What makes Rudy mean?

Two muckraking biographies ask how Giuliani got to be so vindictive.

By Charles Taylor
July 27, 2000 11:12AM (UTC)
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Like a lot of liberals I know, I publicly despise Rudy Giuliani's politics and privately fret about what New York will be like after he's gone. We enjoy the benefits of the accomplishments he has claimed credit for -- cleaner, safer streets, a drop in crime, the simple fact of not being ruled by fear as we go about our business. And yet when he announced he would not be running for Senate (and with his final term as mayor up next year) there was an immense feeling of relief that this man would no longer be around to poison public life.

Call me conflicted or simply a hypocrite, but as a lifelong Bostonian who was persuaded to move to New York a year ago (a process one friend of mine has compared to giving a cat a bath), I feel particularly divided about Giuliani. The city is much more welcoming than it was during the late '80s and early '90s. Now that I live here, I certainly don't want to return to the exhausting, hyperalert state New York required 10 years ago. I'm convinced, though, that if Giuliani were not bound by term limits to step down next year the city would be torn apart.

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Assessing Giuliani and his reign means finding a balance between appearance and reality that is factually as well as emotionally plausible. The changes that occurred under Giuliani might well have been instigated on previous Mayor David Dinkins' watch, as Wayne Barrett, a senior editor at the Village Voice, insists (and makes a case for) in his "Rudy!: An Investigative Biography of Rudy Giuliani." Barrett would have us believe that Giuliani deserves minimal credit -- if any -- for the positive changes in New York.

Andrew Kirtzman's "Rudy Giuliani: Emperor of the City" can't boast Barrett's exhaustive (and exhausting) detail. Barrett gives us the skinny on every figure who has played any part in Giuliani's work as U.S. attorney and mayor. If there's a shady deal anywhere in anybody's background, Barrett sniffs it out. Which may be why, finally, he can't see the body of Giuliani's work for the skeletons in the closet.

Kirtzman, a senior political reporter for New York's 24-hour cable news channel New York 1, has written a slimmer, brisker book, and a more positive one, willing to give Giuliani credit. That's why, ultimately, it's also a more damning book, a portrait of a man who single-handedly turned a determination to make his city a better place into an example of arrogance for which he is now widely hated.

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Both Barrett and Kirtzman do a thorough job of demonstrating that Giuliani's political orientation is predicated on striking whatever pose will take him to his next career step. Shortly after Ronald Reagan's victory, Giuliani changed his affiliation from Democrat to Republican. And when the 1994 midterm elections swept Republicans into power, his conservative rhetoric reached its harshest heights. One of the most striking things about Giuliani's tenure as mayor is that in order to position himself as a national candidate in a conservative climate, he in effect had to run against the city he governed, playing to the view of New York as a sewer of crime and special interests, even as tourists who may have once held that view stream into his new New York.

Reading the rhetoric Giuliani used in his first (failed) mayoral campaign in 1989, it's difficult to know whether to bemoan a lost opportunity or to be repulsed by his blatant disingenuousness: "Homelessness is not a matter merely of statistics and economics, it is a matter of conscience. Each time the administration attacks those less fortunate by exaggerated and cruel characterizations, New York loses a bit of its soul." Of course at that time, Giuliani fully expected to be facing Ed Koch in the election. When Koch lost the Democratic nomination to Dinkins, Giuliani's promises to "bring into government blacks, Latinos, Asians and women ... so that everyone sees a direct connection to the governing of this city" evaporated.

Despite his calls for civility, Giuliani has consistently made decisions that alienated large numbers of his constituency. He has not just criticized those who disagree with him, but belittled them. From his dismissal of the report he ordered in the wake of the police attack on Abner Louima to his unwavering support for the cops who murdered Amadou Diallo and his posthumous smearing of Patrick Dorismond (which included an illegal release of Dorismond's sealed juvenile record) -- all of these incidents carry a clear and consistent message to black and Latino New Yorkers: You are not a part of this city and don't expect to be treated as if you are. (Even Giuliani's deputy mayor, Rudy Washington, an African-American, had to be issued an NYPD identification badge after being pulled over twice and harassed by cops.)

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Who but someone utterly blind to simple human decency would criticize the parents of unarmed boys who were shot by the police? Giuliani did it twice, saying of 16-year-old Michael Jones -- hit six times by 17 shots while riding a bike with a toy gun -- "I don't think the purpose for which he was out was a salutary one," faulting his parents for letting him out of the house. Nothing better summarizes Giuliani's hypocrisy. A man who consistently said it was improper to comment on the actions of police in the Diallo and Dorismond cases had no compunction about somehow divining the motives of police victims.

