BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 15, 2001
Rudolph William Luis Giuliani is not the most likable man in America. He is a divider, not a uniter. He demonizes anyone who disagrees with him as "idiotic" or "crazy" or "silly" or "dangerous" or "jerky" (and quite often as "very, very idiotic," or "very, very jerky"). He is a beady-eyed bully, a ruthless egomaniac, a world-class control freak. He informed the media that he was separating from his wife before he informed his wife. He ousted his star police commissioner for getting too much good publicity. He ran two supposedly independent school chancellors out of town for daring to question his absolute authority. He refused to meet with his city's black elected officials for years. He crusaded against cab drivers, Legal Aid lawyers, bike messengers, hot-dog vendors, street artists, community gardeners. He even trashed non-partisan watchdogs such as the Citizens Budget Commission ("absurd," "off the wall," "very, very, unhelpful"), the Independent Budget Office ("the stupidest thinking you can possibly imagine"), and the state Financial Control Board ("totally hypocritical").
That said, Rudy Giuliani may be the most successful mayor in America. He launched a zero-tolerance assault on lawlessness, targeting public urinators and turnstile jumpers as well as killers and traffickers, helping to transform New York City from a scary and anarchic war zone into one of the nation's safest cities. Homicides have plunged by two-thirds, the overall crime rate is at its lowest level in decades, and tourism is at an all-time high. Giuliani also helped to rescue the city from the brink of fiscal disaster, demanding concessions from powerful municipal unions, slashing and privatizing bloated agencies, plowing ahead with unpopular crackdowns on welfare fraud and welfare sloth. And thanks in part— though arguably a small part—to his anti-tax and pro-business attitudes, New York has belatedly joined America's economic party. Everyone knows about the resurrection of Times Square and the explosion of Silicon Alley, but Harlem is also enjoying a second renaissance, the outer boroughs are producing even more new jobs than Manhattan, and the real estate market is booming citywide.
Lately, though, things have gone a bit awry for Giuliani. He sneered and scowled his way through some high-profile cases of police brutality, taking his usual defend-the-cops rhetoric to ludicrous extremes. Then he started flaunting an odd adulterous affair, prompting more psycho-mayor suspicions. Finally he ditched his Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton—he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but he hadn't been too hot to run in the first place; and this seemed to reduce his stature even more. In his lame-duck year as mayor, Giuliani is still raging against traffic scofflaws, recalcitrant unionists, and creeps who don't curb their dogs, and he is still vowing to abolish the city's ancient Board of Education; but it somehow sounds like background noise.
So now the inevitable revisionism is setting in. Giuliani is still known as the ferocious strongman who tamed ungovernable Gotham, but the new conventional wisdom is focusing more on the ferocity than the taming, more on the lost opportunities of his dictatorial approach than the impressive achievements of his iron-fisted administration. The furor over his egg-breaking is threatening to obscure the legacy of his omelet-making.
But it is an important legacy, a remarkable case study in slash-and-burn political leadership. Now the battle to explain the apparent chasm between Giuliani's personality and performance has begun, and there are several possible explanations. Perhaps Giuliani is not really such a good mayor, just a despicable rooster claiming credit for the sunrise. This is the central argument of Wayne Barrett's long-winded biographical diatribe: "Rudy the Mayor could be no better than Rudy the Man." It has a nice ring, but it is dead wrong. Or perhaps Giuliani is not really a bad guy, just misunderstood. This argument will have to wait for the mayor's memoirs. The evidence to support it certainly was not available at press time. Or perhaps, as the emerging wisdom has it, Giuliani is a tragic figure, an effective administrator whose personal flaws have kept him from greatness, a strong leader whose accomplishments have been overshadowed by his passion for confrontation and his political Manichaeanism. The late Kevin McAuliffe made this case in the foreword to his snarky compilation. Sayings of Generalissimo Giuliani, impudently packaged as a Mao-style little red book: "This book is about a tragedy. It is about what we have given up, as a people and as a city, to get what we have today. And it is about what could have been." Former mayor Ed Koch, in a collection of hilariously self-aggrandizing but occasionally intelligent newspaper columns titled Nasty Man, also paints Giuliani as a "superb administrator" done in by hubris: "Unfortunately, Rudy is what he is and cannot change. Heraclitus said: A man's character is his fate."
