Rudy Giuliani may now be a footnote in the 2008 presidential campaign, but it’s important to remember how close he came to becoming this election year’s looming specter—one that would haunt America far into the future. We are such a 24-hour news-cycle nation that it’s already getting hard to remember that Giuliani topped the national polls for 11 months, often with double the percentage points of his closest competitor, and was even leading in Florida as late as November 2007.
As dismally as he performed in all six caucuses and primaries, he still might have been the GOP’s strongest general-election candidate, doing for them in the Northeast what Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did for the Democrats in the South: drawing voters from the other party’s base. If Giuliani could have won in January and February, transcending the rigid social orthodoxies of his party, he might then have soared to the White House in November—a prospect made all the more chilling by the war drums he so cavalierly pounded. Asked how he’d take on terrorism, he told the Tampa Tribune recently that he’d “get rid of the nation-states that support it,” which alarmed the paper’s conservative editorial-board members so much that they endorsed John McCain. Should Iran continue to pursue its fantasy nuclear-weapons program, Rudy vowed to “set them back” five to 10 years. Waterboarding? His reaffirming metaphor for it was his own mob interrogations as a federal prosecutor. Even children came in for his warlike bombast: When a 36-year-old mother attending a New Hampshire event with her child dared to ask why Rudy’s son and daughter weren’t supporting him, the former mayor replied, “Leave my family alone, just like I’ll leave your family alone”—and it came off as a threat.
With all of that—as well as the nasty jabs he threw at Mitt Romney over the supposedly illegal lawn workers at his “sanctuary mansion”—Giuliani claimed last week that he’d run an “uplifting campaign” that had managed to stay “positive.” A few hours after delivering that primary-night speech in a deserted Disneyworld ballroom, Giuliani endorsed John McCain, insisting that he and his old friend had managed to campaign against each other without a moment of recrimination or bad blood. Already forgotten were the days when McCain compared his own national-security background to Giuliani’s and concluded that Rudy had a “fundamental lack of experience.” Or when McCain said that Rudy’s service as a big-city mayor “certainly doesn’t mean you’re qualified to lead” as president—a counterpoint to Giuliani’s repeated charge that McCain lacked executive experience. Giuliani’s way of staying “positive” was to use his ex–deputy mayor and periodic campaign spokesman, Randy Mastro, to invoke the Keating scandal, in which McCain—one of the so-called Keating Five—was blasted in a 1991 Senate ethics report that found he’d intervened with federal regulators on behalf of infamous S&L owner Charles Keating, who had given McCain major contributions, corporate jet rides, and annual family vacations in the Bahamas.
The dishonesty of the Giuliani farewell was a fitting conclusion to a campaign that had lied even about itself, inventing the fantasy of a
waiting-for-Florida strategy after Rudy had spent $3 million and made 124 appearances in New Hampshire, where he wound up beating Ron Paul by only 2,000 votes. The premise of his campaign—which began in Giuliani’s mind before the smoke had cleared at Ground Zero—was that the Iwo Jima–style visual of him covered in soot and walking through the canyons of Lower Manhattan that morning would transcend his personal and political shortcomings and carry him into the White House. By the time he got to the endgame in Florida, he was even willing to run an ad that was all 9/11, with video footage of the carnage and a resolute voice declaring that “when the world wavered and history hesitated, he never did.” But the uproar caused him to pull it almost instantly, the last gasp of a failed strategy of exploitation. (An editorial cartoon soon appeared of Giuliani behind a podium with just the numbers “9-11” on it and a campaign operative explaining that those were his polling numbers in Florida.) Once the mythology had worn thin, Giuliani’s baggage loomed large, and the speaker who’d once earned six-figure fees couldn’t draw three-figure crowds in the Panhandle.
