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The Full Rudy: The Man, the Mayor, the Myth | The Nation

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The Full Rudy: The Man, the Mayor, the Myth

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Rudy Giuliani was a C-plus Mayor who has become an A-plus myth. Since the atrocity of 9/11, Giuliani has managed to merge himself with wounded New York until the man and the metropolis--and this almost religious event--seem to be one heroic blur.

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Jack Newfield
Jack Newfield is a veteran New York political reporter and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of...

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Bob Dylan probably had no idea how much the times really were a' changin'.

On the rise of the "New Left" movement represented by organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Northern Student Movement, organizations whose ideologies could not be pinned to liberal sects of the past.

But in April 1999, in the sixth year of his term-limited mayoralty, Giuliani had only a 40 percent approval rating from the people he governed, who knew him best. A year later his divorce lawyer was savagely attacking his wife, Donna Hanover, while the Mayor was flaunting his mistress in public. He even brought his girlfriend into the Mayor's residence, Gracie Mansion, while his wife was still residing there. They don't allow this kind of behavior in trailer parks!

As a result, Giuliani's popularity plummeted again in the spring of 2000. He was almost a laughingstock when he withdrew from his Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton. The official reason given was the Mayor's diagnosis of prostate cancer, but even conservative writers like William Safire in the New York Times and Robert Bartley in the Wall Street Journal had urged him not to run in pointed columns focused on his chaotic personal life.

In May 2000 Giuliani looked like a control freak who had lost control of himself.

Then came the events of 9/11, and Giuliani re-emerged as an international celebrity. By all accounts he took charge when the towers fell, and he displayed leadership when others were dumbstruck. Individuals he knew--and loved--died in the attack, and this gave him sensitivity and dedication.

Giuliani was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year," the avatar of the stricken city. He was made an honorary knight by the Queen of England. He did a victory lap around the country, raising money for Republican candidates and giving speeches for $100,000 a pop; he may rake in $10 million over the next year. He received the Ronald Reagan Freedom Medal at a gala dinner in Beverly Hills. He was a guest on Saturday Night Live and treated like royalty. NBC is planning a three-hour Sunday night movie about him for next February, and the USA Network is racing to air its Rudy film before that. He was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, which pays $943,000. (If this sounds preposterous recall that the war criminal Kissinger won the same honor.)

Yet even as he became a part of pop iconography, celebrated as "America's Mayor," Giuliani was still loathed in some black neighborhoods in the city. People in Brownsville, Texas, might have thought of him as their mayor, but blacks in Brownsville, Brooklyn, did not.

Even his critics admit that in many ways New York City did become a better place to live during Giuliani's two terms. His administration cut crime longer and deeper than those of most other large cities. He encouraged new policing strategies of rapid redeployment of officers to hot spots, while holding precinct commanders accountable. Murders were reduced from 1,927 in 1993 to 643 in 2001. Buoyed by the 1990s economic upsurge, whole neighborhoods revived and tourism thrived under Giuliani. He restored the city's confidence in local government, and this put a strut in the city's step. He ended the feeling that the city was out of control, which many felt during the epidemic of crime and crack.

Giuliani was a mayor of excess, with some big accomplishments and some spectacular lapses into cruelty and fanaticism. He sometimes seemed a captive of his demons. Sometimes it felt like he was trying to put the whole unruly, diverse city through obedience training, as he shut off citizen access to City Hall, put up barricades at busy street crossings to modify pedestrian behavior, tried to censor art he didn't approve of and harassed hotdog vendors.

Giuliani was skilled at solving problems that lent themselves to the application of relentless will or military-style strategy. Therefore, he was effective at cutting crime, reducing violence in the city's jails and driving the mob out of the Fulton Fish Market, where it had ruled for fifty years.

The record shows that Giuliani was less effective at solving problems in which such efforts require cooperation with other levels of government, labor unions or communities of color. As a result, public schools got worse during the Giuliani years. Police-community relations got much worse. Much less affordable housing was built, and budgeted for, than under Ed Koch. The poor became a much lower priority than under Mayors Dinkins, Lindsay and Wagner. In Giuliani's second term, the poor became scapegoats and lab rats for experiments in conservative social policy.

