It’s the crucial second plank of his presidential platform, fitting snugly between the invocation of his September 11 heroism and his mocking of Hillary Clinton: Rudy Giuliani is the man who saved New York. His campaign TV ads are a perfect distillation of the strategy. Before Mayor Rudy, the city was a black-and-white jungle-land of sex shops, violence, and crushing taxes. After Rudy, New York is Oz: sunshine, happy young couples, and shiny gold-plated statues. The message, which Giuliani hammers in his appearances outside the city, is that he made big bad New York safe for the rest of the country. For the pitch to work, Giuliani has to demonize the city he inherited and claim all the credit for the improvements he left behind. The city itself is his original enemy.
The brilliance of this story line (for a formerly very liberal Republican) is that it is based more on “character” than on any specific policies. Giuliani is running for president not on what he stands for but on who he is: the one man tough enough to subdue New York.
Of course, Giuliani’s character is what the city knows best. New York knows Giuliani is capable of quiet grace—and of cheap cruelty. He shook the city’s political culture out of its lazy, reflexively liberal posture. But Giuliani’s personal character is defined by a parochial, boys-from-the-neighborhood attitude that’s far more old-school bossism than 21st-century globalism. That bunker mentality was useful when Giuliani was enduring the withering criticism that came with overhauling the city’s welfare bureaucracy. But it also underlies the ugly racial polarization Giuliani stoked. And his character includes the cronyism that created the Bernie Kerik debacle.
In the current production, the part of David Dinkins is played by Hillary Clinton, rampant crime is played by Al Qaeda, and welfare cheats have been replaced by illegal aliens.
So far on the campaign trail, the genial Rudy has been showing his face. The city saw plenty of that other guy—the nasty, credit-hogging, conflict-addicted, wife-humiliating Rudy. The man who tried to put himself above the law and stay mayor after September 11. And we know he’s still in there.
Lately, as he’s fallen behind Mitt Romney in early Republican-primary states, there have been flickers of the autocratic Rudy. That’s why the most important lines in Giuliani’s TV spots and speeches aren’t the ones about crime or welfare, but those about being tested in a crisis. Giuliani wants that phrase to be code for 9/11. And indeed, at the beginning and end of his years as mayor, when the city faced physical peril, Giuliani rose to the occasion. But New York, from all the years in between, knows something else about his character that maybe the rest of the country should notice: If a crisis doesn’t present itself, Rudy Giuliani can be counted on to create one.
Even as Giuliani runs away from New York, one fundamental thing remains the same as it was when he was shaking hands at subway stations in 1993: He’s running a campaign rooted in fear. In the current production, the part of David Dinkins is played by Hillary Clinton, rampant crime is played by Al Qaeda, and welfare cheats have been replaced by illegal aliens. The star of the show is still Rudy, the strongman who can protect the vulnerable, right-thinking citizenry. He’s promising to do for the country what he did for the city.
Yet with the benefit of hindsight—and especially with the ongoing contrast to Michael Bloomberg’s lower-volume years as mayor—it’s possible to see much more clearly the places Giuliani deserves credit for helping to save New York. It’s now equally clear where the story he tells is more myth than reality.
You could hear the man thinking. In 1989, Rudy Giuliani was a famous prosecutor making the transition to political candidate. He sat for an interview with New York’s then–political columnist, Joe Klein, that was fascinating because of Giuliani’s willingness to think out loud and in print. Giuliani openly, humbly admitted to all the things he didn’t know.
Nice didn’t work for Giuliani. He lost that election, but he learned his lesson. The next time around, in 1993, he came out punching and never stopped. Not only was it a winning electoral strategy, but the pugnacity was a perfect fit for that moment in the life of the city. The crime tide had already started to shift, yet New York was still suffering from a widespread reputation for anarchy on the streets and lassitude in city government. Giuliani rammed, head first, into the entrenched interests. His pugilism produced great headlines, and spectacular results: Crime plunged, the homeless were made to disappear, and the city once again had someone emphatically in charge. Attacking—all the time, relentlessly—worked.
Taking control, however, was never enough for Giuliani. When a newspaper story gave passing mention to David Dinkins’s role in bringing Disney to Times Square, Giuliani raged in a press conference that he deserved the credit. But that skirmish was nothing compared to Giuliani’s war with the man who laid the foundation for New York’s revival and for Giuliani’s mayoral triumphs.