But there is another possible explanation of Giulianism, an explanation that Heraclitus might not have liked. It is the opposite of the popular notion that Giu- liani could have achieved greatness if only he had been less vicious, less intimi- dating, less paranoid, more of a people person. Perhaps Giuliani has achieved greatness precisely because he is such a jerk. In his engaging and evenhanded account of Giuliani's political career, Andrew Kirtzman seems at times to subscribe to the oh-what-could-have-been theory of the mayor, but he suggests its fiip side as well. "His flaws were key to his successes. Through force of personality and through a deliberate effort to centralize all power in his ofiice, he intimidated the reigning powers of New York. No one wasn't afraid of Rudy Giuliani."
Sure, it can be painful to watch Giuliani spew venom as he defends the indefensible. It can be infuriating to hear him dismiss serious critics as insidious dolts unworthy of the air they breathe. But maybe it took that kind of in-your-face guy, a No More Mr. Nice guy, to whip the naked city into shape, to suppress its knee-jerk liberalism, to raise the expectations of a defeatist populace accustomed to fear and filth and aggressive panhandlers. Mayor David Dinkins, after all, was a very, very nice guy. Unfortunately New York went to hell on his watch. Giuliani, by contrast, is the municipal version of il principe, preferring to be feared rather than loved.
I first saw Giuliani in action on December 31, 1998, at his annual briefing on his administration's accomplishments. The very first question was whether he had made New York 'leaner and meaner." This was his merry response: "That's an insulting question. Happy New Year. That's been a perception from the very beginning. It's something that you keep writing and I don't really give a darn. I'm doing my job as well as I can do it. I think I'm taking New York City into the next century in much better shape than I found it. If people like my personality, thank you. If you don't, I really don't care." And he really doesn't. In this golden age of pandering, Giuliani is the politician who declared war on jaywalkers—an interest group that includes every ambulatory inhabitant of his city. In this regard, he is the admirable antithesis of Bill Clinton: a politician with no inclination to feel your pain, with no need for your love.
Wayne Barrett, a dogged investigative reporter for The Village Voice, has written the fattest of the four Giuliani books. It is an amazingly well-researched expose of Giuliani's entire life, from his Brooklyn and Long Island childhood to his career as a federal prosecutor to the political machinations of his mayoralty. Barrett's book has some sensational revelations about the mayor's Mafia relatives, and it is full of new dirt about his extramarital antics, his junkie cousin, and his penchant for dirty tricks. It is also, unfortunately, a horribly written paleo-liberal screed, full of vaporous pronouncements that sound like Wide World of Sports voiceovers: "Boldness was his birthright, destiny his dream." Or: "From November 2, 1993, on, history was his only companion, greatness his only goal." Barrett apparently dumped twenty years of reporting notes into this tome, from Giuliani's freshman grades (four As, three B's, and a C in Art in the Ancient Orient and Greece) to his uncle's fire department salary ($22,051). The blizzard of such details in his book proves only that the fruits of a reporter's obsession are sometimes pointless.
This tendentious and unpleasant book also reads like the revenge of a jilted lover, which is no coincidence. Giuliani was the hero and primary source for Barrett's first book, a chronicle of corruption in the Koch administration. Barrett now writes: "I identified with Rudy in so many ways in the '80s. He is only a year older than I am ... we are both products of 16 years of Catholic school ... we shared a strong sense of good and evil." Back then, of course, Barrett believed that Giuliani personified Good. Now he evidently personifies Evil. Suffice it to say that Barrett's subject is not the only half of this reporter-source psychodrama who grinds a nuanced world into black and white.
