Reviewed by Vincent J. Cannato
Sunday, September 3, 2006
The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11
By Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins
HarperCollins. 390 pp. $25.95
In New York City's history, only two mayors have successfully moved on to statewide or higher office, the last one more than 130 years ago. Rudolph W. Giuliani is trying to buck that trend. Not content with a Senate seat or the governorship of New York, the former mayor now seems to be positioning himself for a run at the presidency in 2008. And early polls of Republican voters indicate that he has strong support. Above all, Giuliani's actions during and after Sept. 11, 2001, and his evolution into "America's mayor" won him his national stature.
If Giuliani is viewed with suspicion by some conservatives who worry about his social views, he is downright loathed by many liberals. And it is from the left that Grand Illusion lunges. Written by Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice and Dan Collins of CBSNews.com, it aims its fire directly at Giuliani's image as a hero of 9/11, blaming him for leaving the city unprepared for a catastrophic terrorist attack. The authors strongly imply that his negligence was responsible for many deaths that day.
This book falls in the grand old tradition of muckraking American journalism. At their best, muckrakers skewer conventional wisdom, puncture myths and expose hypocrisy or corruption. Grand Illusion attempts to do all three, and Barrett and Collins leave no stone unturned to prove their thesis.
But Grand Illusion is hardly the "untold story" it claims to be. For one thing, many of its claims are well-known. Giuliani's "bunker" for his Office of Emergency Management (OEM) was located on the 23rd floor of Number 7 World Trade Center, making it inoperable on that terrible day. The entire center was lost when the building collapsed, and there was no backup site. The city's traditionally turf-conscious fire and police departments, as well as the Port Authority that ran the World Trade Center, did not work well together. A centralized command was absent. Many radios did not work, keeping important information from firefighters inside the doomed buildings. Giuliani's post-9/11 suggestion that he stay on for three months beyond the end of his second term was ill-advised and undemocratic.
Beyond these familiar failings, the book offers a persistently prosecutorial brief against Giuliani, accusing him of all manner of cronyism, distraction and mismanagement. Giuliani, the person and politician, never really appears in this book, except to the extent that the authors can use his words against him. The distaste that Barrett and Collins feel for their subject is palpable throughout.
Grand Illusion is driven by an intense moralism that neatly divides the world into heroes and villains. This is especially ironic since Barrett co-wrote a book in 1988 about the scandals under Mayor Edward I. Koch. One of the heroes of that book was a young, brash prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani. Now it's Giuliani's turn to don the black hat.
The relentlessness of Barrett and Collins's attack sometimes borders on the petty, as when they criticize Giuliani for not wearing a respirator while visiting Ground Zero -- thereby setting a bad example for rescuers, many of whom have since suffered respiratory problems.
A greater historical context would have informed the book's attacks. For instance, Barrett and Collins never explain why the mayor of New York should have obsessed about the threat of jihadist terrorism when politicians in Washington, the press and the public at large were often content to ignore the issue. It is understandable that Giuliani, inheriting a chaotic city beset by crime and fiscal instability, might have let the memory of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing slip into the background. This amnesia was so potent, in fact, that a critical biography of Giuliani published in 2000 paid scant attention to the issue of terrorism. The book's author: Wayne Barrett.
At least Giuliani did create the OEM and try to form a unified emergency command, even if the implementation left something to be desired. Though OEM was concerned more with responding to things such as water-main breaks and West Nile virus, it did spend time and effort dealing with the potential fallout from the Y2K computer bug, as well as security for the millennial New Year's celebration in Times Square, where the threat of terrorism definitely loomed.
Barrett and Collins also gloss over the inconvenient fact that, at the time, the press and Giuliani's liberal critics greeted the mayor's forays into security issues with howls of derision. When Giuliani created the bunker at 7 WTC, most of the criticisms were not about the location but about whether such a command center was necessary in the first place. In 2000, Barrett himself called the center "a symbol of Giuliani's weakness for gadgetry, secrecy, and militarist overkill."
That the entire nation was unprepared in many ways for 9/11 is widely accepted and documented. Much has been done to rectify the situation, but another terrorist attack will no doubt highlight other weaknesses. One can't help feeling that the city's response to 9/11 was more than the unmitigated disaster the authors make it out to be. Though chaos reigned and communication was often poor, at least 15,000 people escaped the area around the World Trade Center, and even Barrett and Collins admit that most of the civilian deaths could not have been prevented. As chaotic and uncoordinated as the city's response may now appear, the first responders inspired a nation with their bravery. Most important, New York remained calm, and the city and the country came together as they had not in a long time.
Perhaps that explains why, after some 350 pages devoted to hammering home evidence of Giuliani's purported malfeasance, the book ends on a muted note. Barrett and Collins concede that Giuliani's "dust-covered march uptown" after the collapse of the towers "was truly important to the city and the nation" and call his behavior that day "a fine thing." But, they add, it was "not nearly as much as we, at the time, imagined."
Of course, the shine on Giuliani's political armor since 9/11 is bound to become tarnished, especially in a harsh presidential campaign. But his biggest obstacle probably won't be this book but the rigors of the campaign trail and the demands of his party's conservative base. He may not have been the superman of his post-9/11 press clippings, but he is surely a more substantive politician than Barrett and Collins will ever acknowledge.
With time, Giuliani's legacy will be based on more than just 9/11. He left a city immeasurably better off -- safer, more prosperous, more confident -- than the one he had inherited eight years earlier, even with the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center at its heart. Debates about his accomplishments will continue, but the significance of his mayoralty is hard to deny. Perhaps that explains the vehemence of Grand Illusion . After all, muckrakers rarely take aim at dismal failures. ·
Vincent J. Cannato teaches history at the Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston, and is the author of "The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York."