In the summer of 1995, on a listless, steamy July evening, I interviewed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani about New York's falling crime rate. We met at Huxley's coffee shop in Rockefeller Center, right after he taped a talk show at NBC. As we sat sipping iced tea in a peach-colored vinyl booth in the nearly deserted restaurant, the mayor talked about his vision for New York; he wanted to return the city to the way it was in the thirties and forties, when neighborhoods were safe and New York was, truly, a 24-hour town.
Though he'd been in office only eighteen months, Giuliani was well on his way to that goal: On his watch, murder was already down 37 percent, and overall, serious crime was down 27 percent. The decline had been so steep and so fast, after years of what seemed like uncontrollable mayhem and disorder, that it was difficult for many people to accept, indeed to believe, that a real change was taking place.
In a year and a half, Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton had done what the city had long been screaming for somebody to do: They had taken back the streets. Using good, basic management and smart law-enforcement techniques, they had overturned three decades of received wisdom about how to fight crime in America.
While the mayor took a call on his cell phone amid the clanging of dishes from the restaurant's kitchen, I couldn't help thinking about the breathtaking possibilities for the city. If the mayor had been able to turn around an organization with a culture as entrenched as the Police Department's, a department that had never before in its history been successful at actually reducing crime, then what would happen when he began to focus on the schools? Or the child-welfare system? And in a city where people felt safe, wouldn't the always-festering racial tensions begin to ease?
But now, almost four years later, as the mayor heads toward the halfway point of his second term, little of that promise has been realized. Instead of capitalizing on his early success, Giuliani has wasted his momentum on a continuing series of avoidable squabbles that accomplish little beyond securing his reputation for meanness. Feuding with Governor Pataki; vanquishing the portraits of former mayors Koch and Dinkins from City Hall's Blue Room; beating up on Councilman Steve DiBrienza, who dared to disagree with him on homeless shelters, by trying to close a popular, thriving social-service center in his district; building himself a $15 million emergency-command-and-control bunker in the World Trade Center; using security concerns to cut off much of the public access to City Hall. The battles, the imperial decrees, and the public-relations blunders have seemed for some time now to be all about power, not policy. It's the exercise of muscle without ideas.
"I tell him all the time," says one of his closest confidants, "that he doesn't have to come out every day and prove he has the biggest dick in the city. Everybody knows it. But Rudy is who he is."
Since winning re-election in 1997 (a night when he promised to reach out to all New Yorkers, even those who didn't vote for him), Giuliani has looked like a man without an agenda, other than his ambition for higher office. Even key aides, when asked for specific policy initiatives being pursued, come up with little more than bromides about continuing the quality-of-life campaign. As he lurches from one ugly skirmish to another -- cabbies, street vendors, pedestrians -- he seems to have grown little in his five and a half years in office.
Increasingly isolated, prickly, embattled, and convinced the press is out to get him (a Richard Nixon comparison is irresistible), the mayor has demonstrated little ability to broaden his range. And so by the time four cops fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo on Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx, it came as little surprise not only that the mayor bungled his handling of the tragedy but that he had no one to cover his back when the storm of criticism broke.