Giuliani also governed in a fashion that created problems beneath the surface, for which the bill of reckoning is only now coming due. His borrowing left his successor with a $4.5 billion budget deficit only eighteen months after Rudy sat on a $3 billion surplus. And in a political deal, he closed the city's largest landfill, creating a crisis in garbage disposal and a tremendous budget burden for the sanitation department.

Rudy Giuliani was a mayor of missed opportunities, political opportunism and stunning harshness.

The Divider

Giuliani's lowest moment as Mayor came in March 2000, when the unarmed Patrick Dorismond was shot and killed by undercover narcotics police in midtown Manhattan. Dorismond, 26 and black, an off-duty security guard, was standing outside a bar when a plainclothes cop, part of a narcotics detail patrolling the area, tried to buy crack from him. "What are you doing asking me for that shit?" Dorismond asked.

A fight developed, and one of the cops killed him. The shooting came just three weeks after a jury had acquitted four white police officers in the death of another unarmed black man--Amadou Diallo--who was shot forty-one times on his Bronx doorstep. The cops claimed they had mistaken his wallet for a gun. So Dorismond's shooting occurred in an atmosphere of tinderbox racial tension.

At first Giuliani called for calm, asking the city to withhold judgment until all the facts were established. But the next morning he ignored his own counsel and started demonizing the dead man. Instead of trying to be fair-minded and reassuring, Giuliani made a series of prejudicial and venomous remarks about Dorismond--even before his funeral. The Mayor seemed unable to express any human sympathy for the dead man's mother, or to grasp the fact that this was a citizen of his city who was killed--by police--for saying no to drugs.

Giuliani authorized the release of Dorismond's sealed juvenile arrest record, which contained nothing more serious than a violation punishable by a summons, to discredit him. Juvenile arrest records are supposed to be kept confidential, and Giuliani violated legal ethics by breaking the seal without getting a court order. Dorismond was 13 at the time his arrest was entered into a police computer. At a press conference Giuliani argued that the dead man's conduct at age 13 was "highly relevant." Dorismond, he sneered, was "no altar boy." But Dorismond had actually been an altar boy. He had even attended the same elite Catholic high school as the Mayor--Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn.

A few nights later television journalist Dominick Carter asked Giuliani about his "no altar boy" comment. "This is not a fair question," the Mayor complained. He declared that Dorismond had "spent a good deal of his adult life punching people," and that he had a "propensity" for violence.

The Mayor's defense for opening the records was that Dorismond had no privacy rights because he was dead.

In 1993 Giuliani had run on the positive slogan "One Standard, One City." But in practice he treated the black community by a different standard. He actually argued that by ignoring New York's elected black leadership, he had been able "to accomplish more for the black community." He defended his boycott of black leaders by claiming that most of them have "a philosophy of dependence" that keeps their constituents "enslaved." On another occasion he argued that it wasn't productive to "engage in dialogue" with "political leaders that pander." But he had no trouble at all engaging in dialogue with white Republican leaders who could pander with the best of them.

Moderate black leaders like State Comptroller H. Carl McCall say they had only one or two meetings with Giuliani during his eight years in office, and those were only "for show" after the Diallo shooting, with no follow-up. McCall told me that Giuliani ignored his requests for a meeting for five years. Respected Queens Congressman Gregory Meeks says he didn't have a single meeting or even phone conversation with Giuliani in eight years.

The volatile combination of the questionable police shootings of Dorismond and Diallo, plus the police precinct torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, plus the brutal blitz of insults of Dorismond by the Mayor, plus the absence of any channel of communication between City Hall and the black community, all help explain why under Giuliani blacks felt that New York was a city with a double standard.

The Budget Buster

It's now apparent that Giuliani purchased the city's good times partially with borrowed money and left his successor, Mike Bloomberg, holding a bag of debt. New York City went from a $3 billion budget surplus in 1998 to a $4.5 billion deficit after Giuliani left office. This mismanagement of prosperity is a big part of his legacy. Giuliani left the city's finances in a mess that was aggravated by the collateral economic damage of 9/11--the loss of up to 130,000 jobs since 2001 and unexpected expenditures for relief, cleanup and overtime.

