Rudy Giuliani was in midtown when the first passenger plane slammed into the World Trade Center. He made it to Barclay Street just in time to see the second plane hit. It was clear by this point that a coordinated terrorist attack was under way, but Giuliani didn’t flee to a fortified bunker. He didn’targue that it was his duty to remain safe so he could continue to lead. He understood that the first requirement of leadership is being there, that nothing sends a stronger message to the troops than a general at the front. He understood that the symbolism is more important than any single decision a leader can make, more important even than the life of the leader.
So Giuliani risked his life. The buildings collapsed, and for close to fifteen minutes he was trapped by rubble. He emerged covered with ash and dust, and also with new authority. Giuliani had woken up Tuesday morning a man in decline. Humiliated in the press, kicked out of his own home, literally impotent, a career in politics coming to an apparently pathetic end. By the time he went to bed that night (assuming he did), Giuliani was among the most revered figures in American public life. There was a consensus, even among his many enemies, that his behavior had been exemplary. Suddenly Giuliani was a hero. It’s easy to imagine him becoming a presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, here in Washington, there was also smoke in the sky. But there was no Giuliani, no credible leader who could go on television and say to the panicked population: “I’ve been to the scene. It’s horrible, but things are under control. The world is not ending.” It was ten hours before George W. Bush returned to the city.
This was a terrible mistake, as the White House now recognizes. The excuses Bush’s handlers have offered are either ludicrous (terrorists were planning to ram Air Force One with a passenger jet), or embarrassingly revealing (the Secret Service wouldn’t allow the president to come home). The truth is probably more straightforward: Under great pressure, Bush took the wrong advice. But there’s another truth: Under great pressure, Giuliani is a better natural leader.
Bush will recover from his mistake. He’ll likely be a capable commander-in-chief during the inevitable war. Still, there are lessons to be learned from Giuliani’s behavior in the first days of the crisis. Here are a few of them:
Physical courage still matters. Life is generally so safe in America, particularly for politicians, that it’s easy to forget that leaders should be brave. Until buildings start to collapse. At which point it’s no longer good enough to claim you’re in charge of the situation. You have to show it. Giuliani’s courage was impressive. But it was also reassuring: The mayor’s tough; we can be, too.
Virtually alone among politicians, Giuliani said relatively little about grief or grieving. He didn’t need to. Instead he told New Yorkers to be strong, to buck up, to “go about our business and lead normal lives and not let these cowards affect us.” And so they did.
Spare the oratory, cut the phoniness. It’s tempting, when you’re a politician and thousands of people have died, to move directly to Gettysburg Address mode. That’s what the circumstances seem to demand. And at some point, they do. Every tragedy deserves to be summed up and given meaning with words. Ultimately. In the short-term, though, grand speeches sound as hollow and manufactured as they are. What’s needed is blunt, unadorned language.
“What do you think of the altered skyline?” a reporter asked Giuliani the day after. Giuliani looked at the hole where the tallest buildings in the city once stood. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. And that’s about all he said. He didn’t seize the opportunity to lecture on the nature of suffering, or on man’s cruelty to man. He said what was obvious, what everyone in New York was thinking. He stopped himself before uttering a single stilted word. “It’s unbelievable.” It is. And it was the only thing to say.
Master the subject. Watch Giuliani at a press conference and you get the sense there isn’t a single question about the City of New York – how many firefighters in Queens, how many drinking fountains on Staten Island – that he couldn’t answer instantly and accurately. In a crisis, command of the subject is vital. Specifics give people confidence. Giuliani has them.
Tell the people who they are. This is at the core of Giuliani’s genius as a leader. The mayor of New York knows who his people are. “They are just the most wonderful people in the world,” he said again and again. He believes it. “We have,” he declared, “without any doubt, the best Police Department, the best Fire Department, the best police officers, the best fire officers, the best emergency workers of any place in the whole world.” Not just good. The best. In the whole world.
At one point, a reporter asked him about the possibility of looters. You’d expect Giuliani to respond with the law-and-orderliest kind of threats: Shoot on sight, hang ‘em high. Instead, he laughed off the very concept: New Yorkers? Loot? Ridiculous. It would be like Mother Teresa shooting heroin. Absurd. Never happen.
Perhaps because he said so, it didn’t.
Tell the people who they will be. For Giuliani, this is also a straightforward matter. “The people in New York City will be whole again,” he promised. Just like the skyline, except better. “We are going to come out of this emotionally stronger, politically stronger, much closer together as a city, and we’re going to come out of this economically stronger, too.” Giuliani didn’t say how this will happen, though he pledged that the process of getting better in every way will start “right away.”
This sort of rhetoric goes beyond civic boosterism. It is a kind of hypnosis, auto and otherwise. Since the beginning of the tragedy, Giuliani has seemed exhilarated – not happy exactly, but more alert and aware. He talks like he understands other people. He may actually have become the better person he always promised he would be.
He’s certainly different from how he was before, like the grandmother in the Flannery O’Connor short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” who becomes saintly moments before she is murdered. “She would of been a good woman,” says the killer, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”That’s Rudy Giuliani: He would have been a perfect mayor if there had been a disaster every day of his life.