Rudy's unlikely story

Published September 2, 2004 3:10PM (EDT)

Is Rudy Giuliani rewriting history? One of his best-received lines during his prime-time convention address Monday night, which focused on President Bush's leadership in the war on terror, was when Giuliani told delegates that amid the morning chaos of Sept. 11, he instinctively turned to an aide and said, "Thank God George Bush is our president." That clip was played over and over on cable TV news channels and picked up in news accounts around the world.

But the line comes with a certain too-good-to-be-true quality. After all, Bush had only been in office eight months and had shown little or no public interest in combating terrorism, so why would Giuliani be so relieved to have Bush in office? But more practically, with the World Trade Center towers literally falling around him, casualties mounting, and fears of further terrorist strikes that day still a real possibility, why would Giuliani be thanking his stars about his president hundreds of miles away?

Only he and former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik know for sure if that exchange really took place. According to Giuliani's account, it was Kerik who Giuliani turned to that morning and blurted out the "Thank God" line. Kerik would certainly back up Giuliani's account. (The two are now business partners and security consultants; in the wake of 9/11 they have become wealthier than they ever could have imagined.) Appearing on CNN's "Larry King Live," Giuliani was asked about the quote and insisted it wasn't created for the convention and that he'd told the stories years before -- and many times before. "It was in one of the newspapers in Florida. Probably August in 2002. It's been reported in the newspapers maybe about a dozen times or more. And it's been on television. I maybe even said it on your show," said Giuliani.

But a check of the Nexis electronic database for 2001, 2002 and 2003 shows no newspapers or magazines reporting the anecdote, or Giuliani ever appearing on a television show and telling the story "a dozen times or more." Instead, Nexis reveals that the first time the anecdote was reported was this spring ... at a Bush fundraiser. According to the Washington Post, Giuliani told a crowd of Long Island, N.Y., Republican donors on March 11 that on Sept. 11, "I said to the police commissioner right next to me, 'Thank God George Bush is the president of the United States.'" (During a 2003 GOP fundraiser, Giuliani told a different version, minus Kerik: "I remember that day saying a little prayer of thank-you that George Bush was our president.")

The rest of Giuliani's response on "Larry King Live" also raises doubts about the veracity of the story. King asked the former mayor what prompted him on Sept. 11 to think about Bush and the good fortune of having him in the White House. Giuliani answered: "I had just talked to the White House. I had asked for air support for the city. And I felt, because of my conversations with George Bush, that he would have the kind of character to stick to this. That he wouldn't do some symbolic bombings and run out and walk out. That he would understand what we had been doing wrong about terrorism for about 30 years. And that he would have the kind of determination to stick to it."

That's just not believable. Is Giuliani really suggesting that on the morning of Sept. 11, while scurrying out of a trapped basement on 75 Barclay Street, and while thousands were dying in Lower Manhattan in the Pearl Harbor-like attack, he had already figured out who was behind the attacks, and was contrasting what the Republican-led military response into the hills of Afghanistan would be like compared to previous administrations?

Giuliani can tell the 'Thank God for Bush' story as often as he wants, but it's a good thing Kerik is such a close friend.

Update: Bob Somerby from notes Giuliani told a similar "Thank God" story on the Dec. 23, 2001 broadcast of "Meet the Press." But in that exchange, Giuliani suggested he told Kerik, "Thank God [Bush] is here" on Sept. 14, not Sept. 11, as Giuliani implied in his emotional convention speech.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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