Revealing the Total Giuliani

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By Andrew Kirtzman
Sunday, March 18, 2007

After first misreading his intentions and then underestimating his strength, waves of pundits are continuing to view Rudy Giuliani's lead in Republican presidential polls as some kind of giant misunderstanding.

But the fact is that the former New York mayor is the front-runner in the race and a huge new force in American politics. The time has come to stop wondering whether he's for real and start asking a far more important question: What kind of president would he be?

For the past few years, Giuliani's old constituents in New York have marveled as a man once described as a human hand grenade by a New York Times columnist has been transformed into a revered, almost saintly figure. These days, as conservatives struggle over whether to embrace Giuliani, the only discussion is whether he's too liberal.

Saintly? Liberal? The words have almost no relevance to the mayor who once ruled over Gotham. Giuliani is an enormously gifted man, with extraordinary accomplishments to his credit. He's also a highly idiosyncratic figure prone to unusual, sometimes self-destructive acts. As the presidential race moves into a more serious phase, it may be best to put aside the cliches about America's Mayor for a while. If voters are going to elect Rudy Giuliani president, there are a few things they'd better know.

It would be an understatement to say that drama tends to follow Giuliani; it's more like he thrives on it. He has a knack for inserting himself into the center of controversy, as he did when he had Yasser Arafat thrown out of Lincoln Center, sparking an international incident. Or when he waged a culture war by attempting to pull city funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art over an exhibit he found offensive. It was evident when he endorsed Gov. Mario Cuomo for reelection in 1994 over his fellow Republican George Pataki on live television. To those who had grown accustomed to his love of shocking the public, it wasn't a total surprise when he sang "Happy Birthday, Mister President" in full drag in 1997. But his taste for drama is just one of the many unusual traits that make Giuliani such an unorthodox public figure.

Every crusader needs a good crusade, and Giuliani found his calling when he marched up the steps of New York City Hall in January 1994. A Republican in a town of Democrats, he was determined to smash a status quo that had long accepted billion-dollar deficits, deteriorating services and exploding welfare rolls as the norm. The city by then had grown so filthy, crime-ridden and politically dysfunctional that even liberal Democrats were willing to look the other way for someone who could bang some heads. They found their man in the new mayor.

The public soon learned that Giuliani was driven by an overriding need for control. He immediately stripped decision-making powers from dozens of city agencies and centralized them in his office. The men around him, many of them lawyers once derided in his U.S. attorney days as "Yes-Rudys," became the most powerful figures in city government. In the new regime, every morsel of information had to be vetted by the mayor's media operation at City Hall, down to the water reservoir levels released each day to the New York Times weather page. When Giuliani's famously successful police commissioner, William Bratton, resisted City Hall's tight rein and spoke freely to reporters (often about himself), Giuliani booted him from office. The mayor's press secretary charged, characteristically, that Bratton and his lieutenants, who were decimating crime by historic proportions, were "out of control."

The City Hall steps have historically served as New York's town square, hosting an unending stream of colorful protests and news conferences. But that proved too anarchic for the mayor, who tightened security -- before 9/11 -- to the point that reporters, politicians and interest groups were banned from the steps, rendering the place desolate. Only pressure from the City Council forced him to relent. The boss viewed the world in terms of friends and enemies. New York's top-tier elected black leaders -- all of them Democrats -- were written off as sympathizers of Giuliani's predecessor David N. Dinkins; Giuliani refused to meet with any of them for years. He counseled his aides to stay on the offensive -- and he illustrated the point every day. The mayor's battles with the media were pure theater: He'd storm out of news conferences, demean his questioners, pick fights. Nothing restrained him from turning to a Newsday reporter one day and dressing him down in front of his colleagues. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he demanded.

The attacks from his bully pulpit were legendary. Giuliani had no statutory control over the city's deplorable public school system. Frustrated, he began a campaign to hound from office the mild-mannered new schools chancellor, Ramon Cortines. Each day brought a new round of public ridicule. Cortines was "a captive of the bureaucracy," Giuliani complained. "He should grow up . . . and stop playing little victim," he said on another occasion. Unable to fire Cortines, he tormented him mercilessly until the chancellor surrendered and moved to California. Soon afterward, former mayor Ed Koch, a onetime ally, wrote a book about Giuliani. Its title: "Nasty Man."

On the streets of the city, no one felt the weight of Giuliani's iron fist more than the city's black community. His police department, larger than the armies of some countries, swooped down like an occupying force on Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, patting down tens of thousands of black men in an effort to rid the streets of guns. The mayor became a despised figure in those neighborhoods, despite his argument that blacks were the biggest beneficiaries of his war on crime. No degree of protest could convince Giuliani to ease up, even when his one black deputy mayor complained that he had been harassed by cops in his official car. When racial tensions rose after police shot an unarmed black man, the mayor didn't back down; he unsealed the deceased's juvenile record and said that he "was no altar boy." To Giuliani, it seemed, the goal of saving the city was worth all the trampled reputations at City Hall and public indignities suffered in the streets. He was that rare politician who didn't care what people thought of him. No amount of pressure from civil libertarians, unions, homeless advocates or street activists could sway the mayor from his mission to make New York into a more civilized society.

It was often harrowing to watch, but the results were astonishing. It turned out that a mayor actually could change the life of the metropolis. Gone was the daily barrage of panhandling, public urination and car thievery that had become central to every New Yorker's life. Crime plummeted. The sense of menace that permeated the streets gradually lifted. The economic benefits cascaded: Business boomed, and minority communities left for dead for half a century started flowering.

It's not altogether surprising that such a brazen figure would have a stormy private life, but by any measure Giuliani's personal behavior was over the top. He allowed an extramarital affair to explode into public view in the middle of his Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000 (which he dropped out of). With a "War of the Roses" storyline emerging from Gracie Mansion, Giuliani's instinct for political offense kicked in and he convened a news conference to announce that he was separating from his wife -- before he'd even told her. He flaunted his romance with Judith Nathan in front of photographers while his divorce lawyer savaged his wife, Donna Hanover, as a limelight-infatuated opportunist. Hanover vented her rage publicly at the time, and six years later, on the cusp of Giuliani's presidential run, their son, Andrew, has done the same (albeit in more diplomatic language) by announcing his refusal to campaign for his father.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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