The Emperor’s New Praise


David Dinkins was in Japan when the first World Trade Center blast hit in 1993, and Norman Steisel, the colorless and compromised first deputy mayor, hosted the initial, fumbling press briefings. When Dinkins got back to New York, his muted public performance was quickly overshadowed by that of camera-ready James Kallstrom, the local FBI director who emerged as the star of the star of the crisis show.

There’s no doubt who the star is this time, and Rudy Giuliani has taken center stage to rave notices. While the president roamed the skies for six hours Tuesday at the behest of his handlers, Giuliani rushed to ground zero at his own peril, directly sharing the fears that gripped his city. Bonded in the rubble with the men and women in uniform whose sacrifices would instantly make them heroes, Rudy became one of them in our minds, a rescuer, a protector, selfless, steady and sure.

Just as prostate cancer momentarily humanized him when he revealed it in April of 2000, his harrowing escape from a temporary command post, suddenly awash in the debris of death, seemed to make him whole. Just six months ago he turned a phantom blizzard into an excuse for endless in-charge media manipulations, and the real blizzard that followed into a personal photo-op blast of the Port Authority. His recent public performance—on everything from divorce to “decency” to Dorismond—set so low a sneering standard that all he had to do was be clear and caring and the city would rejoice. He was better than that.

At one informed and compassionate press conference after another, his ego appeared vaporized by a combination of term limits and terror. His face and tone took on a gentleness we’d never seen. From the start, he repeatedly denounced any tribal scapegoating, identifying the enemy as individual with pinpoint precision. His public comments, unlike Bush’s and George Pataki’s, contained more detail than rhetoric—thanking, grieving, answering the questions he could and acknowledging the ones he couldn’t. He was somber without becoming maudlin, as he had been when he announced his withdrawal from the Senate race in May 2000.

With no personal agenda or plausible political future, all he cared about was serving and calming us. With no need to invent or savage enemies, as he did with TWA when Flight 800 went down in 1996, he appeared finally at peace with the notion of a city that needed and believed in him. The moment and the man fit masterfully together, as if the catastrophe was so huge it humbled even him.

Still, with the election to pick the Democrat to replace him just days away, Giuliani has not hesitated to politicize the crisis. He and his mayoral preference, Peter Vallone, have made more joint press conference appearances than at any other time in eight years. The state legislative leaders who actually passed special bills creating 5.5 billion in additional funding for the city, on the other hand, were virtually invisible. Vallone even sat next to Giuliani at the televised Saint Patrick’s mass on Sunday—a center-aisle, front-row position he’s rarely enjoyed at other major cathedral moments.

These carefully staged coincidences have been a mixed blessing for Vallone, who has simultaneously shared the spotlight and been overshadowed. Pataki literally had to reach across Vallone and his wife to embrace Giuliani when the cardinal singled them out for praise—awkwardly emphasizing how incidental Vallone was to New York’s response.

Vallone’s decision to hurriedly create a reconstruction commission at a special City Council session on Thursday is a transparent attempt to put himself at center stage four days before the primary. This dramatic action—which will be rushed through without the accompanying passage of any state legislation giving the commission bonding authority—obviously could have waited for a less political time. The governor and legislature would ordinarily play a role in naming a commission that depends on state bonding authority.

It is clearly another Giuliani-Vallone joint venture, since the mayor will be named chair of the commission, a title that, according to the Times, Vallone may be willing to give Giuliani for a term that will outlast his mayoralty. Insiders believe that by the end of the week, Giuliani will either endorse Vallone as his favorite in the Democratic primary, or salute him in terms tantamount to endorsement. It is hard to imagine that these kinds of machinations might be going on just beneath the surface of the mayor’s otherwise focused and firm crisis performance.

This calamity places a premium on the outcome of next Tuesday’s primary, and the November election. We will need a mayor smart enough to successfully confront gargantuan budget gaps and awesome economic fears, with the personal command to reassure the business community and galvanize a citizenry both demoralized and aroused. We will need a mayor with a penchant for detail and salesmanship, for organizing and inspiring.

With the instantaneous pressures already emanating from Washington, it will also be imperative to have a mayor who will work to protect the city against future threats without sacrificing vital civil liberties, achieving a sensitive balance of values. And finally, since New York plays an unusually important role in the politics of the Middle East, the next mayor must be, unlike hard-liner Giuliani, a true champion of the peace process, using this city’s close ties to Israel to push it to a final settlement.

With all of New York, including its financial center, now in dire trouble, Freddy Ferrer’s “Other New York” message no longer resonates, and the cancellation of the election may have reversed the brilliant momentum of his campaign, which was at a peak that morning on September 11. The crisis could bring out voters who would not have participated on the earlier scheduled date, and Giuliani may move them in the direction of his surrogate Vallone, implicitly suggesting that we will get his team in a Vallone term. A likely one-term mayor if elected, the 67-year-old Vallone looks more and more like a caretaker stand-in for Giuliani, who can run again in four years.

On the other hand, Mark Green, Alan Hevesi, and the November candidate, Michael Bloomberg—all of whom project a sturdy competence—may have been strengthened by a cataclysm that calls for great leadership.