Giuliani's moment

One leader has risen to the awful occasion -- and, so far, it hasn't been President Bush.

Published September 12, 2001 9:21PM (EDT)

There he was again on television Tuesday, just before midnight -- tired, sad, drawn but still reassuring, a little sooty from the streets, updating the nation on the rescue efforts at the World Trade Center, where the bloodiest terrorist attack in American history left a hole in the ground and a wound in the national psyche.

He was speaking, again, without notes or teleprompter, at this, his fourth or fifth press conference of the day. It was hard to know how to count his appearances -- he was everywhere, all day long, answering every question -- but that seemed right: In a crisis like this, a leader has to be visible, accessible, sharing our grief but reassuring us we'll come through the tragedy, together. He was back at it early Wednesday morning, reporting the latest rescue news and urging his fellow citizens to pick up their lives, recover their sense of normalcy.

But it wasn't President Bush calming Americans all day Tuesday. It was New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who emerged as the leader the nation yearned for, while Bush spent the day in the blue skies over the U.S., being shuttled from Florida to Louisiana to Omaha before finally returning to Washington, almost 12 hours after the terrifying attack.

This isn't the time to bash President Bush. To be fair, he has responsibilities far more crushing than rescuing trapped survivors and preventing despair and panic in New York; he must lead the effort to find those responsible for this brutally efficient strike against the U.S. and decide how to retaliate. Maybe there wasn't a minute for Bush to visit a rescue site or a hospital, or to hold a press conference and air the range of questions and worries we all had, on that very first day of chaos.

But for the moment, at least, Bush missed a crucial opportunity to show he's ready for a role that has, since the 2000 campaign, just seemed too big for him: being a leader who can reassure and rally Americans, with his self-confidence that he knows exactly what's needed and that he can provide it, and with his unswerving connection to his own feelings and values -- in this case, grief and anger and a determination to prevail, side by side. That role can still be filled by the president; this is going to be a very long week, with lots of need for reassurance and rallying. But if Bush aspires to it, he should look at what Giuliani's done in the last two days.

I'm no Giuliani fan -- I think I've liked him less than Bush, until now -- but he's done a stunning job healing the city, and the nation, in the wake of this awful terror. It might be the combination of his own recent personal suffering -- prostate cancer, an ugly divorce -- and putting his political career on hold, but he's risen to the occasion with a warmth and humanity I never would have anticipated.

I'm not alone. In New York and all across the country liberals are wondering if this attack has unhinged us. Could this stirring in our hearts, this admiration, this gratitude, really be for Rudy Giuliani -- he of the crackdowns on "indecent art" and street vendors and civil liberties; he of the race-baiting, the nastiness, the arrogance? But of course, we're not seeing that Rudy Giuliani. We're seeing the cancer survivor and sad, screw-up husband, the father, and maybe most important of all, the man who lost dozens of his own friends in the police and fire departments in yesterday's nightmare.

His emotional tone has been just right. "The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately," he told CNN early Tuesday, with moving honesty. Later, in an afternoon press conference, his voice broke, briefly, when he described seeing the World Trade Center after the attack: "I don't know that I'm really able to describe it. It was the most horrific scene I've ever seen in my whole life." He was trapped in an adjacent building when one of the towers fell on top of it, he noted. A reporter asked, were you scared for your own safety? "Sure, yes," he said matter-of-factly.

"He's had perfect pitch," says writer John Leonard, a longtime Giuliani critic who has nonetheless been moved by the mayor's leadership during the crisis. "I was extremely impressed. There's a lot of personal pain there, because he knew a bunch of the cops and firemen."

I've thought about that -- Giuliani's obvious pain on Tuesday -- a lot. I liked it when he got choked up, recounting the horror he saw. We don't want that in every leader, of course: I didn't want Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, to get teary on Tuesday. (I also didn't want Rumsfeld to seem completely nuts on Wednesday, railing against people who leak classified documents, apropos of nothing, but I don't always get what I want.) But in times like these we need to feel some sympathetic vibration from our leaders or they seem inert. As Leonard puts it, "He's like a tuning fork for us. You need somebody up there reflecting back your pain."

"And there's been absolutely no political rhetoric," Leonard adds. Amazingly, the normally macho Giuliani has resisted demagoguery and saber-rattling: He refused to call the attack an "act of war," insisting, "I think the president is the one that has to respond." And on Wednesday he went out of his way to warn against anti-Arab attacks, of which there had been only a few, he said.

By comparison, Leonard noted sadly (and yes, even liberals are saddened by this), "The president is nowhere."

Let's give Bush the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge he's extraordinarily busy. What is most disturbing about his first two days of handling the crisis is his failure to hold a single press conference. Question-and-answer sessions help reassure Americans their leader knows what he's doing and is on top of a situation -- which, sadly, may be why he hasn't had one. More subtly and psychologically, though, they're a kind of dialogue: The leader stands and listens to the concerns that surface, from trivial to crucial, and engages with them, holding a kind of conversation with the nation. Admittedly, rude reporters aren't always the best stand-ins for the American public, but Bush hasn't sought out a venue for a question-and-answer session with citizens, either. Of course, at a time like this we can't help but miss President Clinton, who was smart enough to project genuine mastery of virtually any crisis, and empathic enough to reassure us he understood our worry and pain and would deal with that, too.

I try to check myself before going into full swoon over Giuliani. You can see how decades of crisis could lead to fascism; at a time like this I worry I'm entirely too ready to fall into the arms of a strong man. And in some ways he's the same old Rudy, only lovable now, because his affinity for authoritarianism, his capacity to turn every challenge into Armageddon, was ridiculous when applied to graffiti artists and street vendors, but is exactly appropriate here.

But the attraction to strength and security is normal. Anyone who had to tell their children what happened to New York and Washington Tuesday morning; who had to watch that plane tear through that building, whether in person or on TV; who saw the mother on CNN recounting her son's last "I love you" on his cellphone from his doomed plane; anyone who had to get up this morning, had to cross bridges or tunnels, climb the stairs down to the subway, ride an elevator; anyone, everyone, has a powerful need for reassurance right now, and a desire for protection -- protection from despair and nihilism, from terrorized paralysis, from hate and dark fantasies of doomed revenge. Giuliani has provided that reassurance and protection, and the nation is grateful to him.

By Joan Walsh

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