What an anti-Giuliani ad should say

Forget his messy personal life. Democrats should go right at his supposed strength -- 9/11 -- the same way Republicans attacked John Kerry's Vietnam service.

Published March 13, 2007 11:47AM (EDT)

Considering Rudy Giuliani's image as the hero of Sept. 11, 2001, and the nation's ultimate first responder, burnished yet again by the warm reception he received at a firehouse during a recent campaign swing through South Carolina, it might surprise many of his supporters to learn that the country's largest union of firefighters hates "America's mayor" with a passion.

The International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents most of the nation's paid firefighters, initially declined to invite Giuliani to its bipartisan presidential candidates forum on Wednesday, March 14. Giuliani was the only major candidate from either party who didn't get an invite. The organization drafted a blistering letter to explain why it was snubbing him. After the IAFF leadership relented on March 5 and decided to ask Giuliani to attend after all, they shelved the letter. When Giuliani said scheduling conflicts would keep him from attending the forum, the letter leaked out. It blasted Giuliani for his "disgraceful" order of November 2001 that forced hundreds of New York firefighters to stop searching ground zero for the remains of their fallen brethren.

"Our disdain for him," said the letter, "is not about issues or a disputed contract. It is about a visceral, personal affront to the fallen, to our union and indeed, to every one of us who has ever risked our lives by going into a burning building to save lives and property."

By now, the average American voter knows that Giuliani offered important and comforting words to the nation on 9/11, filling a Bush-Cheney leadership vacuum. But voters may not know that he is not universally beloved by the real, rank-and-file first responders of 9/11, and that survivors and family members harbor bitter, lasting resentments. The public may also be unaware that Giuliani's preparation for and management of the crisis that has come to define his career, and on which his presidential ambitions rest, has actually become a case study for emergency management experts of what not to do. In fact, rather than representing his strongest qualification for the White House, his actions on 9/11 could be a political liability.

Conventional wisdom says that Giuliani is vulnerable to attacks on his many marriages, his estrangement from his children, his questionable cronies, and his positions on many social issues that sound suspiciously liberal. The man performed in drag and voted for George McGovern. But the real opportunity for Democrats -- if the Democrats are willing to seize it -- may lie in going straight at what is supposed to be Giuliani's strength.

In 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth challenged the established image of John Kerry as a decorated, wounded Vietnam War hero. Democrats who had supported Kerry because they thought his military service made him electable were shocked to find a Republican-funded 527 group using spurious information and savage ads to create doubt in the electorate about the candidate's war record. Should Rudy Giuliani be the Republican nominee in 2008, Democrats can create the same doubt about him, but without relying on distortion. They could instead use the truthful words of sympathetic subjects who credibly blame Giuliani for the loss of their loved ones on Sept. 11.

These are people who have no partisan ax to grind -- many voted for Giuliani for mayor at least twice and would ordinarily have been considered part of his base. That will make their burning desire to set the country straight about his actual 9/11 record harder to dismiss, along with their genuine fear of what kind of president he would be.

The intensity of their feelings can be heard in the voice of Rosaleen Tallon. A stay-at-home mom who supports right-to-life candidates and lives in the unglamorous New York suburb of Yonkers, Tallon lost her brother Sean, a former Marine who became a probationary New York City firefighter, on 9/11. Six years later she is still enraged that Sean never heard the Fire Department's radioed "mayday" order to evacuate the twin towers before they fell. If he had, she says, he would have heeded the directions of his superiors and gotten out.

As Rosaleen will tell anyone willing to listen, the vintage radios that Sean and 342 other city firefighters carried at their deaths on 9/11 were known to be defective. The faulty radios were the target of years of scathing internal assessments, bureaucratic wrangling, and accusations of bidding favoritism, and still the Giuliani administration had never replaced them.

