strategic decisions about deployment of personnel, command centers, and communications—it would have been a superhuman performance. But actually, in those first hours, Giuliani was doing what most of us, in his place, would have done—struggling, stumbling, and even making a weighty mistake, in the case of the two command posts. His decision to try to get on the air as quickly as possible was sensible, as was his hunt for phones and, later, an alternative command center. But as unforgettable a visual as he was, roaming the canyons of Lower Manhattan, he did not do one thing in those 102 minutes that had any impact.

And it isn't just his own story that he has hyped. Giuliani has repeatedly contended that 25,000 people were rescued, though government investigators determined that there were actually 15,000 survivors and that most of these people were able to make their own way to safety. While these facts do nothing to dim the magnificent bravery of the firefighters, police officers, and other responders who saved many lives that day, they do turn Giuliani's claim into just one more self-serving boast.

The centerpiece of Giuliani's experience on 9-11, his dust-covered march uptown, was truly important to the city and the nation. His ordeal was not about management or even leadership—it was the sight of the mayor sharing that terrible experience with so many other fleeing New Yorkers. The symbol of the city was on the ground with his constituents, dirty and determined, conscious of the fact that there were many others who had been less fortunate. He did not have to save any lives to be important that day. Imagine how different our memories of Hurricane Katrina would be if Mayor Ray Nagin had been out in the water with the dispossessed, splashing his way toward the Convention Center.

We rely on our leaders to behave well in such a moment, to set an example of calm and compassion. But we do not expect them to manage the intricacies of the rescue operation. For that, we hope there are men and women throughout the government who have been preparing and training just so that if a crisis comes, they can operate on instinct, yet automatically make the proper decisions. If the mayor of New York had made sure that the city's emergency headquarters was securely located and had put in place communications and command systems that worked, he would have been of greater service on 9-11—even if he had spent the whole day cowering under his desk.

Giuliani has never acknowledged a single failing in his own performance. Yet he did nothing before September 11 to alleviate the effects of a terror attack. He embodied his city's lack of preparation on West Street that morning. And he did not do anything later that matched the moments of grace and resolve he gave us the day we needed him most. What we have left is this: At a moment when the public needed a hero, Rudy Giuliani stepped forward. When he assured New York that things would come out all right, he was blessedly believable. It was a fine thing. But it was not nearly as much as we, at the time, imagined.

The original version of this article omitted the name of co-author Dan Collins.

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