“How Rudy Giuliani Took the Media for a Ride”
August 29, 1989
SUNDAY’S PRETAPED interview with Gabe Pressman on WNBC-TV’s Newsforum was Rudolph Giuliani’s first little-screen appearance since the candidate placed himself under the tutelage of Roger Ailes. You remember him: the sleaze-master who terrorized America into voting Republican last year when his propaganda turned the presidential election into a referendum on street crime and the death penalty by playing fast and loose with the truth. Almost every Ailesian campaign has favored media-bashing as a technique to distract the electorate’s attention from any weaknessess in his candidate’s record (and, in the process, intimidate the press); recall when The Des Moines Register and Dan Rather were attacked for their too-pointed Contragate questions by George Bush, who thus succeeded in burying the scandal as a campaign issue? Well, Rudy certainly proved himself an apt pupil on Sunday, snarling through his rented smile that a hostile press was making mountains out of prosecutorial molehills as he tried to pooh-pooh away the reams of reputation-puncturing copy heaped on his head by the tabloids last week over the failed Kidder, Peabody prosecution and his office’s alleged “Nazi” tactics.
It’s a strange complaint, considering the source, for until he started shooting himself in the foot with great regularity, Giuliani benefited from an elegiac media reception of a kind not seen in this town since the salad days of an equally arrogant prosecutor, Thomas E. Dewey (when the Republicans who owned nine of the city’s then 11 newspapers touted Dewey for president although he was not yet 40). Even before he had formally announced his candidacy, Rudy’s sweetheart relationship with the press spawned a wet-kiss orgy of free publicity the likes of which even Ron Lauder’s mother’s millions couldn’t buy.
Examples: There was City for Sale, an almost entirely uncritical celebration of Giuliani’s prosecutions of municipal corruption by Daily News editor-columnist Jack Newfield and Voice political writer Wayne Barrett that owed much of its insiderish tone to the avid cooperation of Giuliani and his longtime prosecutorial sidekick and press manager, Dennison Young Jr. (who, as Jacob Javits’s former legislative counsel, could scarcely be considered a political novice). The book, published at the beginning of the year, has served as something of a campaign biography for Giuliani. Gail Sheehy weighed in with an embarrassing act of journalistic fellatio in the August 1987 issue of Vanity Fair, “Heaven’s Hit Man” (“As passionate as he is about making crooks pay, he cannot sleep for seeing the faces of their suffering families” — I wonder how they fact-checked that one). Life produced a worshipful January 1988 profile called “Let’s Hear It for the Good Guys.” And, in a January 1989 Newsday column, Jimmy Breslin, who has made a career out of puffing up candidates on whom he also presses his services as a closet adviser, proclaimed that “the election [is] past history … Giuliani has won the 1989 New York City mayorality race. He does not beat Koch because Koch does not run.”
Pride of place in the front ranks of those pimping for Rudy belongs to New York magazine. In May of 1987, there was a cover touting Giuliani-as-crimebuster, but its headline, “GOTCHA!”(familiar to recent New York Post readers) was inept for this oh-so-promotional transcript of a Q and A with Rudy (one of the few politicians in recent memory accorded such a nonthreatening platform by the mag). His self-aggrandizing White Knightery was left untouched in the spread’s 13 pages by the nerf-ball questions of a criminally unsophisticated Nancy Collins. But the worst was to come: in another eight-page cover story this March, Joe Klein — New York‘s condohead purveyor of middle-class race paranoia — performed contortions worthy of the Kama Sutra in order to let Rudy off the hook. Indeed, Klein seemed to have fantasies of himself as Rudy’s Eddie Futch: “Giuliani agreed to explore his views on urban issues with the understanding that this would be a spring-training sort of interview — he hadn’t yet announced his candidacy and was still formulating his positions on a number of important issues. I agreed to keep the gloves on.”
Can you imagine any other pol being annointed with such deferential treatment? When a journalist agrees in advance not to ask tough questions — in effect, to simulate a real interview in order to help the candidate decide what he thinks (or thinks is palatable) — he becomes half-courtier, half-catamite. However, the shameless Klein is far from the only opinion-monger in town to have served as willing accessory to the careful cultivation of Rudy’s image. The Voice ran a highly flattering cover story in January by Joe Conason in which the only major incident from Rudy’s government service recounted in detail was a laudatory one. The article was based not on any independent investigations, but on a long interview in which, as Conason admitted, “Giuliani declined to answer specific questions about running for mayor, the deficiencies of the current mayor, or what he would do if he became mayor.” The only subjects the filibustering Giuliani wanted to discuss were those putting him in a good light, and the Voice went along with the charade.