Tom Carroll is the president of the conservative activist group Change New York. He says of both Giuliani and Governor George Pataki: "There wasn't the fiscal discipline we had hoped to see overall. But on debt, there was no discipline at all."

Some fiscal watchdogs saw this coming, including State Comptroller McCall. In a report issued in July 2001, McCall declared: "As I've said time and again, the most responsible use of the record surpluses of the past few years would have been to reduce the City's mounting debt burden, and build a reserve fund for the rainy day that will inevitably come.... Record budget surpluses...afforded the City a golden opportunity to get on the path toward long-term fiscal stability. The opportunity has been squandered."

Most of the current budget deficit is Giuliani's responsibility. Tax cuts he enacted since 1995--benefiting mainly the wealthy--will cost the city $2.6 billion next year. He added 25,000 employees to the city's payroll, many of them patronage hires, after promising to cut the work force as a candidate of fiscal conservatism. On the day he left office, the head count of city workers was the highest in history.

Giuliani's borrowing practices increased the city's debt burden by 50 percent. New York City is now the biggest debtor in the nation outside the federal government, with $42 billion in loans outstanding. In comparison, the State of California has a debt of $25 billion. When Giuliani took office, the city was spending 15 cents of every dollar it collected in revenue to make the payments on its bonds. Fiscal monitors now project that New York will be spending 20 cents of every dollar to pay off its bonds by the end of this year. To the extent that debt service is rising, the city is forced to reduce spending on education, police and healthcare.

If a liberal Democrat had borrowed with such abandon, and converted a surplus into a deficit so swiftly, the bond raters and editorial boards would have demonized him as a drunken sailor on a binge. Giuliani was hardly criticized.

The Education Failure

By every measure, public education under Giuliani stagnated or got worse. Reading and math scores deteriorated. Classroom overcrowding grew worse. The high school dropout rate has risen during the past three years. In 2001, in the citywide eighth-grade math test only 45 percent of white students met the standards, 14 percent of Latinos and 12 percent of blacks. This is well below the standards of other big cities.

Giuliani did nothing to shift resources into the poorer districts. In 1999 he diverted funds for improving school facilities from Brooklyn and the Bronx (more minority and working class) to Staten Island and Queens (more white and middle class), where the borough presidents supported him politically.

In eight years, Giuliani's most famous comment about public education was that the school system should be "blown up."

Education is the urban frontier that Giuliani should have dedicated himself to. He did not have national trends running in his favor here, as he did with the economy and crime. He needed to apply his leadership skills to public education, but he never did. Between 1994 and 1997 he drained more than $2 billion out of the school system. He also cut $4.7 billion from the school construction budget in 1999. While reducing resources, he raised standards for student performance on tests. This placed the kids in a no-win vise.

Even Michael Bloomberg, Giuliani's Republican successor, who was elected with the help of a powerful Giuliani TV commercial, told me: "Giuliani never got his hands around the school system. There is no question that it's gotten worse the last eight years, not better."

What is revealing is that every time Giuliani did try to get his hands around the school system, it was never about actual classroom learning issues like class size, teacher training or salvaging the middle schools before middle-class parents fled the public system. Giuliani's interventions were over side issues like vouchers, condoms, privatization and using the NYPD for school security. He supported a for-profit privatization plan by the Edison company that parents voted down overwhelmingly.

Giuliani kept bashing teachers, scapegoating their union, subverting their morale and forcing them to work without a raise or union contract during the last fifteen months of his administration.

He also played a destabilizing role by driving three well-qualified schools chancellors of color out of office. In 1993, while Giuliani was still a candidate, two school board members active in his campaign (Ninfa Segarra and Mike Petrides) cast the deciding votes to fire Chancellor Joseph Fernandez over a curriculum he recommended to foster tolerance for gays and for briefly suggesting that it be introduced in the first and second grade.

The next chancellor was Ramon Cortines, who was selected by Giuliani's supporters on the board. Cortines, Mexican-American and gay, was subjected to a brutal campaign of personal abuse by Giuliani, who called him "precious" and "the little victim." When Cortines finally resigned in June 1995, most of his compadres felt there had been a gaybaiting tone to the Mayor's constant attacks on him. All Cortines said was, "I've dealt with innuendo all my life."

