Rudy Giuliani finally announced his intentions to run for President. So why am I not thrilled that my former Mayor and now “America’s Mayor” is ready to roll up his sleeves and help put this country back in order – just the way we watched him put New York back in order? Because I was here and I know some of what went on behind the curtain.
First and foremost, our Rudy is a maestro of the media. So most of what the country knows about him is a product of what he wants us to know. And he is truly brilliant at that.
What do we think of when we think of Rudy? He turned New York around when it was nobody’s favorite city. He got tough and all but banished crime. He brought civility to what was once thought of as a heathen-filled city. He led us through the horrors of September 11. And he earned $100,000 a pop per lecture telling everyone about how great he is. (OK. The last one is what I think of.)
Not that I begrudge anyone the lecture circuit. After all, the man was Time magazine’s Person of the Year. And the nation loves him. (That’s the nation with a small “n”. The Nation, the magazine, is not all too fond of him.)
So what’s my beef?
I will grant Rudy Giuliani credit for the things he did. New York did have an amazing turnaround. And people felt safe again – after years of watching our city go downhill. Of course, he was aided by a national decrease in crime, but credit must also be given to former Police Commissioner William Bratton, who instituted a new tracking system called CompStat as well as related policing techniques that zeroed in on where crime was happening. But unfortunately Bratton was a bit too eager for the limelight, and Rudy is not one to tolerate that from those under him. So Bratton was pushed out. And Rudy’s lesson was made clear to his Commissioners – the media was his territory. And he made the most of it.
From the moment Rudy took charge, he made a point of controlling the media. In sharp contrast to certain previous mayors – especially Mayor Koch – access was sharply limited and his press office made sure that the public saw only what Rudy wanted them to see.
Control can serve a leader well in getting tough things done. We are told that Mussolini made the trains run on time and severely damaged Mafia operations. Coincidentally, when Rudy was a prosecutor, he was known for going after organized crime. Not that I am saying Rudy’s administration was like Mussolini’s but let’s face it…fascism is a very efficient system – at least for a while. But any governing entity that blocks out diverse opinions and manipulates the press so that we are fed facts that support only one point of view is a system that can lead us down the wrong path. Case in point, our current administration and the war in Iraq.
But Rudy has a fatal flaw – his failure to listen to others – especially those out of his inner circle. Which almost solely was made up of white privileged men. Outside of that circle, it’s hard to get your voice heard. In fact, his commissioners were minimized and he micro-managed where possible. Many were afraid to even speak up.
As a very small cog in the big government wheel, I saw first-hand how knowledgeable senior agency staff were kept from adding their voices to the decision-making. Reinventing the wheel occurred far too often. No wonder Rudy left a 4.5 BILLION dollar deficit to his successor. But it didn’t taint his national image in the least. He had used the people’s money to promote himself and left looking like a winner to outside eyes.
But let me back up a bit because I was just about to mention 9/11 and we need some background information before going there.
In 1993, just after Rudy took over as Mayor, the World Trade Center was bombed by terrorists and 6 people killed. Shortly after that, a plot to bomb a Hudson River tunnel was thankfully foiled. Yet top administrative staff have sworn that terrorism was barely a blip in his thinking. Even when people brought it up to him, there were no preventive actions taken. (Remember he now makes a living as a terrorism expert.) And the radios used for emergency communication that failed in 1993? They were the same type that failed again on 9/11 and helped cause the deaths of so many fire fighters among countless others. In all those years, nothing had been done by Giuliani’s tightly controlled administration to change that.
Oh…and in case you didn’t know it…the Command Center for city government was in the World Trade Center when 9/11 happened. A building that was presented to Rudy as a major terrorist target was where he put the command center! Decisions like that can only happen with limited input and where spirited discussion is discouraged. Again, we hear echoes in our current U.S. policy. Do we want more of that?
So now let’s get to 9/11 – a subject that is still really hard for me to even think about. Remember how I mentioned the Command Center was at the World Trade Center? Some reports tell us that the reason Rudy was down there and able to take charge at such a critical moment was that he was actually on his way to the command center where he would be safe. But whether that’s true or not, he was the perfect person at the moment and he did help us feel safe during an almost unbearable time. And the press made him our hero. Despite the fact that he had his top police brass with him during the critical moments (some say almost like body guards), including his trusted pal Commissioner Bernard Kerik (who later got in a lot of trouble about other stuff), and they were therefore not present to help keep the police in contact with the firefighters. The lack of a unified approach and the lack of radios that worked properly led to countless additional deaths. But even with that…Rudy came out looking like a star!
We needed a hero and the media helped make him into one. The same media he had carefully controlled and kept at a distance – and who now appeared grateful that he finally let them in. Liked starved dogs, they were all over him. And we got the hero we wanted. He was in his glory.
The funny thing was that right up to that time he had been losing popularity and actually had low approval ratings in New York City. He had a messy divorce where he paraded his girlfriend publicly while still married – and even brought her to Gracie Mansion while his wife and son were there. It didn’t sit well with the public.
Plus, race relations were horrible. He had instituted tough police policies with no attempts to do any outreach to the very non-white neighborhoods he claimed to be helping – but were instead experiencing what to them felt like a police state. Well-known black officials made a point of saying he never even consulted with them. Also, there had been a few well-publicized cases where police were involved in the shootings of black men, and Rudy appeared to be unsympathetic to the victims or their families – in one case even using the media to paint a negative picture of one of the victims the day after the shooting. New Yorkers were pretty much tired of his shenanigans – even many who applauded all he had accomplished. Although he still had his rabid supporters too.
But a few months after 9/11, when it was time for Mayor Bloomberg to take office (Rudy had served the 2-term limit), Rudy came up with the idea that because of 9/11, he should stay on as Mayor. Giving up control did not come easy to him. We were all still shell-shocked by the events and for a moment I’m sure people thought “yeah…maybe he should” but we also knew that we are a strong-spirited people and the city could run without Rudy. Only Rudy thought it couldn’t. And Mayor Bloomberg managed very nicely to effect a smooth transition and, over the years, help undo some of the mess Rudy had left – including attacking the huge deficit.
And there were other messes. Rudy’s policies had often turned a cold shoulder to the neediest New Yorkers. Homeless policies were a travesty despite the new agency charged with improving conditions. The Human Resources Administration was a mess, as was child welfare and other social services. Education was an outright disaster. Once again, Mike Bloomberg rolled up his sleeves and empowered his talented administrators to help him clean up some of the mess. They even undid a longstanding Rudy policy and formed working alliances with advocates to craft better policies as a result. And no one on the outside got to see what Rudy had left us.
But when Rudy was Mayor, advocates were not to be worked with – they were the enemy. And people who disagreed with him were the enemy. Rudy seems to operate by making people into the enemy. He even made Donna Hanover, now his ex-wife, into the enemy during the messy public divorce. He was after all a prosecutor and the same qualities that made him so successful there, are still part of his nature. And so, it appears, is his expertise with the media.
And now, he is out there selling his well-crafted image to the good people of this country. But they don’t know the real man behind the curtain. They just see the Wizard waving at the adoring crowds in all his media splendor. But many of us here in Oz know the truth. And it scares us.
For more on Rudy:
The Full Rudy: The Man, the Mayor, the Myth
by Jack Newfield
(my apologies to Mr. Newfield for riffing on his title)
Rudy Giuliani: Emperor of the City (Paperback)
by Andrew Kirtzman