More parlor games: Remember last September’s articles alleging state comptroller Ned Regan traded on his position as trustee of New York’s pension fund to obtain campaign contributions from Wall Street (a story broken in the Daily News by Jack Newfield and Tom Robbins and in the Voice by Rick Hornung)? Giuliani, no doubt envisioning another easy notch on his prosecutorial gun, couldn’t wait to open an investigation. Neither could Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau. What happened next is related by Connie Bruck in her March 1989 American Lawyer profile of Giuliani (the best-reported I’ve come across): “According to a lawyer in Morgenthau’s office, ‘Rudy jumped right into it early on. They subpoenaed records. They said, ‘It’s our case.’ Then, on December 28, Newfield wrote in the News that Morgenthau had decided to impanel a grand jury to investigate Regan’s fundraising practices. About midway through the article, Newfield added that Giuliani was withdrawing from the case and turning his evidence over to Morgenthau.
“This was news to Morgenthau’s office. Giuliani’s office had given no indication that they ‘wanted out,’ says a lawyer in the D.A.’s office. Regan is, of course, a Republican, and many of the contributors who are being investigated are doubtless those Giuliani would be soliciting should he run … Having already made a mortal enemy of [Al] D’Amato, Giuliani could ill afford to alienate any more of the Republican state network. Newfield, a long-time Giuliani booster, gave Giuliani a graceful exit.”
The press’s bounty to Rudy was, of course, entirely self-serving. In his five-and-a-half-year free ride with the media as U.S. attorney, press conferences and press releases — the exception under Robert Fiske Jr., Giuliani’s straight-arrow predecessor — became mandatory rituals, while motions calling for investigations of leaks from his office have rained on the Southern District in the cases that have collared a lot of media attention. Leaks jeopardize a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and the deontology of the federal judicial system requires a U.S. attorney to set standards for his subordinates which demonstrate that such trampling on our constitutional guarantees is intolerable.
That ain’t our Rudy: as Philip Weiss noted in a sharp-tongued November 1988 Spy profile, “Gerald Stern, the director of the State Commission on Judicial conduct, says Giuliani has often violated ethical standards on pretrial publicity at his ‘circus-like’ press conferences. When hoteliers Harry and Leona Helmsley were indicted for tax evasion last spring, the news of the grand jury’s decision was leaked to the New York Post a day early. The Helmsleys complained, and at his press conference announcing the charges, Giuliani vowed to investigate the ‘alleged grand jury leaks.’ (Minutes earlier, though, he had lavished praise on the Post reporter covering the Helmsleys for scoops that had expedited the case). Nothing came of the promised investigation.”
A report on the rise in leaks by the city bar association’s committee on criminal law last year whitewashed Giuliani, saying there were too many investigative agencies involved to finger any one. Dennison Young, Rudy’s longtime press handler in the U.S. attorney’s office, was a member of the committee that wrote the report (although he says he fastidiously abstained from voting on the final version).
Collusion between prosecutors and the press can not only pollute a jury trial but lead to the maligning of the innocent, as was demonstrated by last week’s dropping of the insider-trading charges filed two and a half years ago against those three executives in the Kidder, Peabody case whom Rudy had dragged out of their offices in handcuffs. It was one of his most notorious cases, and, at the time of the arrest, the paparazzi had been tipped off, with the result that photos of the unlucky arbitrageurs in their manacles were Page One stuff across the country. (One of the three, Robert Freeman, has now pled guilty to a charge wholly unrelated to the original.) As Robert Reno, one of Giuliani’s few acerbic critics in the city dailies, noted in his Friday Newsday column, this feverishly prepared case was part of Giuliani’s “successful race with Pope Gregory IX for the title of most effective inquisitor in history, a contest that turned out to be the preliminary round of his mayoral campaign … [But] lightning arrests and handcuffing of nonviolent citizens is as repulsive a way to run for mayor as using the actions of a homicidal rapist is a shameful way to get to be president.” (No wonder Ailes and Rudy get along).
There’s a line much used by Giuliani in his campaign stump speech: “Don’t let them tell you what they’re going to do, ask them to tell you what they’ve already done.” But what the dropping of the Kidder, Peabody case demonstrates is that the press went AWOL when it came to looking at Rudy’s record. Connie Bruck is one of the few reporters who did: she interviewed 55 lawyers and federal judges. What did she find? A consensus that Rudy has “an ambition so raw and consuming that that which sustains it is embraced willy-nilly, that which does not directly feed it is neglected, and that which runs counter to it is earmarked for destruction.” (That could also serve as a fairly accurate description of Ed Koch.)
