T his is the sound of a presidential boomlet. Not that it seems like that at the moment. It’s Friday evening, January 12, and America’s Mayor, copyright pending, finds himself in Wilmington, Delaware, at the crusty Hotel du Pont, for what appears to be a routine stop on the rubber-sole-and-rice-pilaf circuit. Tonight, Rudolph Giuliani is receiving an award at an annual gala held by former governor Pete du Pont, the preppy descendent of the hotel’s founder who is best known for conducting an honorable pro-choice 1988 presidential campaign, which, as Rudy must surely know, resulted in zero delegates.
The 300 Republicans arriving for cocktails look desperately in need of them. And with good reason. It’s just two days after the speech in which President Bush conceded, sort of, that mistakes were made in Iraq, then unveiled his plan to send 20,000 more troops there. Congress has just reverted to the Democrats, and Hillarymania and Obamamania are sucking up all the political oxygen.
Rudy is cranky, too. The year is barely two weeks old, and it’s already off to an epically bad start. Right after New Year’s, a 126-page confidential campaign memo concerning a potential Giuliani presidential run fell into the hands of the Daily News. His campaign hadn’t even begun, and there was already a crisis. It was hard to tell which was more embarrassing: the cataloguing of Rudy’s potential weaknesses or the battle plans outlining the courting of GOP moneymen already committed to John McCain. It all suggested a kind of amateurism: My First Presidential Campaign brought to you by the folks at Playskool.
A few hours before his speech, Giuliani inadvertently wanders into a sparsely populated press room. He looks older and wearier than the last time we saw him. There’s the same dark suit, but the undertaker hunch is a bit more pronounced. When a reporter asks what he’s doing here, Giuliani skips the friendly kibitzing. Instead he snaps, “I’m calling my wife. I need privacy.” It’s been said that 9/11 softened Rudy’s edges. If there really is a kinder, gentler Giuliani, he’s not showing it.
Right, 9/11. Out in the dining room, after the salads are served, Delaware congressman Mike Castle takes the microphone. He talks about Rudy and the squeegee men. BlackBerrys continue scrolling. But then Castle tells of the ground-zero tour the mayor gave him and other congressmen in the days after the terror attacks. People start to pay attention. “He attended most of the funerals; he was there in every way possible,” says Castle. “I don’t think we can ever thank him enough for what he did.”
Now Rudy strides to the podium. The room rises. Suits at the cheap tables stand and a banker type sticks his fingers in his mouth and gives a loud whistle.
Initially, Giuliani squanders the goodwill. A bit on immigration lands with a thud. He notes that China has built more than 30 nuclear reactors since we last built one. “Maybe we should copy China.”
What? You can see the thought bubbles forming over people’s heads: Can this be the same guy we saw on television? The guy who was so presidential when our actual president was MIA?
But then Rudy finds his comfort zone. Along with McCain and Mitt Romney, his best-known fellow Republican presidential contenders, Giuliani is out on the thin, saggy pro-surge limb with the president. But Rudy can spin the issue in a way McCain and Romney, not to mention Hillary and Barack Obama, cannot. And now he does just that: Iraq leads to 9/11, which leads to the sacred image of construction workers raising the flag over ground zero.
“I knew what they were standing on top of,” Giuliani says. “They were standing on top of a cauldron. They were standing on top of fires 2,000 degrees that raged for a hundred days. And they put their lives at risk raising that flag.”
The room is silent. Not a fork hits a plate, not one gold bracelet rattles.
“They put the flag up to say, ‘You can’t beat us, because we’re Americans.’"
The mayor pauses and, as if on cue, an old woman sniffles.
He continues. “And we don’t say this with arrogance or in a militaristic way, but in a spiritual way: Our ideas are better than yours.”
Applause reverberates off the chandeliers. Millionaires pump fists. Dowagers daub eyes. This is what they came to see! Seemingly every law-enforcement officer in Wilmington appears with a camera. Over and over, Giuliani grips and grins.
It may sound preposterous to a Rudy-savvy New Yorker. But in this ballroom full of lock-jawed Wasps, it sounds like presidential salvation.
Can Rudy Giuliani ride 9/11 all the way to the White House? That appears to be his game plan. Beginning that night in Wilmington, Giuliani spent much of the first two months of the year barnstorming around the country—New Hampshire, South Carolina, California—on his unofficial presidential-campaign rollout tour (unless you count his multiple pseudo-announcements, Giuliani has yet to formally declare his candidacy). In many respects, it’s been the standard early-season-campaign drill: Rudy has floated and discarded whole concepts, artfully repositioned his personal history, and studiously avoided all but the most friendly media.