This is deeply weird. For hundreds of miles, the central-Florida interstate has been lined with trailer parks and parched ranch lands. Switching to the two lanes of Highway 301 sends me along the broken-down main street of a town called Oxford, which is lined with single-story, mostly vacant redbrick houses, barbecue joints, and auto-repair shops, a reminder of the days when Florida was actually a part of the Deep South. Then, a right turn and authentic redneck suddenly gives way to invented oasis: 33 lush, manicured golf courses. Pods of new half-million-dollar houses, clustered behind security gates. Man-made lakes and streams gently burbling. This is the Villages, a 26,000-acre, three-county development with 68,000 residents, sprawling its way to a population of 100,000 in the next ten years. Calling the Villages a retirement community demeans the genius of the concept. This is nothing like the slabs-of-concrete condo towers and shuffleboard courts off I-95 around Fort Lauderdale or Miami where thousands of New Yorkers, like my grandparents, fled the Northeast winters after turning 65. The Villages is a dreamland for the active, well-off elderly, created by a Florida real-estate magnate who is also a powerful Republican fund-raiser.
The Villages’ “town square” is a brilliant piece of nostalgia, an idealized small-town midwestern crossroads circa 1954. There’s an old-timey movie house, prefaded copper roofing on the expensive boutiques, and fake historical markers on buildings like “Skip’s General Store.” Thousands of residents are strolling toward the central weathered-wood bandstand waving small American flags. Yet just when the atmosphere starts to seem oppressively cloying, I notice that many of the old folks gabbing beneath the palm trees are good and drunk. It’s the daily happy hour, and the open-air bars lining one side of the square are jam-packed. The Villages is Celebration crossed with Geezer Spring Break.
Now the wholesome, pleasantly toasted crowd is roaring: America’s Mayor has just climbed onstage. Rudy Giuliani peels off his navy suit jacket and rolls up his shirtsleeves, grinning so wide that every one of his suspiciously white teeth is visible. Six years of nearly nonstop speechifying, selling either his own book or George W. Bush, have made Giuliani a masterful campaigner. He still has that odd lisp, and his accent is irreducibly New York, so that the name of today’s state comes out “Florider.” But Giuliani is relaxed, confident, able to quickly incorporate whatever the moment may offer to the narrative of his own greatness. “I see a New York Yankee hat!” he says, to cheers. “And I see a Brooklyn Dodger hat! So I’m gonna tell you why I’m such a determined person and I fight so hard for what I believe in. You know why? Because I was born in Brooklyn. But I was born about one mile from Ebbets Field—and I was a Yankee fan. I was a Yankee fan in Brooklyn!” Laughter, applause. “My father … put me in a pin-striped uniform and sent me out to play with all the other kids in Brooklyn. Oh-ho! So I had to fight my way just to get to the candy store.”
The next 45 minutes wander from gushy Ronald Reagan tributes to complicated plans for a 2,000-mile immigrant-repelling border fence to a discourse on the infallibility of the Founding Fathers. Central to it all, though, is Rudy the resolute, the lonely man tough enough to stick selflessly by his convictions, even when they’re unpopular, until he’s ultimately proved right. And the proof is his glorious success as mayor of the most dangerous, most corrupt, most Democratic city in the land. “Every candidate promises you lots of things,” he says. “The most important thing is, can somebody deliver? Can they get something done? Well, here’s what I have to offer: I know how to get things done. I did it in the place where it was really hard to do! Nobody, nobody really got anything done in New York about crime, about welfare, about the condition of the streets, about our economy, about bringing jobs to New York! Not only did nobody get anything done for a long time, most people had given up, and they didn’t think anything could be done!”
This is a disorienting notion—but the condescending attitude is completely familiar to any New Yorker. The city in the nineties was far from perfect. But were we really living in the hellhole of depravity and despair that Giuliani describes without ever realizing it? And was he the man who single-handedly tamed 8 million misbehaving New Yorkers, delivering us from an economic and physical nightmare? They sure think so out here in the real America: The chants of “Roo-dee! Roo-dee!” are drowning out Giuliani’s final words, and women are elbowing one another in pursuit of his autograph.