Why does 9/11 play so well for Rudy? Our Calvinist streak dictates that the greater the adversity a man overcomes, the more we worship him—and Rudy certainly overcame adversity on 9/11. “Here on the coasts, we make fun of heroes,” says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “We think it’s hokey. But the rest of America craves heroes. To them, Rudy’s like Eisenhower. Mothers bring their sons to see him.”
Post-9/11 events have only made Giuliani more exalted. The more the war on terror bogs down, the better he looks. September 11 has spawned two wars, cost us 6,000 American lives here and abroad, and produced precious few heroes. Those we got wilted under scrutiny. Donald Rumsfeld turned out to be a nut job, Jessica Lynch may or may not have actually needed to be rescued, and Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. There have been no Pattons, no MacArthurs, no Eisenhowers. There is only Rudy.
Outside of New York, there is a still-unsatisfied appetite for revenge (that hunger seems to get stronger, strangely enough, the farther one gets from ground zero). Bin Laden is still at large. Saddam Hussein, it’s now tragically clear, had nothing to do with the terror attacks, however awful his other transgressions were. People seem to believe—wish?—that Rudy can somehow bring us justice. Who else could at this point?
To many Americans, Rudy fills the leadership vacuum created by Bush’s bungling of the war and Katrina. Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, recalls running a Democratic focus group for a 2005 mayoral candidate in Los Angeles. “We were asking what they were looking for in a leader,” Trippi says. “One guy said, ‘Why can’t we have someone like Rudy?’ Then everyone joined in, saying ‘Yeah, we need a Rudy. We need a Rudy.’ ” Those were Democrats, and this was 2005. “It’s still that forceful,” says Trippi.
September 11 also gives Giuliani at least some credibility on the signature issue of the campaign: Iraq. So what if Rudy doesn’t have a shred of foreign-policy experience? The perception goes something like this: hero of 9/11 = expert in the war on terror = strong commander-in-chief.
September 11 could even help Rudy win over the hard right. Evangelicals see the war on terror as nothing less than a metaphysical battle for the soul of Christianity, with Rudy the Lionheart as their crusader. “Rudy has created great brand equity on terrorism with Christians,” says Reed. “They won’t give him a pass, but they’ll listen on the other issues.”
Rudy’s comment suggests a broader point: 9/11 gives Rudy a kind of golden glow that makes all his positives seem a bit more positive and all his negatives a bit less negative.
Never mind the southern hospitality and softly swaying palmetto trees. South Carolina is the killing fields of Republican presidential politics. Just ask John McCain. He arrived in 2000, fresh from his win in New Hampshire, as the Republican front-runner. Two weeks and a flurry of push-poll attacks later (telephone polling suggesting McCain fathered a black child out of wedlock was the most notorious), he was finished.
Eight years later, on a February Saturday, Rudy Giuliani arrives in Columbia to address the South Carolina Republican Party. Outside Seawell’s conference center, there are rumors that a pro-life picket line is going to materialize. It doesn’t, another break in a month of breaks for Rudy.
Inside, it’s a folksy affair. Chairman Katon Dawson, an excitable auto-parts salesman, gavels the meeting to order. He then asks the county chairs to introduce any guests. Fishing buddies and dads stand up and wave. This takes a while.
Finally, Dawson introduces Giuliani. There’s mention of Rudy’s crime-busting, budget-balancing ways—and, of course, September 11. “Rudy Giuliani,” says Dawson, “is known around the world as a symbol of the resilience of the American spirit.”
In seven minutes and change, Giuliani goes to 9/11. “Before September 11, we were playing defense,” he says. “President Bush said we can’t do that anymore. We have to go on offense. We have to go look for them and stop them before they come here and attack us.”
This may be the only place in Christendom where Bush is still popular. Everyone cheers. “The next president of the United State is going to have to continue to deal with this,” says Giuliani. “If you don’t think you’re going to have to deal with it, you’re not looking at the real world and you’re not going to be able to keep this country safe.” There’s more clapping (although it’s unclear which presidential candidate thinks the war on terror is about to end. Dennis Kucinich?).
Giuliani throws the crowd a few extra chocolates, parroting the White House line of Bush as Truman, a prophet who will be vindicated by history. It’s not until Giuliani has deposited as much 9/11 goodwill in the bank as possible that he addresses the real issue of the day. Dawson solicits questions from friendly faces. Eventually, someone asks Giuliani what his approach would be to judicial appointments.