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Against the Giuliani Legacy

Part Four: A King After the Calamity

Whether elected or appointed
He considers himself the Lord’s anointed,
And indeed the ointment lingers on him
So thick you can’t get your fingers on him.


The three previous installments of this series critically explored the “new” New York of the Giuliani administration via redefinition of “quality of life” and the war on crime, “decency” and the free market, and, most recently, welfare-to-work and the war on the city’s poor. I have consistently argued that while the administration basked in the glory of New York’s “turn around,” systemic problems of poverty as well as of equality of life for all have been egregiously left by the wayside even throughout an unprecedented period of economic expansion. Now, in the aftermath of the horrific and painful events of September 11th, history seems to be getting whitewashed, raising the question: should the meteoric rise of Rudy Giuliani over the last four months eclipse the real issues of the last eight years?

The gruesome destruction of the World Trade Center predictably led to a silencing, if not a chastising, of most of Giuliani’s critics. During such an unbelievable time people came together and yearned for stability. And, surely, it was a difficult, if not inappropriate, time to criticize the Mayor. Giuliani does deserve credit—on what grounds would people say anything else? There is nothing close to compare to the Mayor’s behavior during the disaster, as he managed to communicate calmly to a city under incredible duress.

Indeed, it now seems that discussions of “quality of life” policing infractions, First Amendment violations and the rollback of services for the poor seem almost trite, even annoying, when compared to the enormity of the smoldering ruins where thousands disappeared. But in the emotional aftermath of the attacks, the continued dismantling of urban liberalism that has taken place over the last eight years—and with the election of Michael Bloomberg, it may be on a one-way path to extinction—is increasingly exempt from criticism and seen as the only recipe in town.

In the midst of the crisis Giuliani has been transformed, as James Traub put in the New York Times Magazine, into “New York’s father figure,” its “beloved authority figure.” In the present moment, it seems there is no escape from the cries of adulation and anticipated longing.

All the Media is A Stage

            History’s ledgers are filled with the names
            of men who in moments of crisis rise above
            themselves to achieve greatness. Men like
            Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano
            Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Harry S.
            Truman, John F. Kennedy are some of these
            great leaders. It is among these names that
            Rudolph Giuliani will take his place.
                                                (December, 2001)

From network morning shows to Nightline and Larry King Live, from the hosannas of David Letterman and Tom Brokaw to international headlines and  the standing ovation from all of the United States Congress, Rudy Giuliani in the weeks after the September 11th attacks experienced a rise in stature that even the best PR firm and millions of dollars could not have achieved.

Giuliani, fraught with personal troubles and faced with no obvious post-Mayoral political opportunities, was a figure long since out of the national spotlight the short-lived Senate run gave him in 2000. But after he became, with no small help from the mainstream media, the collective face of New York and its rescue effort, his rise in prominence reached meteoric levels complete with titles like “General Giuliani,” “Captain Courageous,” and a “Civic Saint.”

In a media snowball effect, the Mayor went from network and cable news shows to Letterman and Oprah to long interviews with Tim Russert and Larry King. He toured Ground Zero with Kofi Annan, who called him “Mayor of the World,” before Giuliani addressed the United Nations on October 1st, the first time that a Mayor of New York has addressed representatives from all over the world in fifty years. French President Jacques Chirac called him “Rudy the Rock,” while Barbara Walters said “This New Yorker might not have an English accent but today some people are calling him Winston Churchill in a baseball cap.” David Letterman said that it was Rudy who inspired him to do his show for the first time after the disaster and that, “Rudy Giuliani is the personification of courage.” He was a ubiquitous presence at Yankees games broadcast on his pal Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network, donning combinations of Yankee and N.Y.P.D. or F.D.N.Y. paraphernalia and enjoying an abundance of television close-ups sometimes inter-cut with Old Glory waving in the wind.

From Canada to Germany to China, there were news pieces about Giuliani’s return to popularity and how everyone wanted to keep him on as mayor of New York City. From cover stories in the New York Times Magazine to those in the National Enquirer and Cigar Aficionado, to international headlines like Le Figaro’s “Rudy Giuliani, Marie de Coeur des New-Yorkais,” the Mayor of New York City was now the best-known Mayor in the world. Both the New York Post and Daily News printed supplement tributes complete with ingratiating ad-cum-paeans from the New York Stock Exchange to J&R Music World praising Rudy. Of course, we can’t forget his honorary Knighthood from England’s Queen Elizabeth herself.

