Two parts hubris, one part paranoia

9/11 gave America amnesia about the real Rudy Giuliani. He's an authoritarian narcissist -- and we don't need another one of those in the White House.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Jay Leno, Bernard Kerik, John McCain, R-Ariz.

Two parts hubris, one part paranoia

There is something deranged about you … this excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness … you should go consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist with this excessive concern, how you are devoting your life to weasels. You need somebody to help you. There are people in this city and in this world that need a lot of help. Something has gone wrong with you.

– New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on his radio show, to a ferret advocate, after imposing New York’s 2001 ferret ban

There is at least one nice thing one can say about former New York mayor and current Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani — besides, of course, his penchant for dressing in drag, his love for opera, and the fact that he used to share an apartment with a gay man.

On 9/11, all Americans were frightened children, and in a moment of mythic personal heroism, Mayor Giuliani filled the gaping leadership void. The president looked like a petrified chimp; Cheney was spirited to an underground bunker. Only Giuliani could pull himself together sufficiently to get on TV in the midst of the wreckage and show America that a grown-up was still breathing. On that terrible day our reptile brains looked at Rudy Giuliani and said, “We’re OK now. Daddy’s home.”

And we forgot, some for a moment, some permanently, that Daddy was psycho.

The attack on the twin towers blew a hole in downtown Manhattan and in our collective memory. Osama bin Laden and company did a better P.R. job for Giuliani than spin ghouls Hill & Knowlton ever did for Dick Nixon. He made everyone but the most grouchy and resentful New Yorkers forget that before planes crashed into the World Trade Center, Rudy was a hyper-authoritarian narcissist with a lust for overkill verging on the sociopathic.

And now, at a time when the machinations of another hubristic bully have brought an unprecedented expansion of the powers of the presidency, “America’s Mayor” may be our next chief executive. He is neck and neck with John McCain when Americans are asked their preference for the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is alarming to think that the murky dealings and totalitarian tendencies that have marred the current administration could flourish even more under another control-junkie Republican. It is even more frightening to think what a commander in chief who already has a violent record of abusing authority could do with the unrestrained might of a geopolitical superpower. Given Giuliani’s historic willingness to take Spanish Inquisition-style action against threats both real and imaginary, is anyone in doubt that it is every American’s duty to keep Rudolph Giuliani as far from the White House as possible?



His political career may have been defined by his willingness to confront scary bogeymen, but during slower periods when there were no obvious villains around, Giuliani’s interpretations of who or what constituted an immediate threat became increasingly bizarre, personal, puritanical and dangerous. Before the planes hit, when he had too much power and not enough to do, Giuliani, like an old soldier who comes home and starts abusing his family in lieu of a real enemy, was pulling a Great Santini on New York, rooting around in our sock drawers with a Maglite, looking for vices to confiscate and sins to punish. By the mid-’90s, Mayor Rudy was abusing authority according to the whims of his own paranoid, hyper-defensive personality disorder in way that would have made Tiberius self-conscious.

As his second term wound down, New Yorkers knew what Rudy was, and they were sick of it. In 1999, they rejected his caudillo-style attempt to amend the city’s (relatively new) term-limit law so he could serve another four years. By May 2000, with crime at historic lows, the city’s economy still aglow, real estate prices soaring — the kind of external factors that normally make politicians untouchable — his approval rating had slid to a Bush-oid 37 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. In December 2001, when Giuliani finally stepped down — after trying and failing to exploit his post 9/11 popularity by passing a special law that would’ve added three months to his reign) — the New York Times interrupted its elegy for the Rudy years with a sober reminder. “The suppression of dissent,” noted the Times, “or of anything that irked the mayor, became a familiar theme.”

Rudy’s character flaws were evident at the very beginning of his public career. Before he ran for mayor the first time (and lost) in 1989, Giuliani had a shining Tom Dewey-esque reputation as a giant-killing prosecutor. Among the reporters who followed him, he also had a reputation for inflating his own accomplishments and using his power to humiliate people.

While U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, he nabbed Wall Street inside traders like Ivan Boesky — that was good. But then Giuliani had to go the extra vainglorious mile of adding a signature “perp walk” photo-op to his arrests. He publicly shamed his defendants, and fed his tough-guy image, by marching them out of their offices in handcuffs through a gauntlet of tipped-off reporters. He decimated New York’s five big mob families by applying the federal RICO statutes early and often, but he also tried to take credit for a strategy that was already in effect before he took office.

When he became mayor in 1994, his personality disorders reached full flower. As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, young Rudy was torn between the priesthood and the law, opting for the latter. Though being a prosecutor did allow him to be both censorious and powerful, which he clearly enjoyed, the job of mayor was a dreamlike fusion of his two childhood ambitions. He was like a pope with a gun.