Barrett does lay out a damning case against "Rudy the Man." Kirtzman's fairer book at least points out that Giuliani can be kind to fierce loyalists as long as they remain fiercely loyal; but Barrett simply chronicles a Javert-style litany of sins in Harlequin-style prose. To wit: Giuliani dodged the draft with help from an early boss. Judge Lloyd McMahon, a "curmudgeonly courtroom colossus." Giuliani exaggerated his legal role in the turnaround of a Kentucky coal company, as well as his role initiating the "Commission" case that ravaged the New York Mafia. When President Reagan nominated Giuliani to be associate attorney general, he apparently withheld information about his criminal relatives from the FBI. At the Justice Department, Giuliani helped to scuttle a bribery prosecution of McDonnell Douglas after a shady meeting with company officials. He was the point man for Reagan's see-no-evil Haiti policy, and testified under oath that there was no repression in Baby Doc Duvalier's regime. He got his first marriage annulled by claiming—oops!—that he hadn't realized that his wife was his second cousin. He had an investigator try to dig up evidence that Koch was gay. His campaign tried to peddle Dinkins's kinky extramarital love letters to reporters. He has flip- flopped on abortion, welfare reform, school vouchers, and homeless shelters. For all his self-righteous bluster, he often expresses the courage of his lack of convictions.
AND THEN THERE is race. It is the prism through which Barrett sees the whole Giuliani era, as well as Giuliani himself "All his life he'd occupied a milky universe" of white neighborhoods, white Catholic schools, and white law firms. As a boy in Brooklyn, he rooted for the all-white Yankees instead of Jackie Robinson's Dodgers. His father moved whenever blacks moved nearby. His first wife left him for a black man. "He never lived, like so many white New Yorkers, on a block alive with human diversity—preferring Woodside in Queens, West End Avenue and the homogenous East 80s." (Shame on him!) And, according to Barrett, the race card dominated his political races. In his unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 1989, he ran an advertisement in the Yiddish press linking Dinkins to Jesse Jackson—"a naked appeal to Jews... The dishonesty of it was transparent." (Why? Dinkins had just endorsed Jackson for president. And Jackson had practically hijacked Dinkins's primary victory party.). As for 1993, well, to quote Barrett's inimitable prose: "The 1993 ballot might as well have been black. Race was the rationale for the campaign, the door-opener. And Rudy ran through it so fast all the city saw was a white blur." In his re-election campaign in 1997, he nefariously linked his white Manhattan liberal Democratic opponent, Ruth Messinger, to her black Manhattan liberal Democratic supporter Dinkins. And in his fledgling Senate campaign, he attacked Hillary for sucking up to Al Sharpton, the racial arsonist described by Barrett, ahem, as "the portly prince of provocation."
So what was the result of this white blurism? Mayor Giuliani slashed the city's welfare rolls to their lowest levels since the Great Society, cut subsidies to its troubled public hospitals, and attacked open admission policies at the once proud City University of New York—policy decisions that Barrett views as indefensible assaults on minorities. He also refused to set racial hiring quotas in his administration and abandoned several set-aside programs. Barrett huffs that Giuliani is so insensitive to people of color that when asked to defend his administration's record on minorities, he once replied: "They're alive, how about we start with that?"
I guess I'm insensitive too, because that sounds like a pretty good argument to me. After all, the metropolitan killing fields under Dinkins were minority killing fields. Giuliani's newly aggressive police, using quality-of-life sweeps and stop-and-frisks as well as innovative computer tracking of crime data, have taken back the streets in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brovraisville as well as Woodside and West End Avenue. The mayor deserves criticism for blowing off minority leaders and entire minority neighborhoods, and he was lucky to take office as the crack epidemic was ending; but his policies have undoubtedly saved minority lives. And while Giuliani was needlessly hostile after the horrific police killings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond, his main point in both cases was right: cops in New York have become more restrained on his watch, and far more restrained than cops in other cities. They shot 41 civilians to death in 1990, and only 19 in 1998. Incredibly, Barrett argues that since police killings did not drop even more while crime was plummeting, "it was as if the only guy firing away at the OK Corral was Wyatt Earp." This is as wacky as his suggestion that welfare reform equals racism, that the workfare recipients cleaning up New York are "the nation's last conscripted army." (Barrett even attacks Giuliani for misspelling Dorismond's name in a letter. Sorry to quibble, but I know only two of the prosecutors mentioned in this book, Michael Bromwich and William F. Weld, and Barrett botches both of their names. He also calls George Pataki's hometown Peeksville, when it is Peekskill, which denotes precisely the opposite view about peeking.)
