A Legend in His Own Mind


Now that Rudolph Giuliani’s beatification has obscured his interesting past, he has become difficult to place in human terms. We can see he is definitely campaigning for something, but he has been reaping huzzahs and big money in so many different places that one can’t tell if he’s shooting for a world greed record or the Nobel Peace Prize or the American presidency in 2008. It’s very confusing.

Did you notice, just the other day, that he was named by President Bush to head the American delegation to a conference in Vienna aimed at wiping out anti-Semitism in Europe? Think of it, the mayor who divided New York City’s races more grievously than any modern mayor before him is going to put an end to intolerance in all of Europe. Holy Moses!

Let’s take a look at his mayoral résumé. Perhaps a more realistic picture will emerge. First his accomplishments.

The crime rate in the city went down dramatically on his watch. That was Giuliani’s top career issue—first as Manhattan federal prosecutor and then as mayor. Crime was declining in the rest of the country as well but not as sharply as in New York. Since it was happening in the nation’s media capital, Giuliani received copious national attention. Some of the credit should have gone to his first police commissioner, William Bratton, whom Giuliani fired when Bratton began receiving some credit in the press.

His other signature policy plank was the drastic reduction of the city’s welfare rolls. Yet he put little effort into providing job training and work opportunities for those stripped from the rolls. We are seeing the results now. The numbers of homeless people, whole families in particular, are growing. Soup kitchens and charity food pantries are overwhelmed.

That’s really about it. Law and order was Giuliani’s all-consuming enterprise. And it was a major achievement. Voters, reassured by their new feeling of safety, made excuses for his lacks and failures, which, sad to say, were many.

His final bright spot—and the one that led to his present canonization—was his performance after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001—just as his eight-year mayoral tenure was coming to an end. President Bush was out of touch with the nation for most of that day, so the mayor of New York, the stricken city, was the face on television calming and consoling the nation while organizing the recovery. And he remained a parallel face alongside the president’s in the difficult days that followed.

Giuliani clearly demonstrated an impressive command presence in that time—and then he all too quickly slipped back into his bruising, self-centered persona and used the acclaim in an attempt to alter the electoral system and gain an extension of his term. The public correctly saw the move as small-minded and arrogant, and it failed. A new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, had been elected, and he took office on schedule on January 1, 2002.

Now let’s look at the things Giuliani ignored or decided not to do as mayor.

He ignored the schools—leaving 1 million children marooned on a sinking island. Giuliani didn’t have majority control of the Board of Education, so he pouted and criticized and plotted against the successive chancellors he kept driving out of town. To oust one worthy chancellor, Ramon Cortines, the Giuliani team started a whispering campaign aimed at Cortines being gay. “The guy is weird,” a senior official told a Newsday reporter. “Would you want him alone with your family?” Giuliani never succeeded in getting control of the Board of Education, because his bullying, heavy-handed tactics alienated the state legislature, whose approval was needed for the power change to take place. Within a few months of Giuliani’s departure, Bloomberg, using tact and respect, persuaded the legislature to cede school system control to him.

Giuliani also ignored and alienated the city’s black community—and many Hispanics, too—with the same demeaning tactics he used on the legislature and many other groups. He refused, for instance, to meet with senior elected black officials and appointed only a literal handful of minorities to positions of any importance. That amounted to writing off virtually half the city’s population. Something else he ignored was the urgent need for affordable housing for working people. He built none. Can a man lay claim to being a national leader if that is the way he governs?

And he does indeed make that claim. He wrote a book titled Leadership, which came out in time for the first anniversary of September 11. It was a best-seller. He now gives lectures on leadership around the country and globe, receiving up to $100,000 per appearance. Just recently, he suggested to Mayor Bloomberg that the latter was going about balancing the city budget in all the wrong ways. The same mayor who overspent wildly in the face of a recession—and dumped upon his successor an $8 billion dollar budget gap over the next year and a half—is now giving him “leadership” tips on how to make ends meet.

The public may continue to buy this P.T. Barnum routine for a while, or even for a lifetime. It demonstrates how rabidly, and gullibly, the American voter longs for heroes in this plastic age of image spinners.

The real Giuliani is a fallible human being like the rest of us—not a saint. And he isn’t a Mister Rogers man of the people. He doesn’t relate to those who have fallen and who need a hand up. He never admits mistakes. He never apologizes to people he has wronged. He was a crisis mayor, near-brilliant in convulsive events, such as terrorist attacks. He was George Patton, a man with an iron grip on command and a certainty of his rightness. But running a country or a city is not like running an army in wartime. Wars are irrational, diseased events. Giuliani has never shown us that he is not only a can-do general, but also a thoughtful man who respects others’ ideas. He is not Dwight Eisenhower or George Marshall or Omar Bradley. In victory, he has not shown any instinct to repair the damage he has done to his opponents.

Let us take one last reality check on Giuliani’s resume.

Perhaps you remember the sunny day in September 1992, when Giuliani, campaigning for the mayor’s job, was the principal speaker at a booze-fueled protest by 10,000 off-duty cops and their supporters at City Hall. The police were angry at the first African-American mayor of New York, David Dinkins—in particular his proposal to create an independent, all-civilian review board to examine citizen complaints about police rudeness and rough behavior. The word “nigger” was heard loudly several times from the crowd. A number of protest signs called Dinkins a “washroom attendant.” Giuliani in his remarks at the protest, which was organized by the police union, whipped the crowd to even fiercer heights by reciting a list of Dinkins’ policies and, after each one, starting a chant of “Bullshit! Bullshit!” About 1,500 of the demonstrators eventually stormed onto the Brooklyn Bridge and tied up traffic there for an hour. The press recorded all this loveliness.

Giuliani loyalists say the former mayor has matured since then. Has he changed? I don’t know. People don’t usually change their nature at the age of 59. All one can really say with certainty is that we do him no favors by seeing only part of him and not the whole man.

Research assistance: Michael K. Anstendig