A year ago, former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani read an editorial in his hometown newspaper mocking him as a “shill” for endorsing a little-known Republican it deemed “stunningly unqualified” to become a district attorney on Long Island.
This was the same New York Daily News that years earlier had celebrated Giuliani’s tenure as a corruption-busting prosecutor, endorsed his no-nonsense reign as the city’s chief executive and helped deify him as “America’s Mayor” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Angry, Giuliani phoned the editorial page editor, Arthur Browne, to defend his endorsement. But the point that appeared to wound Giuliani the most, Browne recalled, was the editorial’s assertion that the former mayor “resides today beyond political relevance. He is reduced to offering endorsements in local races.”
“ ‘I am relevant,’ ” Browne recalled Giuliani insisting, “ ‘because all these people want my endorsement.’ ”
The former mayor has no such worries these days. Eight years after his own presidential bid failed, Giuliani has emerged as Donald Trump’s unflinching chief apologist, cheerleader and rhetorical Rottweiler, even as GOP leaders far and wide abandon their party’s candidate.
It’s a role that confounds allies and admirers who remember Giuliani’s rise as a law-and-order Republican twice elected in the country’s largest bastion of liberalism. Giuliani has long been an attention seeker, but his bombast was tempered by moderate, socially liberal politics — a model for many Republicans hoping to expand their base.
Yet here was Giuliani, ricocheting between talk shows on Sunday, disparaging a woman’s claim that Trump groped her on an airplane, saying, “It doesn’t make sense” because they were in first class and “you see everything that goes on in first class.”
“I believe Donald Trump,” Giuliani told CNN.
Here was he was a week ago, describing Trump’s vulgar boasts about “grabbing” women’s genitalia as little more than “locker room talk.” And here was Giuliani — eyes wide, voice rising, thin lips curling into a hard scowl — dredging up former president Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky to batter Hillary Clinton. (“There was semen on her dress!” he shouted on MSNBC.)
At a Florida rally Wednesday, Giuliani even suggested that Clinton, when she was a New York senator, was AWOL from Lower Manhattan after the 2001 attacks. “I heard her say she was there that day,” Giuliani told the crowd. “I was there that day, I don’t remember seeing Hillary Clinton.”
Within moments, social media was rife with photos of him touring Ground Zero the day after the attacks with Clinton, whom in fact he had praised at the time. Giuliani, who did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, apologized for his remarks, saying, “I made a mistake.”
His bluster on Trump’s behalf has prompted the Des Moines Register to call him the mogul’s “chief toady and bootlicker,” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow to declare that he “seems nuts,” and late-night host Stephen Colbert to refer to him as “the former Rudy Giuliani.”
But his new role as Trump’s ubiquitous bullhorn has been especially painful for his former City Hall advisers, who remember him as a centrist who crossed party lines in 1994 to endorse Gov. Mario Cuomo (D). Many now are reticent about talking about him.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” said Elliot Cuker, Giuliani’s former speech coach. “That part of my life has cracked off the face of the Earth and is floating into outer space.”
Another former adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he doesn’t want to offend the former mayor, said he is astonished by Giuliani’s willingness to play Trump’s understudy.
“From his days as U.S. attorney, he was at the top of the organizational chart,” the former adviser said. “Now he’s staff. He carries bags. He walks behind Trump. It’s just amazing to see.”
Yet the raw combativeness now in service to Trump should surprise no one who followed Giuliani before the glow of his post-9/11 leadership. As a pol angling for the mayoralty and then at City Hall, Giuliani was known for his signature histrionics, shouting “Bulls---!” while addressing a rowdy, racially charged police union rally and ejecting Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat from Lincoln Center. He may be the only elected leader in history whose wife learned of his plans to divorce her after he announced his decision at a news conference.
His weekly radio show from City Hall was a stage from which he boasted of his accomplishments and berated a gallery of foes that included the Rev. Al Sharpton, drug dealers and jaywalkers. No issue was too small to trigger his ire, including one man’s campaign for a law to allow New Yorkers to own ferrets.
“Get a life!” snarled Giuliani, who told the man that he was “deranged” and suggested that he see a psychologist.
This was all as he presided over a city of 8 million residents. Now he is a private citizen who is a partner at a prominent law firm (albeit one that just announced he has gone on leave while campaigning for Trump).
“He’s a general without an army,” said Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor of urban policy and planning. “He is an air gun. The only weapon he has are his words.”
Browne, who as an editor directed the Daily News’s coverage of Giuliani when he was U.S. attorney and mayor, said that he has “struggled to find a way to recover lost glory.”
“The Rudy Giuliani who was so public and so outspoken and combative and entertaining was engaged in actual public service that was meaningful,” Browne said. “But those years are long past. The same Rudy Giuliani who got great ego gratification doesn’t have the underlying basis for anyone thinking of him as an important national force.”
Giuliani, 72, first expressed support for Trump’s candidacy in April, on the day of the New York primary — a full 10 months after the real estate tycoon entered the race. Yet Giuliani said that his promise to vote for Trump did not mean he would campaign for him.