Tina Brown’s Talk Magazine, not exactly part of the Giuliani machine after the Mayor refused to allow the Brooklyn Navy Yard to be the site of the magazine’s launch party, put him alone on the cover of their October issue, with “The Mayor of America” printed beside him. In tragically purple prose, the story inside read: “New York and the world—what’s the difference?—we’ll always remember Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as he emerged from the rubble to lead a city in shock…New York without Giuliani will be like Rome without Caesar, Brooklyn without its bridge, a bagel without the cream cheese. But now with Rudolph Giuliani, we know something else for sure: It cannot be goodbye, only au revoir. Thank you, Mr. Mayor! Come back soon.”

On the pop-cultural side, the apogee may have been the opening tableau on Saturday Night Live a few weeks after the disaster. Giuliani, flanked by Police Commissioner Kerik and Fire Commissioner Von Essen, was backed up by a posse of overwhelmingly white male police and firemen while Paul Simon sang a song (presumably not from The Capeman). Like some civil service promotional poster from the 1950s, the scene was shot from a low angle with dramatic lightning, and it featured close-ups of the stern and unflinching expression of Giuliani’s face. The semiotic reading was unquestionable: he is in charge and leading a united front of civil servants. He is the vanguard that is bringing New York City back from ruin once again.

Mayor Sheriff

Giuliani’s appeal has always been one of order, especially as represented by his longing for 1950s pre-Civil Rights America. His nostalgia for John Wayne reveals itself in his straightforwardness in times of crisis. The images of a dust-covered Giuliani with mask in hand contrasted with the one of President Bush jetting all over the country. Some would say that perhaps it was bad decision-making for the city’s Chief Executive even to be near such a calamity for fear of injury or death and, subsequently, administrative chaos. But the public in a time of crisis is susceptible to imagine, it is what people glom onto. So, after this crisis occurred many liberals and the like breathed a sigh of relief that the best known law enforcement figure since J. Edgar Hoover was in control. This public adulation inevitably carried neophyte politician Michael Bloomberg to a slim victory, after his anointment by Giuliani.

Beginning in the days when he was a Federal Prosecutor for the Southern District of New York and increased his press staff to unprecedented levels, Giuliani has always controlled his access to the press and, not always successfully, used the press to bolster his image. One wonders what kind of post-attack orchestration led to the Mayor’s image saturating the media. Through the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, Giuliani has also put himself in a more proactive role regarding emergencies and has made a point of showing up in crisis zones or holding elaborate press conferences during a snowstorm or possible hurricane. It is hardly a controversial observation to say that he likes to be the center of attention—just look at him when others are speaking, he is impatient and restless if not wholly condescending.

Giuliani’s actions directly after the attack, and the praise he won, are a parable for the kind of leadership that can run a city effectively, but which can also potentially damage a democracy and blind it to systemic problems. Giuliani’s grasp of security and crime issues—and his definitions of freedom—are derived primarily from a homogeneous sense of order, authority and “respect” as long as they are on his own terms. This consistently grates against the kinds of dialogue and debates that comprise democratic diversity and that are traditionally part of New York City. In terms of leadership, then, he is a one-sided figure who has never fulfilled the role of a leader who can listen and handle a wide range of problems.

After the disaster of September 11th, we thus saw Giuliani seize the moment in more ways than one. Intoxicated with a newborn stature, he attempted to pressure the new candidates for Mayor to extend his reign by at least three months and he flirted with running for Mayor again. Then, from his rubbing shoulders with heads of the UK, France, and Japan, to trading compliments with Henry Kissinger, we also saw that, given his sudden international stature, he was unfortunately able to make statements and decisions regarding foreign policy matters.

The $10 Million Press Release

On October 1st Giuliani spoke to representatives from the entire world as he addressed the United Nations. He took the opportunity to make characteristically blunt statements like “We’re right and they’re wrong. It’s as simple as that. And by that I mean that America and its allies are right about democracy, about religious, political, and economic freedom.” He also lambasted “those who say we must understand the reasons for terrorism,” saying they should come with him to the thousands of funerals in New York City and see the thousands of children whose parents had been taken away for “no reason at all.” No doubt, it was an emotional speech coming to the world from Ground Zero, chilling those who would, in his mind, create a “moral equivalence” or “moral relativism” by suggesting reasons why this may have happened to the United States.

But this kind of attitude reflects, albeit on a larger scale, the Mayor’s actions and behavior over the last eight years, when any critics were dismissed as “advocates,” the misled, or left-over Marxists. The U.N. speech was also full of paeans to “free, inclusive and civil society” and to tolerance and diversity as represented in New York City. Yet during his administration, Giuliani only grudgingly, if ever, met with top elected and populist black leaders, decimated diversity in the top echelons of city government, and admittedly was not much interested in open dialogue or compromise.

