Stay, just a little bit longer

Giuliani isn't trying to hurt democracy by proposing a term extension, but to make it work better.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published September 29, 2001 10:39PM (EDT)

Before Sept. 11, I was more than ready for him to leave.

Now I'm more than convinced he ought to stay.

Rudy Giuliani had outraged me on countless occasions. Like many New Yorkers -- I've only lived here two years, but I've adopted the city as my own -- I'd toss Giuliani grudging props for having made the streets safer during his two terms, though I'm still not sure exactly how much he had to do with it. His crackdown on street vendors seemed like so much mayoral busywork; his pronouncements on what he deemed indecent art made him seem like the mayor of Tiny Town instead of a city as large and as sophisticated as New York. But his near-robotic support of the New York Police Department during the Amadou Diallo fiasco was the last straw; it deepened my distrust of the man to what I'd thought was the point of no return.

But on Sept. 11 and the days and weeks following, I saw him on television and could barely believe he was the same guy. Was I just being sentimental, softening toward him because I'd seen him striding with such grim resolution toward the World Trade Center site on that first day, white dust covering his regulation dress shoes so thickly that I had to crawl right up to the TV to make sure they weren't two-tone spectators? The next day he showed up in an FDNY cap and a windbreaker, which has pretty much been his uniform these past few weeks: working clothes for what is likely the toughest job any American mayor has ever had to do.

Now he wants another three months, and I want him to have it. I couldn't rouse myself to vote in the primary, rescheduled from its original Sept. 11 date, this past Tuesday: I'll be happy to have a new mayor eventually, but right now I can barely countenance the idea. That's not because I undervalue democratic institutions, but because I need to have some faith in their original purpose: To serve the people. Wouldn't any new mayor be better equipped to serve the city, a city that's been temporarily knocked off its feet, by working closely with Giuliani over a slightly extended transition?

In those first few days after the attack, it wasn't that Giuliani impressed me with his grand leadership skills. It was simply that I found myself comforted and sometimes even slightly cheered by the mere sight of him at a press conference. Our president got on the air and declared a "crusade" against terrorism, trying so hard to be a trusted leader you could almost see it in his squinty little eyes. (The nation's trust was one thing the Supreme Court couldn't give Bush when it handed him the election.)

Giuliani, on the other hand, earned New Yorkers' trust hour by hour. He never soft-pedaled what a mess we were in, but he reassured us we could get out of it. If it sounds corny to people elsewhere in the country, there's no getting around the fact that in New York, we desperately needed to hear it. The day after the attack, he suggested we get out and do as many normal things as we could bring ourselves to: Shop, go out to eat -- largely to bolster the local economy, sure, but also to unglue us from our televisions, to get us going again. A few days later, he suggested this might be a good time to get tickets to "The Producers." (He was wrong -- the show is still near-impossible to get into -- but it's the thought that counts.)

I don't support a third term for Giuliani, and I'm troubled by his claim that he'll challenge term-limit legislation if his proposed three-month extension is blocked. That's the old Giuliani: The ambitious bully, the guy I was more than happy to say goodbye to just three weeks ago.

But I think the city needs a three-month extension of his last term in office. Three months in the life of a city, especially a city that's still reeling from a major crisis, is an infinitesimal amount of time. Giuliani has made it clear that he wants that extra time to get the new mayor fully up to speed on what the city will need in the coming months and years. He also wants to ensure that the new mayor develops a working trust with federal officials, including the FBI and the military.

And at this point, my support of Giuliani is based not just on my trust in him, but on my distrust of any candidate who has the hubris to think he can just step up to this now horrifyingly complicated job without a hitch. Republican candidate Michael Bloomberg has always struck me as nothing more than an ambitious hotshot, a guy who doesn't want to be mayor of New York but CEO; his openness to Giuliani's term extension makes him seem at least reasonable. And it's politically astute for Democratic candidate Mark Green to support Giuliani's proposal -- it's a way of widening his base among more conservative voters. Whoever wins, Democrat or Republican, is going to need to reach out to the other side in the wake of this disaster; division is the last thing we need.

The response of the other Democratic candidate, Fernando Ferrer -- who would have had my vote on Sept. 11, if the original primary hadn't been postponed -- rattles me. Ferrer appeared unruffled and almost glib, talking with television reporters Thursday night about his refusal to honor Giuliani's extension request. His argument amounted to a version of "The wheels of democracy must turn." Of course, they must, but he seemed so casually certain about his decision that it made me wonder if he really knows what he's getting himself into.

As a firm believer in a careful and well-considered interpretation of the Constitution, I'm a little surprised myself at how strongly I believe that Giuliani should have his extra three months. I don't buy into the flag-waving reasoning that some opponents of Giuliani's scheme have offered: In Friday's New York Daily News, Pete Hamill charged that, in the wake of such a massive attack by terrorists, "We don't fight lawless men by treating existing law as mere words on paper."

Certainly I don't see myself as a person who believes the democratic process should be monkeyed around with, that our laws left blank spaces to write in extra rules willy-nilly. But even the two-term limit for New York's mayor was only adopted by voters in 1993. Our laws are constantly evolving, as they should, and democracy will withstand whatever New York decides to do about Giuliani's proposal.

Reason is always supposed to override emotion at election time. But having seen what I've seen in New York these past few weeks -- having shared sidewalks and subway cars with thousands of other people who have valiantly thrown themselves back into the routine but who still feel as "off" as I do; having seen the smoke that still wafts up from the rubble downtown -- I confess that for better or worse, I'm more governed by emotion than usual. I see Giuliani's proposed extension not as a flagrant insult to democracy, but as an emergency measure, a way of giving the new mayor every possible advantage in taking the reins.

Maybe that's because I see so many New Yorkers going about their regular business gingerly; even that boring, everyday schlep to the office seems disorienting, even courageous, in this new light. A city like New York is made up of millions of interconnecting working parts, most of which we're barely aware of as long as the subway is running and our favorite restaurants are open. In just the past three weeks, Rudy Giuliani has had an inside look at some of those working parts, parts that I'm sure not even he had given much thought to before. If they're news to him, imagine what they'd look like to a new mayor.

Giuliani's critics are convinced that by sticking around, the mayor will be meddling with the clockwork of democracy. I think he just wants to make sure it keeps ticking.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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