The New York Awards: Lifetime Achievement

For a Rudy connoisseur, the current emphasis on the World Trade Center mayor obscures the more compelling picture: Rudy in full is surely one of the most original political figures of the age.

On the other hand, the virtue of the post-9/11 Rudy is that he actually seems complete – he makes sense. All of the disparate, eccentric, and even ridiculous elements of the Rudy Giuliani character, which could be seen so clearly prior to 9/11, come together in the aftermath to form a seamless, not to mention noble, figure.

Prior to 9/11, you never had to deconstruct Rudy. You always knew what was going on with him. This has been his most potent political characteristic – he hasn’t ever tried to hide his flaws because he’s so proud of them.

His is a chip-on-the-shoulder personality (his father went to prison, after all). He dares you to confront him for his bad-cop-ness.

There is the Rudy who, even among politicians, is an insatiable press hound (this goes back to his prosecutor days, when he was one of the most famous spotlight-hoggers in modern Justice Department history). There is Rudy the bully – trying to force ads for this magazine off city buses because they poked fun at him. There is Rudy the unreconstructed militant Catholic League of Decency guy, trying to close down the Brooklyn Museum. There’s contrition-is-bunk, the-cops-are-always-right Rudy (what would it have cost to show a little sympathy for Eleanor Bumpers and Amadou Diallo?). There is courting-political-suicide Rudy – stiffing George Pataki and supporting Mario Cuomo. There is come-get-me Rudy, marching with his girlfriend in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. And there is of course the wacko, I-unmarried-Donna Rudy.

There is, too, deep-Brooklyn Rudy – still tight with every grade-school chum.

There is prostate-cancer Rudy – a disconcertingly vulnerable public figure. There is Rudy taking up residence with a gay couple (who send him off to work in the morning with pecks on the cheek) when his marital woes forced him out of Gracie Mansion.

Here is the thing: There is a way in which politicians almost inevitably become part of the clutter of public life and the fakery of modern media. It’s not even that we don’t trust them – more to the point, we don’t notice them. They are an indistinct background noise.

It is the Rudy accomplishment that he rises, stands outs, signifies, gets heard.

He gives perhaps the best news conferences of anyone practicing the news-conference art today. He isn’t trying to avoid the bullet. Isn’t trying to not say anything. To avoid commitment as well as comment. To elevate blandness. He does the opposite. He’s all truculence, attitude, aggression. He’s nearly antisocial, except for his sentences. His sentences are better than any other politician’s. They’re not prefab, retrofitted jobs. He’s thinking them out. You see the word-choice process. The words mean something (even if, often, they mean fuck you).

Rudy’s issues are limited, but real – he’s not a laundry-list politician. He loves the police; criminals personally offend him; he’s strongly attached to the city – if not to everyone in it. And he’s in charge – period. This is what he stands for. I’m not sure there’s anything else, ideologically, that he might embrace. But at least he stands for something.

All of this came together on September 11. It was his city that these most diabolical criminals were attacking. The uniformed-services guys who were dying were his people. Many of the workers in those towers were people who could have gone to school with him. What’s more, the spotlight at ground zero was an incredible one, a once-in-a-lifetime one – how could he not rise to it? It was his ground zero. After months of Rudy in the wilderness, in his last days in the only job he will ever really want, he was suddenly back at work – taking the ultimate, final bow.

He instructed. He consoled. He explained. He talked everybody through it. He wasn’t selling anybody anything. He was narrating. Telling the story. This happened and then this happened and this is what we’re going to do now. And we all wanted to listen to him.

The New York Awards: Lifetime Achievement