Giuliani's third schools chancellor was Rudy Crew, a black Democrat to whom he was close for two years. They smoked cigars together on the porch of Gracie Mansion and became friends. People began to make jokes that the only black people Giuliani could relate to had to also be named Rudy--a reference to Crew and Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington.

Giuliani knew that Crew was strongly opposed to a voucher system for parochial schools. Giuliani himself had opposed vouchers as a candidate in 1993, calling them "unconstitutional," a violation of church-state boundaries. In a speech in 1995 Giuliani declared, "Vouchers would weaken, if not create the collapse of, the New York City public school system." He knew vouchers would siphon money out of the public schools.

In his splendid book Rudy!, Wayne Barrett quotes Crew recalling the Mayor saying to him about vouchers in January 1999, "Don't worry about it. It's just a political thing, a campaign thing. I'm not going to do anything." But a month later, Giuliani included $12 million in his financial plan for school vouchers. His budget office did not tell Crew's budget office until after this line item was in print.

In early March the New York Times reported that a Giuliani aide was "intensely" lobbying Board of Education members to ratify the voucher funding. Crew did not know this until he read it in the paper.

Crew had obeyed his conscience on an issue Giuliani decided was important to his statewide ambitions. The friendship was immediately over. Giuliani began lining up a majority of the seven-member Board of Education to drive his third chancellor out of office.

On August 3, 1999, Giuliani wrote a nasty letter to Crew and leaked it to the tabloids, together with a blind quote from an aide saying, "It seems he's got one foot out the door." This was the same day that Crew was burying his first wife, Angela, in a private ceremony in upstate Poughkeepsie. Crew had to respond to press calls before delivering his eulogy.

Later Crew told Barrett: "This is a maniac. On the day I was burying my wife, I have these people concocting this world of treachery....

"When Rudy sees a need to take someone out, he has a machine, a roomful of henchmen, nicking away at you, leaking crazy stories. He is not bound by the truth. I have studied animal life, and their predator/prey relations are more graceful than his."

The King of Fresh Kills

Garbage disposal is another area where Giuliani played short-run politics, leaving the city with a difficult long-term problem. Mayor Bloomberg says he won't have a garbage-disposal plan till August.

New York's residents generate 11,000 tons of garbage every day. For years most of this trash was trucked to a dump on Staten Island called the Fresh Kills landfill. But during his last year in office, Giuliani closed Fresh Kills, even though it had enough space for another twenty years of use. This decision was purely political. Giuliani owed his election to the residents of Staten Island. They gave him an 88,000-vote plurality in the 1993 election, when his margin of victory in the whole city was just 50,000 votes.

This landfill was definitely an assault on the senses of the people who lived near it. It made the nostrils burn and the eyes water. If I lived on Staten Island, I would want it closed too.

Giuliani's blunder was closing it before he had an alternative plan for garbage disposal in place. There was no combination of state-of-the-art incineration or recycling or any new landfills to fill the void. As a consequence, Mayor Bloomberg is compelled to budget more than $400 million a year to export New York's trash by barge to landfills in Virginia and Ohio. Bloomberg's communications director, William Cunningham, told me that almost half the sanitation department's budget is now for solid-waste disposal.

This is $400 million that doesn't go to keep libraries open or provide hot meals at senior centers or hire a new class of firefighters. Meanwhile, out-of-state landfills are not an efficient, cheap or reliable long-term receptacle for the city's gargantuan garbage production. Other states could say "no more" at any time, or raise their already exorbitant fees. Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty (an able manager who also held the job under Giuliani) has acknowledged, "Fresh Kills was closed without an awful lot of thought, if the story be told."

Recently both the Times and the New York Daily News have editorialized in favor of reopening the Fresh Kills landfill. Trash disposal is a complex, scientific, managerial issue. Giuliani disposed of it through politics, and left a malodorous dilemma on Bloomberg's desk.

The Opportunist

During the 1960s Giuliani was a self-described "Robert Kennedy Democrat." He identified with RFK as a liberal Catholic prosecutor. He volunteered for RKF's 1968 presidential campaign while he was a student at NYU Law School. Giuliani also voted for George McGovern in 1972. During the liberal 1960s, he was a liberal.