He also quickly set about undermining his own most notable accomplishment. Prior to 9/11, Giuliani was best known for the remarkable decline in New York’s crime rate during his tenure. Many have questioned whether Giuliani’s hardcore policing methods were really responsible for New York’s metamorphosis. The crack epidemic had ended, the economy had rebounded, and New York had hired thousands of new cops and changed its policing style under Rudy’s much-derided predecessor, David Dinkins. What is certainly true is that some of the city’s success in fighting crime was despite Giuliani, instead of because of him.

Giuliani hired Bill Bratton as police commissioner, and Bratton put together a team of cops who transformed the way America polices itself. Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple had invented a statistics-based system called Compstat that entailed “flooding the zone” with cops in whatever physical location showed an uptick in crime. As head of the city’s transit cops Bratton had applied the “broken windows” theory, which posits that cracking down on petty crimes catches perps guilty of bigger crimes and sends a message of order, and had cleaned up the subways. Together, Compstat and “broken windows” and Bratton’s team helped push New York’s crime numbers down.

They also pushed Bratton to center stage, and that drove Rudy crazy. Only a year into Rudy’s first term, when Bratton was praised in the pages of the New Yorker, NYPD press spokesman John Miller was asked to downsize his staff of 35. The former ABC newsman refused, saying he wouldn’t be “a loyal Nazi,” and quit.

In 1996, Bratton’s face appeared on the cover of Time. Giuliani got rid of him. He also, apparently, initiated an investigation into whether a Bratton book deal constituted a conflict of interest. It was speculated that Rudy fired the man many called the nation’s best police chief because he was, simply, insanely jealous.

To replace Bratton, Giuliani brought in Howard Safir — a move that alienated the remaining players on Team Bratton, particularly Bratton’s No. 2 man, John Timoney. When a visibly dismayed Timoney referred to Safir as a “lightweight,” Giuliani, in a move that would set the tone for his zero-tolerance policy toward dissent, first tried to demote Timoney to captain, then forced Timoney out of office, ordering him to take a leave of absence until his retirement. Jack Maple, the man responsible for Compstat, resigned days later.

Giuliani, having destroyed what might have been the best management team in NYPD history, had to start from scratch. Bratton’s successors continued using the tactics of the men Rudy had canned, but twisted and distorted them. Giuliani and Safir, in trying to one-up the strategic balance of the Bratton team’s approach to law enforcement, opted to jack up the “enforcement” and not pay so much attention to the “law.”

Safir’s NYPD beefed up the Street Crime Unit, a corps of hyper-macho officers once described by the Village Voice’s Nat Hentoff as “a rogue police operation whose members make Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry look like Mahatma Gandhi.” They were given leeway to enact “stop-and-frisks” of ordinary citizens — supposedly to discourage them from carrying guns. While Safir’s office implemented easier arrestee processing methods, New York’s nonwhite citizens became increasingly alarmed by a police force they perceived as hostile, overzealous and racist. Go figure: members of the Street Crime Unit, Hentoff reported, delighted in wearing T-shirts emblazoned with such intimidating slogans as “We Own the Night!” and the Hemingway quote, “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and like it never care for anything else.”

In two years, the Street Crime Unit officially reported 40,000 stop-and-frisk confrontations, but only 9,500 of those searched were arrested. In a radio interview, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer was alarmed enough by these stats to tell WNYC’s Brian Lehrer: “I’ve spoken to many officers who say they do not fill out the required forms for every stop-and-frisk. They may fill out one in five or one in 10. We may have several hundred thousands of these police actions without arrests.”

Inevitably, perhaps, “the hunting of man” resulted in the killing of man. In 1999, unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo, mistaken for a rape suspect, was shot 41 times by Safir’s Street Crime Unit while he fumbled for his keys at his own doorway.

Giuliani’s response was callous. He refused to meet with black leaders for a month — then again, he pretty much always refused to meet with black leaders. And he absolutely refused to reconsider his police department’s policies. But it was his response to the killing of another young black man a year later that was, perhaps, his Katrina moment with the New York public.

In 2000, 26-year-old Patrick Dorismond was shot and killed by an undercover detective participating in Operation Condor. The cop had approached Dorismond to ask where he could buy marijuana. Dorismond was offended, a scuffle ensued, and Dorismond died.

In the outcry following Dorismond’s death, Giuliani was snide and unapologetic. He released Dorismond’s juvenile records to justify Dorismond’s homicide eight years later. He also, famously, sneered that Dorismond was “no altar boy” and defended his comments with a breathlessly cynical legalism, saying it was impossible to libel the dead.

