As the World Trade Center collapsed around him on that violent Tuesday morning four years ago, as thousands were dying or about to die, with the nation and the city under unprecedented attack, Rudy Giuliani claims that he grabbed Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik by the arm and said, “Thank God George Bush is our president.”
If it actually happened that way, it must have sounded bizarre to Kerik at the time, as it did to most people when Giuliani recalled the exchange at last year’s Republican National Convention, and as it certainly seems now that the president’s handling of Hurricane Katrina has pundits wishing Rudy were in charge.
“You can’t tell who’s running anything,” complained David Gergen on CNN as the scope of the disaster unfolded. “I mean there’s no Rudy Giuliani in this story.” On the same network, political analyst Bill Schneider said one of the problems was “a simple lack of leadership.”
The Katrina criticism certainly targets officials besides the president, like New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, but Dubya is the one facing the highest waters. For a guy whose strongest political and personal asset is supposed to be his ability to relate to what common folk are feeling, Bush seemed way out of touch when he slapped failed FEMA director Mike Brown on the back (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”).
Giuliani has refused to publicly criticize the disaster response. But members of Congress might call on him to testify in their probe of the Katrina mess. And whether Giuliani speaks up or not, every time a talking head invokes his name as the master of disasters, it boosts Rudy’s chances of succeeding Dubya as the guy who hands out the ice and the blankets.
In his lengthy testimony to the 9-11 Commission last year, Giuliani mentioned few details of actual command decisions he made on the day of the attacks four years ago. Most of the operational judgments were made by Kerik or fire officials. According to his own telling of the story, Giuliani’s decisions were limited to where the city’s leaders would locate themselves, whether to bring in the National Guard, and how to mesh city and state governments in the days following the crisis.
Perhaps Giuliani was being stingy with the details to avoid getting blamed. Or perhaps his testimony accurately reflected his style. “Rudy would look at the big picture, the big issues, and that’s one of the reasons he did so well on 9-11: He looked at the big picture,” says Jerry Hauer, Giuliani’s onetime head of emergency management. “He looked at what was confronting the city now and what was confronting the city down the road.”
In fact, Giuliani did make concrete decisions that day: canceling the mayoral primary, evacuating Battery Park City, threatening to arrest anyone caught south of 14th Street without permission, telling people to stay away from Manhattan. But those moves aren’t what people remember about the mayor on 9-11. Instead, it was what he said, and how he looked, that mattered, his delivery of lines like “I have a sense it’s a horrendous number of lives lost” and that the death toll would be “more than any of us can bear.”
“He showed understanding of the magnitude of the disaster, and he showed a compassion. And he also was very willing to talk about what was known, what was not known, what was possible, what wasn’t possible,” Hauer said. “I don’t think FEMA came close to showing they understood the magnitude of the [Katrina] situation.”
Not everyone admires Giuliani’s performance as much as Hauer. “I’m not quite sure he got his hands dirty so much on 9-11 as he did stand in front of the cameras and say everything was OK,” says Monica Gabrielle of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, who lost her husband in the attack. “I have to give him this: He did keep calm in this city. Those of us who were looking for our missing loved ones had hope of finding them alive because he kept it a rescue operation for so long. It could have turned into complete anarchy if we had known the extent of the devastation down there.”
In other words, Giuliani fibbed when he called the efforts at ground zero a “rescue operation” for so long. But it was a good thing. “That lie I accept because of the state I was in. And that lie I forgive,” Gabrielle says. “What I don’t forgive is the perpetuation of myth after myth as questions were being asked, as an opportunity to be critical of what happened on 9-11.”
That’s a reference to the 9-11 Commission, which lobbed laurels and softball questions at Rudy during his appearance last year. In its report, the 9-11 Commission avoided any broad conclusions about the mayor’s performance. It found that his emergency management plan was followed “to some degree” on the day of the attacks, but also that “the response operations lacked the kind of integrated communications and unified command contemplated in the directive.” It also noted that some disagreed with the mayor’s earlier decision to locate his emergency operations command center at 7 World Trade Center.
Those fuzzy findings only stoked the anger of some 9-11 family members, who feel that the lessons of the 1993 attack, the problems with responder radios, the risks of putting the command center at 7 WTC, were all pooh-poohed by the commission. “When you have a system by which no one is held accountable and the mantra that comes out of an investigation is there was a lack of imagination, everyone’s at fault so no one’s at fault, and you don’t have accountability for decisions that were made that were either right or wrong, and naming names,” Gabrielle says, “what you have is a perpetuation of failed leadership, failed responses, and thousands more walking in the same shoes as the 9-11 victims, which we tried so very hard to change.”
Giuliani’s status as a national figure with a rep based on crisis management is rare. Most potential presidents represent an idea or philosophy; Rudy’s asset is that he’s considered a good guy to have around when things go wrong. Dwight Eisenhower had a similar appeal. So did Herbert Hoover, who gained fame for coordinating food aid to people around the world in the 1920s, saving thousands of lives. “People don’t remember that because, of course, as president he was a disaster,” says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato.
The beauty of being known as a crisis manager is that it has bipartisan currency, which is why 9-11 could be a big asset for Giuliani—and a big target for his rivals.
“The Democrats would have to try to tar him with some of the points made by the 9-11 Commission, even about some of the events on the day of the chaos that ensued, the lack of communication,” Sabato says. Like what happened when John Kerry made Vietnam Exhibit A in his case to the voters. “We’ll be his Swift Boat,” vows Gabrielle.