On October 11th, Prince Talal of Saudi Arabia, a nephew of King Fahd, came on a pre-arranged visit to the Mayor’s office to New York in order to donate $10 million to the Twin Towers fund. Then, soon after their amiable meeting and his donation, Giuliani refused to accept the money. On CNN’s Larry King Show, Giuliani said that “The reason I didn’t take the money was that the press release that he issued after he spoke to me, which had never been cleared with me, I didn’t know about, said that we should rethink American foreign policy, and then made references to the fact that he believed that the Israelis were slaughtering Palestinians.”

Strangely, this did not create a great outcry in the media or elsewhere. Here was the Mayor of New York City refusing to accept $10 million from an ally of the United States and, by doing so, inevitably influencing foreign policy. No one questioned whether this kind of refusal was even within his purview. Furthermore, the grounds of his refusal smacked not only of crass politicking but also of a lack of honesty and understanding regarding the situation. His rationale would have been less vague if he had gone out on a limb to point out that this ally of the United States is incredibly corrupt to the point where it has nearly bankrupt an oil-rich country; that it has an atrocious human rights record; and that it has even funded Al Qaeda and supported the Taliban. In short, it is a country hardly on “the right side” of the democracy and the religious, political, and economic freedom that Giuliani outlined to the world in his speech to the UN.

For the mayor of New York City to refuse $10 million on a simply vague premise that smacks of demagoguery should outrage anyone no matter what how one feels about the Middle East situation. This type of behavior has been exhibited repeatedly by the Giuliani administration during the last eight years: it reflects both an inability to grasp issues in any truly analytic way as well as a great ability to make crass policy decisions that appeal to the visceral—and selfish—side of people while creating long-term consequences that many times are glossed over.

The Great City and A Tepid Legacy

Rather than condemning people for wanting to understand the reasons for terrorism, one hope we can have is that the disaster of September 11th will stress the importance of following what happens overseas in the long-term. There is no “moral equivalence” created if one argues that we should know our place, and the name of the policies we perpetuate, in the world. To say that one justifies terrorism by pointing out there are problems with U.S. policy in the Middle East is not only absurd, but also a dangerous attack on freedom of speech and democratic debate, another recurring problem for Giuliani over the last eight years.

The attack on New York City was one of the worst attacks on civilians ever perpetrated, but lambasting everyone who would look at historical context does not help bring those responsible to justice. For the leader of New York City for those last eight years not to see this is a blemish on this city’s history. If one calls New York City the Capital of the World, then the world should be within our purview. To talk about “freedom” to representatives from all over the world, many of whom have seen what has happened to their own countries under that same banner, requires a responsibility to acknowledge all connections and atrocities, even if they are done by the United States. Otherwise, how can you really be taken seriously by the world?

Some people may now lament that the glossy “new” New York where dotcom millionaires mingled in slick clubs or overpriced studios is now gone. Others may lament that the time when the outside world did not prick the bubble of spending, shopping and Wall Street booming is a candy-coated memory. The white-washed halcyon days of the New York of Friends and Sex in the City have now given way to a reality too tinged by the ills of the world to be digested easily by mid-American television audiences. Perhaps we are now going back to a taste of that gritty city that forces one to be curious about, and exposed to, the ills of society. That city, unlike the ultra-gentrified, tourist-soaked city born in the longest expansion in the history of the United States economy, is not always friendly, but it is more honest. And, perhaps, it is also a city that as it manifests the systemic ills of society at large also enables real long-term policies to rectify these problems.

The eight years of the Giuliani administration did, in fact, coincide exactly with an unprecedented growth and recent decline in the economy. During that period, the administration succeeded both in stimulating the wealthiest sectors of the city and in dismantling welfare and social services for the neediest; it succeeded in bringing the ethos of the corporation and chain-store into public education and diverse centers of commerce; it succeeded in selling the perception that New York City is “turned around” to the world through a short-term tactic of police pressure on the street and cosmetic enhancement for the tourist. This administration, during the best of times, succeeded in helping the most well-off while leaving others to fend for themselves. A recent survey by Second Harvest, for example, found that the number of people in New York City who needed some kind of food relief tripled over the last four years and that one in five New Yorkers are visiting a food pantry or soup kitchen this year.

In the aftermath of the utter tragedy we experienced on September 11th—and as the economy declines deeper into recession and there is more intense need for social services—there will be much talk of the good days of Giuliani’s historical mayoralty when the world envied New York, opportunities were all around, and those who were critical were discounted as misled. Before he has even left office, such nostalgia for Rudy, sad to say, is already well in the making.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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