“The Dorismond case has focused dissatisfaction on the Mayor,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute. “Ninety percent of New Yorkers know something about the case, and only 16 percent of New Yorkers approve of the Mayor’s public response to this incident.”

Rudy’s treatment of Dorismond — who had, in fact, been an altar boy — was evidence of what had become Rudy’s signature trait. He smashed ants with a hammer. He went absolutely nuclear on anyone who suggested for one second that anything he had done might be open to question. He humiliated people just as he had humiliated Wall Street’s supposed bad guys 15 years before.

Giuliani called his critics jerks, Marxists and fuzzy-headed liberals. He accused them of having psychological problems. He denigrated and gay-baited schools chancellor Ramon Cortines, calling him “precious” and a “little victim.”

In 1997 a man named James Schillaci, who took a videotape exposing the existence of an NYPD speed trap in the Bronx, was crushed like a bug. After Schillaci took his evidence to the New York Daily News, the NYPD went to his apartment and hauled him off to jail for unpaid traffic tickets. A police spokesperson described Schillaci as a sex offender because of sodomy and burglary charges against him from years before. The traffic tickets were dismissed, just as the sodomy and burglary charges had been dropped. Giuliani said, “There is nothing to apologize for.”

That was the same year Giuliani officially adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward any and all criticism and satire aimed at himself. He had the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority remove an ad for New York magazine from city buses that joked that the magazine was “Possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for.” A U.S. District Court judge slapped Rudy down for his inability to take a joke or tolerate the First Amendment; the ban was lifted. But this only seemed to encourage him even further in his delusion of being Warrior Christ of the Apocalypse-elect.

His policy of humiliating and intimidating his critics finally extended to his own household. Giuliani could, in fact, have learned something from the wise guys he used to bust about how to keep a mistress without embarrassing the missus. In 2000, the second Mrs. Giuliani, newscaster Donna Hanover, had to obtain a court order to stop him from bringing girlfriend Judith Nathan to Gracie Mansion, where she and Rudy’s children were still living. Rudy struck back by announcing his separation to the press before telling his wife. Donna had a press conference outside the mansion in which she accused the mayor of also cheating on her with his former press secretary, Christyne Lategano, though that wasn’t news to any of the reporters in attendance. Rudy had the last word. The wife and kids were eventually booted out of said mansion, and Judy Nathan became his third wife.

In any case, despite the temper tantrums, the abuses of power and the ritual shaming of opponents, there came a time in the ’90s when New York was, admittedly, relatively clean. But once the major vermin were more or less under control, Giuliani kept on cleaning. And cleaning. And cleaning. Like Martha Stewart on her hands and knees in her four-star hotel bathroom in the middle of the night, scrubbing the tiles with Ajax brought in her own luggage.

Cops under Giuliani and Safir enforced, with excessive gusto, a heavy-handed crackdown on graffiti, subway turnstile jumping, street artists, jaywalking, public drinking, public urination, peaceful protest demonstrations and the squeegee men who washed windshields at stoplights.

While it was certainly less life-threatening to be white in New York during the Giuliani administration, everyone I knew at one point had either a first- or secondhand tale of police behaving in a Kafkaesque fashion, under the mayor many had nicknamed Il Duce — or “a small man in search of a balcony,” as newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin memorably called him. I was once on the receiving end of a profanity-laced verbal tirade and nearly arrested by a particularly aggressive cop when I passed a plywood wall with a poster advertising a Celine Dion concert, and drew a moustache on it…..in chalk.

During the Giuliani era, it was routine police procedure to handcuff and jail New Yorkers over minor infractions like smoking a joint in public, and then to drop charges. If you wanted to prosecute the police for misconduct after such an experience, you couldn’t do so without opening your own case back up. Job suicide, in today’s fundamentalist corporate atmosphere — still, nearly 70,000 people filed lawsuits against the New York Police Department during Giuliani’s two terms as mayor, claiming they were strip-searched for offenses as minor as jaywalking.

Martial law, anyone?

But, other than the moustache, those were often “offenses” that someone (not me) might plausibly argue were harmful to society. Rudy’s prosecutorial bent began to turn toward more the more invisible, personal sins of the city, as if he could no longer differentiate between his personal ethics and the law. With a righteous puritanical zeal that would impress any closeted homosexual televangelist, Rudy sought to remake New York in his own image and likeness, by interpreting things that personally annoyed him as actual crimes.

The pope with a gun, despite his own very randy behavior, desexed New York. He pushed strip clubs to the margins of the city. He gave seedy but authentic 42nd Street a forced extreme makeover, transforming the corridor of ancient peep shows into a tourist-friendly megamall, replete with towering Disney store and windows full of bobble-head Derek Jeter figurines. Some residents really missed the lap dancing.