Cities like Boston have managed drops in crime comparable to that of New York while at the same time showing significant drops in police brutality complaints. The premise of restoring law and order crumbles when police are, with the support of the mayor and often the courts, allowed to run lawless and when many, simply by virtue of their race, have ample reason to fear the people who are supposed to be protecting them. Do bad things happen during the administration of good politicians? Absolutely. But those things are commonly perceived as aberrations rather than logical extensions of administration policy. The person in charge sets the tone, and the tone Giuliani has set is one of unrepentant meanness.

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Where does that meanness come from? Barrett offers some reasonable explanations, beginning with the strictures of a Roman Catholic education with its emphasis on discipline and obedience and barely any recognition of shadings between right and wrong. Giuliani managed to grow up in racially homogeneous pockets of an ethnically diverse city. Still, there are plenty of Catholics who admit the vagaries of experience into their view of the world and plenty of people -- of all races -- who grow up among their own race and aren't hostile or uncomfortable with others.

A psychological portrait, even a devastating one, has to proceed from a willingness to understand rather than judge. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Barrett clearly hates Giuliani so much that, plausible as his explanations for the man's character may be, they feel generalized rather than specific. As for the book's most-talked-about revelations, that Giuliani's father, Harold, did time for armed robbery (before his son was born) and that Giuliani's extended family includes both corrupt cops and uncles connected to low-level mobsters, they can't escape the taint of gotcha journalism.

Had Barrett found evidence that Giuliani had used his office to intercede on behalf of his crooked relatives, there might be some reason for dwelling on his family's history. The same would be true if Barrett had offered evidence of some Oedipal conflict that drove Giuliani to repudiate his background. He doesn't. He merely uses Giuliani's consistent praise for his father as proof of the mayor's duplicity. Barrett's "Rudy!" is investigative journalism that wouldn't be out of place in the supermarket checkout line.

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What, besides ridicule, is the purpose of writing this about Giuliani's communications director (and reported paramour) Cristyne Lategano: "Her chunky, muscular legs dominated her waistless body"? Or that Giuliani's current girlfriend, Judith Nathan, "kept toned with gym workouts and a calorie-counter in her head"? Or, "Her idea of a good book was a murder mystery set in the Hamptons"? (Given some of the junk I have to read in this line of work, I wouldn't disagree with her.) Is there anything but nastiness behind this passage about Giuliani's father's prostate cancer?: "Harold had to urinate frequently, and often while out in the garden with Lina, he would stagger into a corner, unzip his pants and moan with relief as he pissed in the weeds."

Barrett's relentlessness does, however, produce some very damning revelations about Giuliani's cronyism, about his hocus-pocus with the figures supporting his claims of responsibility for the drop in crime and for reducing welfare rolls. But Barrett's inability to discriminate means that for him everything exists on the same level -- real sleaze with run-of-the-mill political dishonesty.

Barrett can't distinguish, say, between the question of whether Giuliani had an affair with Lategano (nobody's business but theirs and Giuliani's now-estranged wife, Donna Hanover) and the question of whether that affair was responsible for her job promotions and pay hikes (everybody's business). Barrett shows a lot less sophistication than his fellow New Yorkers who, despite Giuliani's callousness in letting his wife know they were separating through the press, deemed the mayor's affair with Nathan his business, with no bearing on his job performance.

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Barrett displays the reporter's cynicism that is so often close to naiveti, a tough-guy worldview that only recognizes the lowest motives. He really wants us to be shocked that politicians exaggerate their accomplishments or use personal tragedy for political expediency or call on their connections to advance their relatives. He's been covering politics for 22 years and this is news to him? Barrett huffs and puffs about how Giuliani may have engineered Hanover's hiring at the TV Food Network in order to help the network acquire a New York cable channel. But that kind of petty nepotism isn't anything new. The best attitude toward it is the one expressed years ago by a talk-show host when a certain president's daughter was pursuing an opera career. Turning to his guest the host said, "Well, I'd love to keep talking but unfortunately we have to listen to Margaret Truman sing."

The only explanation that really seems to account for Giuliani's meanness, for the vindictiveness he has shown toward the staff members who have dared disagree with him, is a pretty banal one: his lust for power and his paranoid certainty that anyone who questions him is out to destroy that power.

By itself, power is morally ambiguous, and a politician's wish to consolidate it isn't inherently a bad thing. Much of Giuliani's popularity came from the fact that he was perceived as a straight shooter. He has shown flashes of political genius when taking risks that he knows will win the approval of the public. It was certainly not in keeping with the times to go after Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, as he did during his tenure as U.S. attorney in the "greed is good" heyday of Ronald Reagan.

Kirtzman includes a few things that Barrett rather obviously leaves out: Giuliani's use of tough tactics during his time as mayor to clean the mob out of the Fulton Fish Market and the commercial garbage-hauling industry. Maybe most impressive are Giuliani's actions following the 1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800 over the water off Long Island. A friend of Giuliani's was on the plane and, seeking word, he wound up at a hotel along with the relatives and friends of others on the planes. Despite the agonized pleas of these people, TWA refused to release a passenger list. Giuliani, Kirtzman writes, got hold of an airline manifest, and "took it upon himself to go from person to person to break the news to them that their husbands, wives and friends were dead. He stayed with them throughout the night."