But in 1975 Giuliani switched his party registration from Democrat to Independent when he got a job in Gerald Ford's Justice Department, according to his mentor Harold "Ace" Tyler. (Tyler is the former federal judge who hired Giuliani as a deputy to help him run the criminal division of the Justice Department in 1975. In 1977 Giuliani worked under Tyler in the Manhattan law firm Patterson, Belknap & Webb, functioning as Tyler's chief of staff.)

Tyler later became disillusioned by some of Giuliani's excesses as US Attorney, criticizing several of his prosecutions and accusing him of "overkill." Tyler also complained that Giuliani stopped seeking his advice, saying, "Rudy's a very insecure person in a way, and it takes security to seek advice."

On December 8, 1980, Giuliani changed his registration from Independent to Republican. This was one month after Ronald Reagan's election, and just as he was applying for a top job in the Justice Department. Giuliani became Associate Deputy Attorney General under William French Smith in 1981, and then was named US Attorney for the Southern District of New York by President Reagan in 1983.

During the conservative 1980s Giuliani seemed to be a conservative. But his mother, Helen, had a different perception. In an unpublished 1988 interview (quoted by Barrett in Rudy!), Helen Giuliani said of her son: "He only became a Republican after he began to get all these jobs from them. He's definitely not a conservative Republican. He thinks he is, but he isn't. He still feels very sorry for the poor."

In Giuliani's first year as Mayor, 1994, his politics were fairly liberal. He supported gay rights and gun control, he was pro-choice and he was pro-immigrant. He named Joan Malin, a holdover from the Dinkins administration, to be his director of homeless services. Giuliani stunned most observers by breaking with the Republican Party and endorsing liberal Democrat Mario Cuomo for re-election as governor in 1994, over Republican George Pataki.

Cuomo lost, but on that same day the Republicans won a majority in the US Senate and gained fifty-three seats in the House, setting the table for Newt Gingrich to become Speaker. Giuliani, the chameleon who even confused his own mother, quickly lurched to the right. He read the November 1994 election as a sea change in American politics. He wanted to swim with the new tide.

By the end of his second year, Giuliani's hostile policies toward the poor were becoming apparent. He became punitive toward the homeless. Homeless advocates had to sue him over the city's failure to provide adequate medical care to homeless children. His administration denied food stamps to more than 100,000 people, many of them children for whom the stamps were the only protection against the pangs of hunger. A class-action suit was recently filed by lawyers for the homeless who had been improperly denied their benefits.

Giuliani rejected almost everything that Cuomo had stood for as governor--everything he said had compelled him to break with his party and endorse Cuomo in 1994. Over the course of a few months, at age 50, Giuliani's whole belief system seem to change. He made a marriage of convenience with right-wing think tanks. He saw his future as lying with the national Republican Party. He criticized liberal programs like food stamps, and even job training, as contributing to "welfare dependency." He seemed to think people could "just will themselves out of poverty," as one of his commissioners later said.

Robert Kennedy, Giuliani's hero in the 1960s, also disliked the dependency he saw that welfare bred in its long-term recipients. But RFK also hated poverty. He crusaded for free food stamps to combat hunger and malnutrition in children. He fought for a higher minimum wage, more funding for education from pre-K to adult literacy, more job-training programs and more daycare centers, so people could look for work without worrying about the safety of their children. "Jobs, not welfare," was RFK's mantra all through his 1968 campaign. He believed work conferred self-respect, but he understood that you could not just will yourself out of poverty or unemployment.

In the end, to understand Giuliani, we need to look at the arc of his politics, from 1968 to 2002.

Look at the changes in his party registrations, which even his mother thought were careerist and job-centered.

Look at the timing of his altered views on welfare, vouchers, the homeless, food stamps, civil liberties, fiscal borrowing and political patronage.

Look at the way he treated Rudy Crew, Ramon Cortines and Patrick Dorismond.

A cunning opportunism and a personal brutality have been the signature of Rudy Giuliani's career.

They are the threads connecting the dots of his ambition, which still yearns for power on the national stage.

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