Rudy’s lust for power explains the inordinate amount of time he devoted to stroking journalists. Bruck harvested innumerable complaints from former Giuliani staffers: “‘There was an untoward concern for how our prosecutorial judgments would play in the press … the more newsworthy our cases were, the more attention they got from Rudy.’ … ‘[Under Rudy’s predecessors, press releases were] no big deal. When Rudy came, he brought in Young, and Denny would review press releases as though they were indictments. He’d cross out assistants’ names and put Rudy’s in. Denny had a phenomenal devotion to press releases.’ … ‘[Rudy] spent more time with reporters than with [his] assistants.’ ”
By running his office as if it were a subsidiary of Hill and Knowlton, Giuliani was able to reward the flatterers while slighting the too-critical, thus maintaining the reporters who covered him in a carefully controlled client relationship. Steve Brill, the editor of The American Lawyer, says: “At each one of his press conferences there was just one script — Rudy’s —with one good guy — Rudy — and a bad guy, the one whose name was on the indictment. It was a setup, especially for TV. I’ve made my living off the reality that general, typical reporting about the criminal justice system is nonsense, ridiculous, too accepting of these very easy definitions of who the good and bad guys are. Take the guy who covered Rudy for years for the Times, Arnold Lubasch: what a slug. The Voice, the Times, everybody rolled over for Giuliani at every press conference. This can give you a swelled head: at least six friends of mine who are actively working in the campaign say Rudy has told them he expects to be president one day.”
The average reporter is a cop-junkie at heart anyway, but Rudy’s PR style (orchestrated by Young, Giuliani’s Michael Deaver) meant that the prosecutor had a lot of chits to call in when he declared for mayor. There isn’t a paper in town that isn’t in some way indebted to Giuliani for filling its columns with sexy stories. As for Rudy’s bleatings about how Ron Lauder bought himself $6 million worth of airtime, there squeaks a man who’s used to as many soundbites on the nightly news as he wants, all for free, and all on his own terms.
It’s because he’s so unused to media criticism that Rudy has turned angry at the scribes who used to collect his toenail clippings. No paper in town has given Giuliani more ink than the New York Post. But editor Jerry Nachman has transformed himself from just a little-friend-to-all-the-world columnist of piffle into a circulation-building Wyatt Earp who sees his city room as the OK Corral (and who knows how to curtsey to his publisher’s Board of Estimate morality that dotes on Koch, the landlord’s pathic).
The result could only be last Friday’s screaming headlines: “Auschwitz survivor charges: RUDY’S MEN ACTED LIKE NAZIS.” The story — written by Nachman with recently rehired Post investigations editor Fred Dicker — involved the complaint of one Simon Berger, a sexagenarian purveyor of locks. He’d been indicted by Giuliani for having allegedly forked over backsheesh to win a lock contract with the city’s Housing Authority — if true, a peccadillo for a small merchant made cynical by too much familiarity with the world’s cruelty, but hardly one to excite the masses. Berger, in Nachman’s tear-drenched account, was seated by Giuliani’s minions in front of a scribble-covered blackboard on which one could read the words, Arbeit macht frei. In the end, the lock-vendor happily found himself on the outside looking in: Berger was acquitted.
In terms of the future governance of this city, Newsday put the more meaningful story on its front page that day: the dismissal of the Kidder, Peabody indictments. (Despite the Post‘s touting of its blackboard story as an “exclusive,” Newsday had court papers that provided all the relevant facts; what the Post had — live and weeping on South Street — was Berger. Newsday ran its story at the bottom of page three with the sedate head, “Holocaust ‘Reminder’ Claimed”). Even Post columnist Pete Hamill admits to being disturbed by his paper’s Fleet Street-style flagellation of Giuliani: “When you’re going to use that word Nazi, you’d better be very careful. At least it should have been in quotes — that would have taken a little of the sting out of it. After all, to be arrested at 7:00 in the morning is not exactly to get a whiff of Zyklon-B.”
Rudy, who has already dropped at least 17 points with Jewish voters, according to one poll, hardly needed a week like this. But is he being “set up,” as he claimed to Gabe Pressman on Sunday’s Newsforum? Jimmy Breslin, who withdrew from Giuliani’s advisory circle when Rudy expressed his desire to import Ailes and extradite Joe Doherty, doesn’t think so. “If he’s afraid of the Post, how’s he going to be mayor?” barks Breslin. “Who did this? Some federal agent? Is the guy still on the job scaring Jews? Who the fuck would know German like that? I’ll betcha some kid prosecutor. I don’t even know the goddamn German. If they didn’t make a real investigation, then they’re part of it. Rudy’s getting his comeuppance.”
The print players are lining up: every sentient reader knows that the Times and the Post are for the mayor; that Newsday is trying to figure out if it has the guts to endorse a black candidate; that the Voice — too late to do any real good — will stumble toward Dinkins; and that the News, confused, will write its editorial with one eye on the circulation figures. But the whole race is on television — where Giuliani has a large residual Q factor from the white-hat days when he fed defendants to the cameras. If Rudy finally does get his real comeuppance in November, we can only pray that it isn’t delivered by Ed Koch. ■