(This appeared in TPMCafe on March 8, 2007)
The deluge of commentary on Rudolph Giuliani’s presidential prospects has forced me finally to break my long silence about the man. Somebody’s gotta say it: He shouldn’t be president, not because he’s too “liberal” or “conservative,” or because his positions on social issues have been heterodox, or because he seems tone-deaf on race, or because his family life has been messy, or because he’s sometimes been as crass an opportunist as almost every other politician of note. Rudy Giuliani shouldn’t be president for reasons more profoundly troubling. Maybe you had to be with him at the start of his electoral career to see them clearly.
Throughout the fall, 1993 New York mayoral campaigns, I tried harder than any other columnist I know of to convince left-liberal friends and everyone else that Giuliani would win and probably should.
In the Daily News, The New Republic, and on cable and network TV, I insisted it had come to this because racial “Rainbow” and welfare-state politics were imploding nationwide, not just in New York and not only thanks to racists, Ronald Reagan, or robber barons. One didn’t have to share all of Giuliani’s “colorblind,” “law-and-order,” and free-market presumptions to want big shifts in liberal Democratic paradigms and to see that some of those shifts would require a political battering ram, not a scalpel.
I spent a lot of time with Giuliani during the 1993 campaign and his first year in City Hall, and while a dozen of my columns criticized him sharply for presuming far too much, I defended most of his record to the end of his tenure. He forced New York, that great capital of “root cause” explanations for every social problem, to get real about remedies that work, at least for now, in the world as we know it. Some of these turned out to be preconditions for progress of any kind: I saw Al Sharpton blink as I told him in a debate that twice as many New Yorkers had been felled by police bullets during David Dinkins’ four-year mayoralty as during Giuliani’s then-seven years and that the drop in all murders meant that at least two thousand black and Hispanic New Yorkers who’d have been dead were up and walking around.
Giuliani’s successes ranged well beyond crime reduction. As late as July, 2001, when his personal and political blunders had eclipsed those gains and he had only a lame duck’s six months to go, I insisted in a New York Observer column that he’d facilitated housing, entrepreneurial, and employment gains for people whose loudest-mouthed advocates called him a racist reactionary. James Chapin, the late democratic socialist savant, considered Giuliani a “progressive conservative” like Teddy Roosevelt, who was a New York police commissioner before becoming Vice President and President.
Yet Giuliani couldn’t carry his methods and motives to the White House without damaging this country, for two reasons that run deeper than such “horse race” liabilities as his social views and family history.
The first serious problem is structural and political: A man who fought the inherent limits of his mayoral office as fanatically as Giuliani would construe presidential prerogatives so broadly he’d make George Bush’s notions of “unitary” executive power seem soft.
Even in the 1980s, as an assistant attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department and U.S. Attorney in New York, Giuliani was imperious and overreaching. He “perp-walked” Wall Streeters right out of their offices in dramatic prosecutions that failed. He made the troubled daughter of a state judge, Hortense Gabel, testify against her mother and former Miss America Bess Meyerson in a failed prosecution charging, among other things, that Meyerson had hired the judge’s daughter to bribe her into helping “expedite” a messy divorce case. The jury was so put off by Giuliani’s tactics that it acquitted all concerned, as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus recalled ten years later in assessing Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s subpoena of Monica Lewinsky’s mother to testify against her daughter.
At least, as U.S. Attorney, Giuliani served at the pleasure of the President and had to defer to federal judges. Were he the President, U.S. Attorneys would serve at his pleasure — a dangerous arrangement in the wrong hands, we’ve learned — and he’d pick the judges to whom prosecutors defer.
As mayor, Giuliani fielded his closest aides like a fast and sometimes brutal hockey team, micro-managing and bludgeoning city agencies and even agencies that weren’t his, like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Board of Education. They deserved it richly enough to make his bravado thrilling to many of us, but it wasn’t very productive. And while this Savonarola disdained even would-be allies in other branches of government, he wasn’t above cutting indefensible deals with crony contractors and pandering shamelessly to some Hispanics, orthodox and neo-conservative Jews, and other favored constituencies.
Even the credit he claimed for transportation, housing and safety improvements belongs partly and sometimes wholly to predecessors’ decisions and to economic good luck: As he left office the New York Times noted that on his first day as mayor in 1994, the Dow Jones had stood at 3754.09, while on his last day, Dec. 31, 2001, it opened at 10,136.99: “For most of his tenure, the city’s treasury gushed with revenues generated by Wall Street.” Dinkins had had to struggle through the after-effects the huge crash of 1987.
Remarkable though Giuliani’s mayoral record remains, it’s complicated by more than socio-economic circumstances and structural constraints. Ironically, it was his most heroic moments as mayor that spotlighted his deepest presidential liability. Fred Siegel, author of the Giuliani-touting Prince of the City, posed the problem recently when he wondered why, after Giuliani’s 1997 mayoral reelection, with the city buoyed by its new safety and economic success, he couldn’t “turn his Churchillian political personality down a few notches.”
I’ll tell you why: Giuliani’s 9/11 performance was sublime for the unnerving reason that he’d been rehearsing for it all his adult life and remained trapped in that stage role. When his oldest friend and deputy mayor Peter Powers told me in 1994 that 16-year-old Rudy had started an opera club at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, I didn’t have to connect too many of the dots I was seeing to notice that Giuliani at times acted like an opera fanatic who’s living in a libretto as much as in the real world.
In private, Giuliani can contemplate the human comedy with a Machiavellian prince’s supple wit. But when he walks on stage, he tenses up so much that even though he can strike credibly modulated, lawyerly poses, his efforts to lighten up seem labored. What really drove many of his actions as mayor was a zealot’s graceless division of everyone into friend or foe and his snarling, sometimes histrionic, vilifications of the foes. Those are operatic emotions, beneath the civic dignity of a great city and its chief magistrate.
I know a few New Yorkers who deserve the Rudy treatment, but only on 9/11 did the whole city become as operatic as the inside of Rudy’s mind. For once, his New York re-arranged itself into a stage fit for, say, Rossini’s “Le Siege de Corinth” or some dark, nationalist epic by Verdi or Puccini that ends with bodies strewn all over and the tragic but noble hero grieving for his devastated people and, perhaps, foretelling a new dawn.
It’s unseemly to call New York’s 9/11 agonies “operatic,” but it was Giuliani who called the Metropolitan Opera only a few days after 9/11 and insisted its performances resume. At the start of one of them, the orchestra struck up a few familiar chords as the curtain rose on the entire cast and the Met’s stage hands, administrators, secretaries, custodians — and Rudy Giuliani, bringing the capacity audience to its feet to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with unprecedented ardor. Then all gave the mayor what The New Yorker’s Alex Ross called “an ovation worthy of Caruso.” A few days later Giuliani proposed that his term be extended on an “emergency” basis beyond its lawful end on January 1, 2002. (It wasn’t, and the city did as well as it could have, anyway.)
Should this country suffer another devastating attack before the 2008 primaries are over, Giuliani’s presidential prospects may soar beyond recalling. But the very Constitutional notion of recall could soar away with them. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Giuliani was right for his time on a stage with built-in limits. But we shouldn’t have to make him the next President to learn why even a grateful Britain dumped Churchill in its first major election after V-E day.