A journalist I know drove into lower Manhattan to attend Rudy Giuliani’s inauguration last New Year’s Day. He didn’t flash his press pass for access; he wanted to watch it as a citizen, as he had every one since Abe Beame’s on New Year’s Day in 1974. He recalled that at Giuliani’s first inaugural, in 1994, the new mayor led a march down Chambers Street to a free and festive party at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
This year, though, as my friend walked down Broadway toward City Hall, he was stopped at Reade Street. “Sorry,” cops said. “Can’t go in.” He walked east toward the courthouses. No admittance. He kept trying. What do you mean it’s closed to the public? he asked. I’ve come to every one since Beame. “Yeah, I know,” replied a cop, genuinely apologetic. “It’s this guy.”
A small thing, maybe; how many New Yorkers want to attend an inauguration anyway? But turning an inauguration into a coronation, sealing a huge area around the reviewing stand, provides a useful image of what this city is becoming under Giuliani. As a prominent Hispanic leader put it recently: “We always had guys like this in South America. There was always a dictatorship between two democracies.”
During his first term, Giuliani devoted much of his energy to marginalizing the criminals. So far, in his second, he’s putting most of his energy into criminalizing the marginal. He’s doing it the only way he knows how to do anything, like a careering train. And if you disagree with him, you’re incompetent or corrupt or, more likely, both.
We knew what we were getting back in 1993, when Rudy Giuliani was first elected: a tough-minded, often bullheaded prosecutor who felt, as many New Yorkers did, that the city had spun out of control and that daily living, even in New York City, should meet some definition of order. For all his bombast and intolerance, he was, even the old-school reform liberals had to concede, getting some important things done. There were issues to go after him on, and they were real and serious – police brutality, most notably – but the critics remained fairly small in number, and the mayor was the toast of the city’s elite and a fawning national media.
Six months into his second term, however, with the successes fewer and the excesses accentuated, his relentless bullying is driving people to the breaking point. Most pols and insiders are still afraid to say so publicly, because the Giuliani team is so expert in the art of recrimination, but more and more, privately, you hear people complaining about or even vilifying the mayor: that he’s focusing on minutiae while ignoring big problems; that he’s an insufferable boor; and that he and his loyalists behave like a secret-police force, threatening and punishing all those who dare to question or disagree. And this is the term that he promised, last Election Night, would be kinder and gentler, during which he’d reach out to the New Yorkers who hadn’t shared in the bounty of Term One.
The policy initiatives, such as they are, that constitute the bulk of his second term are out there in full view. It has been fascinating to see how quickly and with what resignation New Yorkers (New Yorkers – resignation!) have adapted to the bothersome midtown street barricades, and how little discussion there’s been about the piles of taxpayer money being wasted on using cops as crossing guards.
But much of Giuliani’s heavy-handedness takes place out of view of the average citizen. There have been press accounts of the lawsuits news organizations have had to resort to just to get information that was once public, and of the number of times the administration has been sued – six and counting – by other officials and organizations seeking access to budget numbers and figures (it has lost four, and the other two are still pending). But people immersed in local politics trade increasingly disturbing accounts of the humiliations suffered at the hands of the mayor and his minions, who cavil and carp at everyone who doesn’t display absolute fealty. Last month, Giuliani told City Council Speaker Peter Vallone that he would “ruin” him if Vallone pressed ahead with his proposed ballot referendum on moving Yankee Stadium to Manhattan.
“Nobody’s going to say anything on the record except that he’s a wonderful mayor,” says one business leader. “But the basic opinion is that we really are somewhat surprised at the ferocity with which the mayor is going after some of these things.”
“Like Clemenceau and Churchill, Rudy’s personality is tailored to crisis,” says Fred Siegel of the Cooper Union. “His outsize personality and emotions are too large for the problems he’s tackling. It’s overkill.”
When he was first elected, the city had one pressing issue: the safety of its streets. That was something Giuliani could understand, something he’d studied, something for which he had enthusiasm. It was the first, most obvious theater in the war to restore public order.