It is true that Giuliani does not seem comfortable around blacks, and that he barely even pretends to solicit their support. And he is certainly a racial opportunist. Still, race was by no means the entire rationale for Giuliani's campaign in 1993. The rationale was that New York was in chaos. Welfare rolls were at their highest levels since the Depression. Dinkins had raised taxes by $1 billion—and still faced a $2 billion deficit. As Koch points out, even the Off-Track Betting Corporation was losing money, "defying heretofore universal mathematical certainties." Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had announced that the city was "defining deviancy down." Time magazine called it "The Rotting Apple." A Times Square newsflash on an episode of "The Simpsons" blared: "Crime Up 8 Million Percent." And while the black-on-Jew race riot in Crown Heights did become a major campaign issue, it was perfectly legitimate for Giuliani to criticize Dinkins's appalling lack of leadership in that ugly crisis. In fact, the political figure who most blatantly injected race into that campaign was President Clinton, who swooped into town shortly before Election Day to bemoan the fact that whites still have difficulty voting for blacks.
For all his hostility to black leaders, Giuliani's job approval rating among black residents was an astounding fifty-seven percent before the Diallo debacle. He was always even more popular among Latinos. The point is that, by any honest accounting, Rudy the Mayor has been far better than Rudy the Man. He drove the wiseguys out of Fulton Fish Market and Little Italy's annual Feast of San Gennaro. Subway ridership is skyrocketing, adoptions are at a record high, corporations are racing back to the city, and the Lower East Side is overrun with yuppie condos. A City Hall reporter recently told me he hates covering the Giuliani administration because its agencies are so well managed. When Giuliani first proposed a zero-tolerance approach to quality-of-life crimes, the Dinkins campaign attacked it as "arrestonomics," but now almost everyone agrees that it worked wonders. (Even Barrett admits in a stunning on-the-other- hand paragraph that the Giuliani administration has helped make the streets "dramatically cleaner and safer," relieve tax burdens, spur economic growth, reduce welfare fraud, and extend domestic partner benefits to gay city workers.)
Giuliani is not solely responsible for New York's rebirth, though he certainly thinks he is. (A few years ago New York magazine slapped billboards on buses touting itself as "Possibly the Only Good Thing in New York Rudy Hasn't Taken Credit For." Rudy sued, naturally.) It is true that Dinkins sealed the deal that led to the revitalization of Times Square, that Dinkins launched the initial campaign to beef up the city's police force, that Koch made the subways graffiti-free. Mayors always get too much credit or too much blame for the demographic and macro-economic forces shaping their cities— especially in New York, where the Wall Street returns can balance or unbalance the municipal budget—and Giuliani was fortunate to take office when crime and unemployment were dropping nation-wide. He has a fair amount in common with Steven Goldsmith of Indianapolis, Jon Norquist of Milwaukee, Richard Riordan of Los Angeles, and Richard Daley of Chicago—all good mayors who have been hailed as Supermayors.
But New York's revival has far out-paced the rest of the nation's. At one point in mid-1995, the city was responsible for two-thirds of America's overall crime reduction. And Giuliani has set the tone. At a time when New York was widely perceived as a lost cause, when more than half its residents were telling pollsters they wanted out, Giuliani declared in his first inaugural address that the era of fear was over, that the rule of law was back, that the skeptics should shut up and get out of his way. "It should be so and it will be so," he announced. Then he seized every shred of power available to a mayor, and more. Now it is so.