As false as the campaign’s central rationale was, so too were its collateral claims. Giuliani boasted in his farewell that he’d resisted the pressure to do negative ads, but in fact his commercials were fraudulent attacks on the very city he’d governed, appealing to longstanding American prejudices while portraying himself as the man who’d tamed the beast that is New York. He also produced an ad that distorted his own bout with prostate cancer for political purposes, using spurious numbers to draw false comparisons between American and British cancer treatments in an ugly assault on Democratic health-care proposals. He went to the last day hyping his 23 tax cuts as mayor, even after his campaign acknowledged that Giuliani was counting cuts he had nothing to do with, including ones engineered by state legislators, the governor, and the City Council. He brayed on and on about how he’d slashed the city’s welfare rolls by 600,000 people and would combat any form of “socialized medicine” as president—and then promised Florida homeowners who had built their mansions in a hurricane path a multibillion-dollar catastrophe fund. Giuliani took shots at his former positions on gun control; promised to appoint the kind of judges who would reverse the Roe v. Wade decision whose anniversary he once celebrated; divorced himself from the gay couple who sheltered him before, on, and after 9/11; and said that he would have deported, if possible, all the undocumented workers he used to embrace.
And there is certainly a chance that the deceptions will not end with the campaign. His apologists have already concocted an explanation for what might be the greatest collapse in presidential campaigns since polling began: They’re attributing it to the purported success of the “surge” in Iraq and the consequent resurrection of John McCain. We are beginning to hear—just as we did in 2000, when Giuliani pulled out of the Senate race against Hillary Clinton—that his heart was never really in the presidential run, either. Giuliani ascribed that earlier withdrawal to his bout with prostate cancer, though the city comptroller at the time returned to work within a month after facing the same health threat. Even so, cancer was certainly a better explanation than his televised announcements at the time, one on top of the other, that he wanted a divorce from his then wife and had acquired a new “special friend.” In the same spirit of plausible excuses, we may now be told why his plane turned around in mid-flight in December and circled back to St. Louis for a sudden battery of hospital tests, thus shifting the onus for his fall once again from himself to his health.
And Rudy’s champions, like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who once likened “Giuliani deniers” to Holocaust skeptics, spent the morning after blaming the “hate” that “the New York press” dumped on the former mayor. Scarborough, a former GOP congressman who now poses as a font of chummy nonpartisan wisdom and calls himself a “journalist,” may not have noticed that the demise of Giuliani was instead a tribute to reporters all over the country doing their job. Time, for example—which hated Giuliani so much they made him “Person of the Year” in 2001—took him apart more recently
for his many 9/11-related failings and his consulting firm’s sleazy clients. The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington
Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Concord Monitor, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Newsday, The
Nation, ABC News, Salon, the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Politico—and yes, Morning Joe, The New York Times and the Daily News—all produced damaging investigative pieces on Giuliani because, given his front-runner status, the facts required examination. No one gave those revelations more attention on television than Scarborough’s MSNBC colleague Keith Olbermann. And it was another NBC giant, Tim Russert, who put together a greatest-hits collection of those clips and threw them one after another at Giuliani on an hour-long Meet the Press on December 9, which became a turning point in the Giuliani campaign.
Giuliani conceded in the Russert interview that he had told the 9/11 Commission in private testimony—as revealed in the Voice—that he’d never been briefed on Al Qaeda until after the attack and that his lack of information was “a mistake.” It was an admission that flew in the face of his campaign claim that bin Laden had declared war on America in the 1990s and that he, unlike the Clinton administration, had heard the call. He also had no real response when Russert confronted him about doing business with Qatar, whose emir and interior minister had shielded the very mastermind of 9/11 himself—sobering facts that stories in the Journal and the Voice had established. And when Russert had the audacity to ask if taxpayers would have to subsidize his trysts with a “mistress” when he was in the White House, as they had in the “driving Miss Judi” scandal, Giuliani couldn’t even convincingly guarantee that he’d be monogamous, much less parsimonious.
With the Rudy campaign already history, however, its final significance lies in what it says about the American state of mind. It says that the party of fear may have finally drained all the blood it can from the body bags of 9/11. It says that a candidate with more deferments than wives can’t chest-thump his way to presidential glory. It says that even in the age of Fox News and George W. Bush, spin can hit a wall in American discourse, and truth can find its voice.