Here, in the radios fiasco, was government paralysis at its worst, the sort he frothed about as a reformist candidate for mayor. The city's firefighters were sent into the towers without the basic ability to send or receive maydays. The buck stops with Rudy, who knew that the same radios had faltered when the World Trade Center was first bombed by terrorists in 1993, the year he was elected mayor.

What is more, just three months before the 9/11 attack, a city firefighter trapped in the basement of a burning house in Queens broadcast a mayday on a high-tech digital radio issued by his administration to replace the older variety. When firefighters battling the blaze didn't hear his SOS -- it was picked up only by radios carried by firefighters a couple of miles away -- an uproar ensued. The firefighter survived, but the high-tech replacement radios, which had never been field-tested, were thus withdrawn, and the firemen went back to relying on their old radios, just in time for 9/11.

And on Sept. 11, the faulty radios were just part of a tableau of dysfunction. Fire Department officials couldn't communicate with police officials, whose helicopters had bird's-eye views of the unstable towers poised to fall. Police and fire communications weren't linked, and no one bothered to set up a unified police-fire command post on the street near the towers, which is Emergency Management 101. Meanwhile, the city's emergency dispatchers fielded a flood of 911 calls from panicked World Trade Center workers and gave out the wrong advice, or just threw up their hands -- "Do whatever you have to do, Sir."

Where was Rudy? He didn't know what to do or where to go because he had put his emergency command center in exactly the wrong place. Against the advice of experts, he had built the emergency command center in the area most likely to be attacked, an area that had already been attacked, the 23rd floor of No. 7 World Trade Center. It was off-limits on the only day it was ever needed.

Giuliani's supporters believe it would be impossible to undermine the ingrained perception of their candidate as a national icon, Rudy the Rock. But imagine what a talented and aggressive Democratic media consultant could do with Giuliani's real 9/11 record. Imagine Rosaleen Tallon and a Greek chorus of angry, bereaved New Yorkers in a spate of heart-tugging commercials. The ads could include not only the family members of men and women killed on 9/11, but also hard hats sickened by prolonged exposure to the toxic ground zero air that Giuliani declared safe to inhale within days of the attack. And the chorus could include the mayor's downtown constituents, who were left to rid their homes of chemical dust without city assistance, risking their own well-being. The New York City government now estimates that 43,000 people have significant 9/11-related health problems. Many, no doubt, would gladly go on camera.

Giuliani's vulnerability can be detected, in part, in his shifting accounts of his actions. He has said, for example, that technology for police-fire interoperability didn't exist at the time the planes slammed into the towers. A fawning 9/11 Commission swallowed that line, but the U.S. Conference of Mayors found shortly before Giuliani's testimony to the commission that of 192 cities it evaluated, three-quarters had radios interoperable across police and fire departments.

Giuliani has also said that firefighters remained in doomed towers because they, as a breed, are wired to their bones and sinews to stand their ground. But firefighters are also part of a quasi-military chain of command and are wired to obey orders during a crisis -- if they can hear them. Tellingly, Giuliani's Republican successor, Michael Bloomberg, who took office in January 2002, had little difficulty outfitting the FDNY with reliable radios, which they now carry with them into harm's way.

"He tells filthy lies, shamelessly parlaying his failures into a multinational empire and national campaign," said Sally Regenhard, the mother of a fallen firefighter. He cut and ran, she says. "All the heroes of 9/11 are dead or wounded, spiritually, emotionally or physically."

"He has alienated pretty much everybody in the 8,000-member fire department -- by and large, we all resent him," said New York City Fire Capt. Michael Gala, citing the city's response on 9/11, the very day upon which Giuliani's presidential hopes will rise or fall. "We don't forget. That's the big thing -- we don't forget."

Come 2008, will Democrats?

By Robert Polner

Robert Polner is the editor of "America's Mayor, America's President?: The Strange Career of Rudy Giuliani" (Soft Skull Press, 2007). He is also communications director for the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.

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2004 Elections 2008 Elections 9/11 John F. Kerry D-mass.