And if there’s another 9/11, all bets are off.
- By Jim Sleeper <p> Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale University and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York. </p>
As Rudy Giuliani screamed and frothed at last summer’s Republican National Convention, he seemed the portrait of a public servant gone mad. Plenty of the people who dismissed the antics of Giuliani’s 2008 presidential primary run (when, as Joe Biden noted, every one of his sentences contained “a verb, a noun, and 9/11”) felt that his rabid support for Donald Trump, a wild interloper in the world of politics to which the former New York mayor had dedicated his life, indicated a man who had finally and utterly lost it.
But it may be the liberal observers of Giuliani whose grip has been slipping. Having covered Giuliani’s and Trump’s New York since the mid-1980s, I knew that Rudy hasn’t lost it — he’s found, in Trump, what has always seemed normal to him. Which is not to suggest their shared worldview should seem entirely normal to us.
Even if their long-standing and ongoing, heavy-breathing flirtation doesn’t reach consummation in Rudy’s appointment as secretary of state, as reports suggest is still a possibility, it has opened a useful window onto the coming Trump administration. Trump’s lack of public service offers few clues on what is about to become the new normal in American politics and foreign policy. But the mind and career of Giuliani offers some indication.
People often claim that Giuliani underwent an evolution over the past couple of decades, from the commanding, often brilliantly competent mayor of a great city on 9/11 to the terror-obsessed Rudy of 2008, and then to the crooked Rudy who enriched himself consulting for nations whose weapons purchases from the United States he’d oversee as secretary of state. And it wouldn’t be wholly wrong to assume that 9/11 deranged Rudy. If you’d gone through what he did, including attending hundreds of first responders’ funerals and hugging thousands of devastated survivors, afterward, you, too, would be struggling with a strain of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the fuller truth is that Rudy has been struggling with something like PTSD since long before 9/11 triggered a chronic inability to control it. 9/11 simply unveiled, once and for all, the demons that had always motivated his public life and fueled his talents. These are psychological deficiencies that bear a close resemblance to Trump’s own. They also ought to be disqualifying for national leaders of a democracy.
The outlines of those demons were not readily apparent in Rudy at the start of his electoral career, when he enjoyed a reputation for being commanding and competent. Throughout the 1993 New York mayoral race, in which Giuliani defeated David Dinkins, the city’s first African-American mayor, I tried harder than any other columnist I know of to convince my left-liberal friends and everyone else that Giuliani would win. I also thought at the time that he 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 need 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. While I criticized him sharply when I thought he was overreaching, I defended much of his record to the end of his tenure — and still would. 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. Giuliani’s successes ranged well beyond the city’s vaunted drop in crime. He also managed to facilitate 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’d been New York City’s police commissioner before becoming vice president and president.
Yet Giuliani won’t be able to carry over his methods and motives to any national political office without damaging the country.
The first reason is his long-standing disrespect for the established constraints of political institutions: A man who fought the inherent limits of his mayoral office as fanatically as Giuliani would construe national and federal prerogatives so broadly that he’d make George W. Bush’s notions of “unitary” executive power seem soft.
Even in the 1980s, as an assistant attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department and then as U.S. attorney in New York, Giuliani was imperious and overreaching. He was known for dramatically “perp-walking” Wall Streeters out of their offices even when he didn’t have cases compelling enough to ultimately convict them. In one failed prosecution, he forced the troubled daughter of a state judge, Hortense Gabel, to testify in a corruption trial in which her own mother was charged. The jury was so put off by Giuliani’s tactics that it acquitted all concerned.
At least, as U.S. attorney, Giuliani served at the pleasure of the president and had to defer to federal judges. Had he ever become the president, as he hoped to do in 2008, or attorney general, as some say he hoped to do this year before that post was given to Jeff Sessions, U.S. attorneys would have served at his pleasure and he’d have helped pick the judges to whom prosecutors defer. Even as any other kind of Trump cabinet member or close advisor, he’ll have Trump’s ear and very possibly too much influence over a broad range of protocols and picks.
The second and greater problem with Giuliani is his grandiosity, his need to always feel he has come out on top, even if it is in the role of bully. As mayor, Giuliani fielded his closest aides like a fast and sometimes brutal hockey team, micromanaging and bludgeoning city agencies and even agencies that weren’t his, like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Board of Education. Some of those agencies deserved the Rudy treatment richly enough to make his bravado thrilling to many of us, though he wasn’t above pandering shamelessly to some Hispanics, orthodox and neoconservative Jews, and other favored constituencies or cutting indefensible deals with crony contractors. (To judge from the reporting of his international security consulting since then, his conflicts of interest as secretary of state would justify the moniker “Crooked Rudy” far more than any of Hillary Clinton’s alleged misdeeds have justified what Trump called her.)
Giuliani was a self-styled Savonarola who disdained even would-be allies in other branches of government. Even the credit that 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 industrial average had stood at 3,754.09, 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, by contrast, had had to struggle through the aftereffects of the huge crash of 1987.)
Ironically, it was Giuliani’s 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 when he wondered why, after Giuliani’s 1997 mayoral re-election, with the city buoyed by its new safety and economic success, he couldn’t “turn his Churchillian political personality down a few notches.”
That wasn’t a matter of oversight or accident. 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 Memorial 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, he 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. Commenting just two weeks ago on New York street demonstrations against Trump’s election, Giuliani warned the protesters that they were “breaking Giuliani’s rules. You don’t take my streets. You can have my sidewalks, but you don’t take my streets, because ambulances have to get through there, firetrucks have to get through there.” But they’re not his streets, and emergency vehicles have a much harder time getting through them during any rush hour than they would with only pedestrians in the way.
I’ve known more than a few New Yorkers, Trump among them, who deserved the bullying Rudy treatment. But only on 9/11 did the whole city become as extreme and operatic as the inside of Rudy’s mind. For once, the city rearranged itself into a stage fit for, say, Rossini’s “Le Siège de Corinthe” 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 that 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 stagehands, 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.”
9/11 seemed to vindicate Giuliani’s style of governance, some of it retroactively. In 1998, many of us had scoffed as he installed protective concrete barriers all around City Hall, citing the dangers of terrorism. After 9/11, he looked less paranoid than prescient, and many of us were humbled. But when he proposed that his term as mayor be extended on an “emergency” basis beyond its lawful end on Jan. 1, 2002 (it wasn’t), that would have been “a barrier too far” — a small but fateful step toward an authoritarian governance that seeks to eliminate enemies but always ends up only generating more.
Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Giuliani was right at times, on a grand civic stage with the built-in limits that constrain any mayor. But we don’t need to watch him as secretary of state to learn why Trump should never have been elected and why even a grateful Britain was justified in dumping Churchill in its first major election after the end of World War II.
Photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images