Three months later, at the Republican National Convention, Giuliani left no doubt who his candidate was. His arms flailing as he shouted from the stage, Giuliani promised a national television audience that Trump “will do for America” what he himself had accomplished for New York as mayor. “I know it can be done because I did it,” Giuliani declared.
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who has known Giuliani for five decades, described the relationship between Giuliani and Trump as merely “cordial” before the presidential campaign. “Once Rudy got into it, he wouldn’t stop,” King said. “He enjoys center stage. He certainly has it now — and he hasn’t had it for a while.”
As a candidate, Trump is said to display tepid interest in his advisers’ wisdom. Yet Giuliani has managed to find a clear path to Trump’s ear, appearing to enjoy a far closer relationship, for example, than his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
“Rudy is one of the few people who have influence with him,” said a friend of Trump’s and Giuliani’s. “Every campaign needs a nut cutter. Someone has to take the partisan attack. Pence isn’t doing it. As a surrogate, Rudy has been quite effective.”
Yet Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said Giuliani’s vitriol “has probably turned off” the moderate voters Trump needs to defeat Clinton. “That’s something the Rudy of 2008 might have been helpful with,” Heye said. But “what we have seen since then is a far cry from the person who served as an important symbol of unity after 9/11.”
Trump initially showed support for Giuliani in 1989 when he co-chaired the mayoral candidate’s first major fundraiser, a luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria at which comedian Jackie Mason performed stand-up shtick.
Both Trump and Giuliani grew up in New York’s outer boroughs, the sons of hard-nosed fathers. While Trump’s youthful ambitions meandered between real estate and show business, Giuliani briefly considered the priesthood (rejecting it because of the celibacy part) and fantasized about the White House (a high school girlfriend once recalled that young Rudy liked to pretend he was being sworn in as president).
Each has been married three times and navigated at least one spectacularly public and calamitous divorce. And both have demonstrated that they are affiliation-fluid when it comes to politics. Giuliani revered Bobby Kennedy in college and voted for George McGovern, then became a Republican and served in President Reagan’s Justice Department. Reagan later appointed Giuliani as U.S. attorney for New York.
“He only became a Republican after he began to get all these jobs from them,” Giuliani’s mother, Helen, told author Wayne Barrett. “He’s definitely not a conservative Republican. He thinks he is, but he isn’t.”
As much as anything, both men have demonstrated a fondness for the stage. When he was mayor, Giuliani dressed up as a woman for a videotaped comedy sketch in which Trump — playing himself — groped him.
“Oh, you dirty boy, you,” Giuliani shrieks, slapping Trump, who turns to the camera, shrugs and says, “Can’t say I didn’t try.”
As his second term as mayor wound down, Giuliani planned to run against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate, only to drop out after he was diagnosed in 2000 with prostate cancer. At the time, Trump pledged his support for Giuliani, although he said he considered Clinton “a wonderful woman.” Giuliani, too, had maintained cordial relations with both Clintons, and was among the moderate Republicans who opposed the impeachment of President Clinton.
In 2000, Trump toyed with the idea of a presidential bid. Giuliani was skeptical. “I like the idea of having held public office first before you can run for president, to prove yourself,” he told one interviewer.
Eight years later, Giuliani himself entered the presidential race. A front-runner for months, Giuliani’s $50 million campaign won a single delegate.
“He has never been a good politician,” said Fred Siegel, a Giuliani biographer and a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “As smart as he is, he couldn’t figure out the politics of New Hampshire.”
He mulled another White House bid in 2012, but dropped the idea, saying, “It’s too late for me.”
Moments after the Oct. 9 town-hall-style debate in St. Louis, Giuliani ambled into a thicket of journalists, his broad shoulders hunched as he adjusted the flag pin attached to his lapel and ran his hands through his slicked-back hair.
Everywhere he went, it seemed, the horde followed. (“Ben Carson’s over there, should we get him?” a producer asked a CNN correspondent while Giuliani chatted with Fox. “No, we better wait for Giuliani,” the reporter replied.)
For an hour, Giuliani was the spin room’s main event, breathlessly pounding Hillary Clinton while defending Trump. If it’s too late for Giuliani’s own presidential ambitions, at least he can live vicariously through Trump’s candidacy.
“By the end of the debate she was wandering, she didn’t know what she was saying,” Giuliani said. “All she does: She lies. I would call her a serial liar.”
Asked about Trump’s X-rated remarks about women, Giuliani managed to denigrate Clinton’s husband: “I’ve played golf with President Clinton. Have I heard him say things like that? Yes.”
He offered no specifics.
By night’s end, Giuliani’s smile was wide enough to accommodate a dinner plate as he proclaimed Trump the debate’s winner.
“If they called it a draw,” he said, “that means we won by a knockout.”
Nearly 24 hours later, Giuliani was still talking, now to a throng of Trump supporters in Pennsylvania.
Hillary Clinton “hates you!” the former mayor shouted. “And we love you!”
His voice was rising, his scowl was in place.