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Great politicians are often people who are not shy about using their power, even if that means intimidating their opponents to get their way. But Giuliani is not a great politician. Like Richard Nixon, he is one of those odd figures that politics gives rise to from time to time, who preside over tumultuous events but are by themselves too puny to become grand figures in the political imagination. There's no vision to Guiliani, no largeness of spirit, and there is cunning, which is not the same thing as bravery.

There's a world of difference between wielding power for the public good, as Lyndon Johnson did to ram through reams of legislation, ranging from the Voting Rights Act to Medicare (although he later destroyed his Great Society programs through escalating involvement in Vietnam), and the way Giuliani has consistently forced the most vindictive and punishing measures on New York (often only to find the courts rule those measures illegal). Giuliani's workfare program caused the death of a 50-year-old woman, who collapsed while working for her benefits, and later the heart attack of a 57-year-old man with high blood pressure made to scrub garbage trucks. Barrett reports that City University students receiving welfare were given 24-hour assignments that prevented them from attending college.

A Dickensian cruelty has reestablished itself under the reign of Giuliani, who, at times, appears like nothing so much as Uriah Heep after an assertiveness training course. It's hard to imagine even his supporters feeling warmth toward the man. Vindictive and egocentric as he has been, he is also scarily impersonal. He exudes the grimness of a mortician ready to reprove you for not choosing the most expensive casket for your beloved.

Giuliani's scolding tone has made it nearly impossible to pick out the good ideas in some of his programs. The Draconian results of his quality-of-life initiatives or his adherence to the "broken windows theory" of crime doesn't necessarily invalidate the rationale behind them. The latter, from an article that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, argued that an area left to go to seed sends a message that crime is tolerated there. There are obvious limits to that theory (police commissioner William Bratton's assistant, Jack Maple, said, "Rapists and killers don't head for another town when they see that graffiti is disappearing from the subways"), but it seems only reasonable to assume that unchecked vandalism signals that an area has been abandoned by police patrols and property owners.

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The problem with the broken windows theory is right in the language of the article: "Serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window." If you use panhandlers as a gauge of social breakdown then the economic legacy of the Reagan and Bush years means that you can go barely anywhere in any city without seeing a "broken window." (In my old neighborhood outside Boston, a man who once lived on my street wound up roaming the neighborhood begging for change.) By that measure, a panhandler asking for change or opening the door to a convenience store becomes indistinguishable from someone harassing you for money or persisting if you refuse.

And the phrase "disorderly behavior" is alarmingly vague. To an inexperienced or hotheaded cop, or one simply not familiar with a certain neighborhood, it could mean anything from two men having an argument to a group of raucous kids making noise while they hang out. (And in fact, Barrett recounts that NYPD cops have arrested kids for hanging out on the stoops of buildings where they live.)

But Giuliani's inability to make these distinctions doesn't mean that there's no value to "quality of life" concerns or that they don't affect people of all classes and races. Kirtzman makes a halfhearted attempt to argue that much of what Giuliani tried to abolish is the flavor of New York. Try telling yourself it's the flavor of the city when you're crossing a street on a walk sign and a cabbie hangs a right on red without looking. Or, as happened to me a few months ago, when a homeless, obviously drunk and possibly unstable woman pulls down her pants and begins urinating in a subway car.

Should those people be arrested? That seems a waste of time. But I do think they should be reprimanded (in the case of the woman, taken somewhere where she can sober up; in the case of the cabbie, fined). Of course it's simply punitive and cruel when cops waste their time (and our money) busting homeless people who duck into an alley or behind a bush to relieve themselves, and sheer foolishness when Giuliani tries to reinstitute fines for jaywalking. But I'm glad I can call the Quality of Life board when the techno DJ next door to me uses his club-scaled amps to blast music through my bedroom wall at 3 a.m. On the other hand, it pisses me off when I see four cops surrounding one guy in the subway for an infraction that could be as minor as selling goods without a license.

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The specifics of who deserves credit for the improvements that have occurred during Giuliani's administration may be open to debate, as the specifics of who deserves blame for the administration's excesses are not. It may be that the broken windows theory defines his mayoralty in more ways than Giuliani could ever have imagined. Demanding a safer, cleaner and more inviting New York has no doubt helped those things come to pass. But Giuliani has been just as instrumental in creating not just the impression but the reality of a city that scapegoats its minorities and the poor, where adults are not able to disagree with their mayor without being talked down to as if they were children, where courts have in effect ruled that black lives are worth less than white ones and where cops are allowed to get away with murder. These are both his legacies.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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