The downsides – political, moral, and otherwise – in going after murderers and rapists and thieves are minimal. But once crime is cut back to pre-Miranda levels, what comes next? Here, quality of life gets more nebulous. When you declare, as Giuliani has, that mostly law-abiding people are part of the same problem, you’re heading down a road that makes a lot of folks uncomfortable, and you’re making decisions about the city’s fabric and how to manage it that speak volumes about your prejudices and priorities.
The problem with the mayor’s approach is both practical and theoretical. In practical terms, it’s worth ticking off a list of the interests he has attacked so far in his second term, and those he has defended. He has attacked:
Taxi drivers. The butt of jokes for decades, and an easy target, but by and large the kind of hardworking immigrants Giuliani once celebrated rhetorically, back when he was angling for reelection by a huge margin.
City University students. CUNY has been overdue for reforms for some time, but Giuliani, in his usual apoplectic fashion, pushed a premature vote on a sketchy and ill-conceived measure to end remedial classes aimed at struggling students, most of them minorities, many of them immigrants.
Street vendors. More immigrants working long hours for low pay.
Street artists. Giuliani wants to limit their space on the streets, a battle that’s now in the courts.
Patients at city hospitals. This spring, Giuliani laid off 905 city-hospital workers, whom the poor and uninsured must look to for care (some were reassigned, and the final number is being negotiated). Nearly 6,300 hospital-system workers had left over the previous two years.
Political dissidents. Repohistory, an artists’ group that planned to put up street signs on lampposts commemorating civil-liberties cases, was denied its permit by the Department of Transportation. Some of the posters highlighted cases against the Giuliani administration. (By the way, the MTA is still using taxpayer money to pursue the case against this magazine’s bus advertisements that used the mayor’s name in jest, a case in which the taxpayers’ interest is awfully hard to make out.)
Finally, he has attacked the opportunity of the people to register an opinion about Yankee Stadium. This one was nifty footwork. Vallone floated his referendum idea. But under an arcane law, if the mayor appoints a commission to submit to the voters that the City Charter be changed, then no other referenda are permitted to muddy the ballot. So Giuliani named a Charter-revision commission. Even its chairman, longtime Giuliani pal Peter Powers, has acknowledged the commission will probably recommend changes of no moment; the commission exists solely to put a meaningless measure on the ballot, thereby blocking a vote on the stadium, on which Giuliani knows he’d get drummed.
Which brings us to the interests he has defended: George Steinbrenner’s. That’s about it, really. And taxi passengers’, although that one’s far less clear, and anyway, the real improvements, like mandatory air-conditioning and the flat fare from Kennedy, happened during the first term.
Now let’s consider what the members of each of these groups have in common. Most taxi riders are not mercurial, felonious multimillionaires, but most are white professionals – who would, like Steinbrenner, benefit from the stadium’s being downtown so they wouldn’t have to dirty themselves with a trip to the Bronx. Most taxi drivers, CUNY students, political dissidents, and the rest are black or brown, powerless, unorganized, on the fringes, struggling for their daily bread, or some combination thereof. Is there a pattern here?
There is, and it’s an ugly one. A quality-of-life campaign pursued with Rudyesque avidity and the mayor’s brand of overheated rhetoric is bound to smear decent people; to erase, over time, the difference between the lawless and the merely inconvenient. But that difference is a pretty fundamental one. A drug dealer – let’s put aside the question of whether we choose to sympathize with the circumstances that put him in the narcotics business – has declared himself by virtue of his vocation to be outside civil society. A cabdriver with a handful of summonses or a welfare recipient who’s trying to better her station by going to a CUNY school has not. True, Giuliani doesn’t seek jail time for errant cabbies and students on welfare, but he invariably seeks the most punitive justice he can wheedle the body politic into agreeing to mete out, and seeks it in the harshest way. The punishments vary as society will permit, but the approach is undifferentiated.
Seeing citizens as lawbreakers-in-waiting: This is a manifestation not of fascism, a word some Giuliani foes still toss around too flippantly, but of totalitarianism. Laugh if you like. I confess it sounds silly and overblown, and of course it is: Totalitarian regimes visit suspicion on everyone except those lucky few who possess the right papers (though even they, too, get it when the time is right). And nobody’s slaughtering any political opponents here.