In 1999, Giuliani picked his most absurd fight: with the Brooklyn Museum over the art show “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection.” Without seeing it, Giuliani became offended by “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a now famous painting by Turner Prize-winning-artist Chris Ofili, of a black Madonna, employing the controversial (yet puerile) elements of elephant dung and female genitalia — ostensibly for shock value. And Rudy, shocked down to his adulterous Underoos, went off on a rampaging fit of Comstockery that made even ardent supporters think he was an overreaching jerkbag.

In a move widely perceived as power drunk and control freaky, Giuliani threatened to close the Brooklyn Museum and cancel its annual funding if the offending painting was not removed. He even issued statements about his intention to establish a “decency panel,” granting his office (read: himself) the power to decide what creative works were decent enough to be allowed to be considered art in New York City. When graffiti artist Steve Powers staged a protest by drawing a caricature of Rudy and charging all comers a buck to throw fake elephant poop at it, cops threw him in jail.

The museum, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, countered with a lawsuit, charging Giuliani with violating the First Amendment — and won. The ruling by federal District Court judge Nina Gershon stated, “There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy.” Even Rudy’s fellow New York City Catholics opposed his actions by 48 to 42 percent — and Jay Leno, on national TV, compared him to Hitler.

Then, of course, there was the infamous 2001 ferret ban. New Yorkers, as the end of Rudy’s reign neared, were half-expecting him to adopt the Singapore model of public canings for spitting and enact a citywide ban on gum.

By then, Rudy seemed to have taken himself out of earshot of most of his critics. Much like another petulant, authoritarian, unpopular second-term Republican. Rudy was stranded in the sandbox of his own mind, surrounded by sycophantic cronies. He had picked as playmates men whose careers were most distinguished by their loyalty to Rudy, loyalty at points verging on the conspiratorial and cultish. However, such insular habits made Giuliani an ideal Republican in a party that increasingly spoke of moral certitude, rewarded its supporters, distanced itself from reality, and punished or silenced dissent.

Giuliani’s strangest bedfellow was surely Bernard Kerik, the even less qualified successor to Howard Safir. Kerik, who during his undercover days dressed like Lorenzo Lamas and compared himself to Serpico, enjoyed a tendency to play fast and loose with law enforcement, using his detectives as virtual Praetorian Guard for resolving personal matters. Kerik’s autobiography was published by his own extramarital bedfellow, shameless publishing gorgon Judith Regan (who published Kerik’s book long before failing to publish O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It”). Kerik allegedly sent detectives to search, SWAT-style, the homes of Fox TV employees after Regan claimed they had stolen her cell phone … he was also reprimanded for sending detectives, on the city’s dime, to do research for his book.

But he had once been Giuliani’s personal bodyguard and thus was qualified to become New York’s police commissioner. When Giuliani recommended that Bush nominate Kerik (then his business partner) head the Department of Homeland Security in 2004, Kerik’s life unraveled miserably under the scrutiny of the vetting process. He withdrew his name and eventually pleaded guilty to accepting such perks as apartment renovations and personal loans, while a public official, from businesses with alleged mob ties.

After 9/11, with the help of Kerik, Rudy cashed in his own newly refurbished reputation as a leader by launching a consulting firm called Giuliani Partners, which includes Giuliani Security & Safety. It is, of course, a clubhouse full of cronies that included, until his recent difficulties, Bernie Kerik. He also cashes big checks for speaking to adoring crowds of heartland voters whose names do not end in vowels.

“America’s Mayor” seems to be convincing those crowds that he is one of them. Pundits have been speculating that Giuliani is too liberal and otherwise sullied to win the Republican presidential candidacy - he may be anti-peep show, anti-blasphemy, and anti-ferret, but he is pro-gun control, pro-choice and pro-gay rights. But Giuliani appears to have been in a long, quiet process of sliding ever rightward. Among those now raising money for Giuliani’s presidential bid are Christopher Henick, former deputy assistant to Karl Rove, Bush fundraiser Anne Dickerson, and legendary Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens.

America’s Mayor may be America’s next president, and America’s next Angry Daddy. There is no consolation in knowing ahead of time how wrong that could go.

“At the end of the day, [Rudy will] find a way to screw things up again,” predicted Steve Powers, he of the fake elephant poop, in an interview printed in the book “America’s Mayor: The Hidden History of Rudy Giuliani’s New York.” “He’s the victim of his own temper and temperament, especially when he has a real taste of power. Once he treats America like he treated New York and really gets out of hand with it, forget about it.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected since it was first published.

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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