II. ANDREW KIRTZMAN HELPS TO explain how Giuliani helped to make it so: "This is the story ofa defiant man whose strength, resolve and vision helped bring a city back from a state of bedlam. It's an account of how a person with no experience in municipal government outsmarted its political leaders, union chiefs and media lords." Emperor ofthe City is no exercise in hagiography. It details how, after promising a purely merit-based administration, Giuliani put a 23-year-old family friend with no college degree in charge of patronage, and fired one official who dared to oust a hack whom the "Yesnidys" had stashed in her agency. It chronicles how Giuliani ousted his gifted police commissioner Bill Bratton because he was becoming a national media star, and how he bullied schools chancellors Ramon Cortines and Rudy Crew into quitting because they would not grant him full control. "It is also a story about one of the most polarizing political figures since Richard Nixon," Kirtzman writes.
Still, it is clear Kirtzman believes that the most important thing about Giuliani is not that he is a nasty man, or that he stepped out on his wives, but that he became draconian with New York when New York needed an archon like Draco. The cover of his book portrays the mayor wielding a broom, and the book recounts how Giuliani literally began cleaning up City Hall as soon as he arrived: "The new team was appalled at the conditions they found. Desks were jammed together. Boxes were piled on top of one another. From the perspective of people more accustomed to corporate life than municipal government, the Democrats had left behind a mess. An instant face-lift was ordered." The battle against the past was officially joined.
In his first month as mayor, Giuliani went to war with Sharpton, who was inflaming race relations after a brawl between cops and Nation of Islam security guards at a Harlem mosque. The mayor sent an instant message that he would always give police the benefit ofthe doubt in controversies, a tactic about which reasonable people can disagree but which certainly encouraged officers to venture out of their doughnut shops after years of lousy morale. Giuliani also made it clear that he would never be intimidated or mau-maued by the portly prince with the pompadour who had paralyzed his predecessors. "We have spent way more time on Reverend Sharpton than it's really worth," he declared.
In his second month, Giuliani began fighting over the budget, demanding $1 billion in cuts and impolitely pointing out that you cannot have a city in which everyone works for the city. He proposed bouncing 15,000 employees off the pay-roll, merging the housing police and the transit police into the NYPD, and finger-printing welfare recipients. The liberal establishment went bonkers. Bureaucrats predicted doomsday. The city council's Black and Hispanic Caucus released its non-negotiable demands. But Giuliani refused to budge, lashing out at critics as irresponsible whiners and fools and negotiating only with council president Peter Vallone, a conservative Democrat from Queens. "Each day brought a new assault on the people he branded as the protectors of the status quo," Kirtzman recounts. Ultimately he got his way on almost everything.
And so it has gone. The mayor has governed in a constant state of war against a dizzying array of targets: Khalid Muhammad, John Rocker, Yasir Arafat, the Grammys, the Brooklyn Museum, the United Nations, campaign finance officials, school board members, immigrant bashers, cop bashers, left-wing Democrats, right-wing Republicans, vagrants, sex shops, Methadone clinics, car alarms, horn honkers. This was the Greneralissimo's response when a caller to his radio show complained about a ban on keeping ferrets as pets: "There is something deranged about you know you feel insulted by that, but I am being honest with you. This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness." So is the excessive concern with the excessive concern.
This obsessive-compulsive hostility to just about everyone in his city is now utterly predictable, and at the heart of most of the strictures against Giuliani. "Leadership based on fear breeds resentment," Koch warned in a column. "Other cities across America seem to have staged comebacks too, but without the rancor, the raw belligerence and the intimidation factor that have increasingly typified the governing style of Rudy Giuliani," Kevin McAuliffe wrote in his foreword. "New York is a city today that is ruled by tyranny, and temper tantrums. It is a city in which gratuitous malice has been injected into the political process." But is it really so gratuitous? Does it really matter if leadership based on fear breeds resentment, if it also breeds a functioning civil society? Are the critics really sure that New York could have had the one without the other?
EVEN KIRTZMAN, WHILE acknowledging that "it is hard to overstate the degree to which the culture of the city changed under his mayoralty," spies a dark side in all this:
The parks sport surveillance cameras, and are closed to the public at midnight. Many nightclubs have been busted over and over and finally shuttered. City Hall is an armed camp, closed to office workers who used to stroll past the center of government at lunchtime. Motorists caught driving drunk forfeit their cars. Times Square is back, but it is disdained by New Yorkers as a tourist trap. The homeless have largely vanished from sight, but soup kitchens are overfiowing. The city has sacrificed some of its anarchic spirit—and some of its heart—for the order Giuliani imposed.
