The litany of needless fights Giuliani picked as mayor is astoundingly long. Some of the confrontations at least had their origins in policy differences or political calculation. That category includes his battles with the Port Authority, over control of development projects, and with the Brooklyn Museum, which Giuliani smacked around in order to boost his conservative credentials for a prospective Senate race.
But even if a dispute had started over issues, Giuliani would escalate it into a playground contest of insults. His feud with George Pataki started with Giuliani’s saying “ethics will be trashed” if Pataki was elected governor, and it never really ended, descending at one point into a standoff over who should call and apologize first. Giuliani assailed Schools Chancellor Ramon Cortines as “precious” and a “little victim.” Sometimes Giuliani simply froze people out without provocation; for years, he refused to meet with mild-mannered Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields, who happens to be black. Other times, his anger just seemed disproportionate, as when Giuliani blasted the head of the Grammy Awards. Often, though, his tantrums were gratuitous: calling a Bronx schoolteacher a “jerk” when she dared to question his commitment to better schools, for instance.
Easily the lowest moment, however, came in March 2000. Three weeks after a jury had acquitted the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo, when emotions were still raw, Patrick Dorismond was killed by an undercover cop after saying no to drugs. Giuliani trashed the victim, releasing Dorismond’s sealed juvenile records and sneering—wrongly—that the dead man had been “no altar boy.”
“Rudy’s not a racist, but he loves to inflame,” says Ed Koch, a connoisseur of conflagration. “He loves to spit in your eye. It’s character, not strategy. He’s acted reasonably polite since September 11, and he can be very charming. But unless you’re a saint, an epiphany does not make a permanent change in you. And he’s no saint.”
Any discussion of Giuliani’s character inevitably leads back to two issues: his family and his friends. The significance of last week’s story on Politico.com about Giuliani’s jaunts to the Hamptons wasn’t the exposure of an accounting shell game; it was the reminder of the casual arrogance and viciousness that permeated Giuliani’s mayoralty. He ran up the public tab while pursuing an extramarital affair. The fact that Giuliani has been married three times may give pause to voters elsewhere. The city wasn’t so much troubled by the divorces themselves. What’s indelible and unforgivable to New Yorkers is the grotesquerie of Giuliani’s press conference dropping the news on Donna Hanover and a live television audience. The ugliness of that moment lingers, to many a distillation of his core ruthlessness.
The other key marker of Giuliani’s character is his New York inner circle—and its most infamous member, Bernie Kerik. The two met at a New Jersey fund-raiser in memory of Michael Buczek, a 24-year-old city cop. Buczek was shot and killed in Washington Heights just blocks from where Giuliani, with his then-friend Senator Al D’Amato, had staged an infamous buy-and-bust photo op at the height of the city’s crack epidemic. When Giuliani ran for mayor in 1993, Kerik got himself assigned to the candidate’s protective detail. Giuliani quickly promoted his friend from obscurity, first to deputy commissioner of the Correction Department, then two years later to boss of the city’s jails. These days, Giuliani defends Kerik by pointing to the reduction in violence at Rikers Island under his friend’s watch. While that’s true, Kerik ruled with an iron hand, racking up enemies and ethical messes, among them dating one of his female subordinates. When he married another woman, Kerik was accused of assigning corrections officers to staff the wedding.
Giuliani and Kerik grew ever closer, with the mayor serving as godfather to two of Kerik’s children. In 2000, Giuliani elevated Kerik to police commissioner. “Too many leaders overlook candidates with unusual résumés because of a failure of nerve,” Giuliani wrote in his 2002 book, Leadership. A willingness to hire people with interesting lives is admirable, and it’s a trait too often lacking in an American political culture scared of Drudge and Fox. But Giuliani goes further, enlarging his tolerance into an unshakeable faith in the genius of his own judgment. “By the time I appointed Bernie Kerik, I had hired so many people that I was immune to such criticisms … I believe that the skill I developed better than any other was surrounding myself with great people.” And once he’d become deeply invested in Kerik’s success, Giuliani ignored any facts that might contradict his perspicacity, as when the city investigations commissioner mentioned Kerik’s connections to a contractor with alleged mob ties.