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Self-Made Mayor

Rudy Giuliani invented his mayoral persona and methods in the U.S. Attorney’s office putting white-collar criminals in jail.

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POLITICS 1983

Who's the Boss: Rudy Giuliani in his U.S. Attorney days.
Photo credit: Corbis

We have Donna Hanover to thank for the past two decades of New York City history. Or at least for those very, very large swaths of city life dominated by Rudy Giuliani.

In early March 1983, Senator Alfonse D’Amato was choosing a new United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. D’Amato was determined to nominate a zealous, hardheaded crime-fighter who could battle the drug epidemic engulfing New York at the time, and for months he sifted candidates, finally settling on the right man for the most prestigious of all U.S. attorney posts . . . John F. Keenan, then the city’s criminal-justice coordinator. D’Amato was on the verge of announcing he’d picked Keenan. Then he got a call from Washington, from the No. 3 man in the Reagan Justice Department, a guy who wanted the job badly.

“Rudy had just recently become engaged to a young TV reporter who was in Florida at the time, and she’d just accepted a position in New York with a TV station,” D’Amato says. “So the U.S. attorney’s job would be a dream appointment that could help him in both his personal and professional life.” Giuliani did have substantial qualifications. He’d been an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District for five years in the early seventies, racking up headlines almost as fast as convictions. A book and a movie about the investigation of Police Department corruption, both titled Prince of the City, further enlarged Giuliani’s crusading image. In Washington under President Reagan, Giuliani headed federal drug probes and detained Haitian refugees. But ambition and love pushed him back to New York. He was 38 years old.

As U.S. attorney, Giuliani expected to pursue more narcotics and organized-crime cases, and he did handle plenty—most famously the “Pizza Connection” trial that broke up a mob-controlled heroin ring, most ridiculously the Washington Heights “undercover” crack buy that had Giuliani and D’Amato dressed up like Village People rejects. He nabbed financier Marc Rich for tax evasion and Democratic leader Stanley Friedman for skimming city contracts. “Somebody referred to the U.S. attorney’s office in those years as ihop—because so many people were flipping to become government witnesses,” says Benito Romano, Giuliani’s second-in-command.

Giuliani honed many of the methods—like early-morning staff meetings and his shameless use of publicity—and assembled many of the people who would prove pivotal in City Hall.

But the first indictment Giuliani announced, three days into his run as U.S. attorney, was of two Dean Witter brokers in an $80 million scheme, and it foreshadowed the emblematic prosecutions of his term. In the fall of 1983, junk bonds made their debut, and financial-world figures were well on their way to celebritization—Saul Steinberg’s birthday party! John Gutfreund’s multi-million-dollar apartment renovation! But the narrative needed a dramatic counterbalance, the gaudy excesses answered by some good old Roman Catholic guilt. Enter Rudy, with handcuffs. The deterrent effect of arresting brokers on their trading floors or locking up Ivan Boesky may have been short. But Giuliani’s years as U.S. attorney left a permanent cultural mark: He turned stock-market malfeasance into modern media spectacle.

“The role of a prosecutor in white-collar crime changed forever in the eighties,” Romano says. “We planted the idea that you could take on these complicated cases and win them. You’re seeing another example of it right now, but on a national scale.”

By the time Giuliani left the U.S. attorney’s office in 1989 to run for mayor, his persona and his legacy were inextricably tied to his attacks on Wall Street greed. He was a lousy candidate the first time around and lost to David Dinkins. Four years and 8,000 homicides later, the city decided it needed a hard-ass in City Hall, the guy who’d busted both Fat Tony Salerno and Michael Milken. You know the rest.


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