But wait a minute. Aside from the overflowing soup kitchens—which is a nationwide urban problem, albeit one that Giuliani has not addressed adequately— what's wrong with anything on Kirtzman's lugubrious list? Who needs a park after midnight? Why should drunk drivers keep their cars? For all the old hipster nostalgia for hooker-infested Times Square, isn't urban blight supposed to be a bad thing? As for ye olde "anarchic spirit," to the ex- tent that it means all-night parties and irreverent attitudes. New York still has it; and to the extent that it means muggings in broad daylight, most of us will gladly take the order that Giuliani imposed.
The perpetual wartime footing did singe Giuliani last year after Amadou Diallo reached for a wallet in front of four cops from the Street Crimes Unit—motto: "We Ovra the Night"—who promptly dropped him with a fusillade of forty-one shots. Sharpton and his crowd branded the foursome as cold-blooded murderers, which was silly—they obviously did not want to kill an unarmed man; but Giuliani refused to admit that the foursome had made a miserable mistake, which was equally silly. Soon Sharpton was holding huge civil disobedience rallies at police headquarters, and even mainstream pols were lining up to get arrested with the Tawana Brawley liar.
This was probably the worst thing Giuliani did in office: he rebuilt Sharpton's platform. This really was a time when Rudy the Bad Man became Rudy the Bad Mayor. He was within his rights to defend the hyperaggressive SCU—it is nice that gangs don't own the night anymore—but he could have shown a bit of concern that so many people of color feel besieged by his 40,000-cop army. Giuliani finally agreed to meet with his black critics after his one black deputy confided that even he had been pulled over by cops for no reason. But a year later, when Dorismond was killed by a cop, Giuliani instinctively slimed the dead man's reputation, and the cycle of fury began again.
All this is the ugly side of Giuliani's New York. But Kirtzman also unearths a beautiful tale from the depths of the Diallo nightmare, when Giuliani's approval ratings had dropped thirty points and the pollster Frank Luntz was brought in to run a focus group of white city residents. They all loved what Giuliani had done to the streets, but they all agreed that he should not be defending his police in this case. Giuliani promptly exploded at Luntz: "This was a waste of time! I've learned nothing from this! I am not going to turn against the police. I am not going to give in to the mob mentality! I'd rather not be mayor than do something unprincipled!"
The principle may have been entirely wrong, and Giuliani's principles do evolve according to circumstances, and the entire story does sound a bit exaggerated in the retelling, but it is kind of refreshing, isn't it? The latest New York buzz is pushing President Clinton as his successor, which makes Kirtzman's take on the Luntz episode particularly interesting: "In the age of Bill Clinton, who polled and focus-grouped every decision down to where to take his vacations, it was rare for a politician facing the abyss to reject the advice of his pollster. Giuliani was a remarkable man that way. In this case, though, the city could have used a little of Clinton's touch. It needed a leader with an ability to empathize, someone dexterous enough to tell every side a little of what it wanted to hear."
Maybe. But if we have learned anything from the age of Bill Clinton, it is that leaders who empathize and tell all sides a little of what they want to hear do not necessarily bring people together; and also that many Americans are sensible enough to separate their opinion of a man's character from their opinion of his performance. The truth is that the damn-the-torpedoes style that turned the Diallo problem into the Diallo crisis was the same damn-the-torpedoes style that turned a dysfunctional city into a dynamic city. Isn't that what matters? It is easy to see why the naysayers complain that Giuliani should have reached out to his critics and tempered his rhetoric and tried to unite New Yorkers, but they are essentially complaining that Giuliani should not have been Giuliani.
No, Mayor Giuliani did not bridge New York's racial divide. Neither did Mayor Dinkins or Mayor Koch. Neither, Grod help us all, would Mayor Clinton. That is not what mayors do. What Mayor Giuliani did was arrest the terrifying decline of an amazing city. In the final analysis, everything else is little weasels.
This article originally appeared in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.