In recent polls, Rudy Giuliani leads his rivals in the Republican primary race by about ten points. That’s surprising, since he’s been a supporter of gay rights, abortion rights and immigrant rights as well as gun control. It suggests that a President Giuliani would be better than Bush. I asked Kevin Baker–he’s author of the well-known City of Fire trilogy of novels about New York City–Strivers Row, Dreamland and Paradise Alley. He also writes for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Harper’s, where his essay, “A Fate Worse Than Bush,” leads the magazine’s August issue.

Giuliani’s main claim to fame is his conduct immediately after 9/11. Many still remember his TV press conference the night of the attacks, when a reporter asked how many casualties there would be. Giuliani had a magnificent answer: “More than we can bear.” Compared to what President Bush was saying, that was Shakespeare.

But what about the rest of his performance around 9/11?

“Most of 9-11 was actually a debacle for the city government,” Baker told me in an interview, and “Giuliani bears a great deal of the responsibility.” The World Trade Center had been attacked in 1993, but Giuliani had “learned none of the lessons that could have been learned. There was no serious attempt to coordinate the radios between the police and fire departments, or even to insure that the fire department had its own communications that would work inside buildings.” The consequences? “Probably hundreds of unnecessary deaths that day.”

The second failure: Giuliani insisted on locating his emergency control center in the World Trade Center complex, even though that had been the target of the 1993 attack. “He did that against the advice of virtually all the security experts he consulted,” Baker explained. “He put it on the twenty-third floor of a forty-seven-story building, World Trade Center Tower 7. It included an unprotected, 7,000 gallon fuel source on the seventh floor, a sort of a fuse to set the building off. When the building was hit by debris on 9/11, that did indeed bring the whole building down.”

What if Giuliani he had been in his new command center on 9/11?

“He was within a few minutes of dying right there that day,” Baker said. “Instead he ended up having to spend most of the 102 minutes between when the first plane hit and when the second tower came down simply walking around the area with staff members, looking for someplace to set up a new command center.”

What should he have been doing?

“Other things badly needed to be done,” Baker said. “Realizing there was no communicating with the firemen who were in these towers, maybe they could have set up a trail of runners or something to tell them they should get out of there, the towers are coming down. Nothing like that was done.”

Giuliani told the 9/11 Commission that the firemen in the towers died because they refused orders to come out. He said they wanted to save lives of people trapped inside.

“That’s a demonstrable lie,” Baker told me. “The firemen in the buildings were simply waiting for orders. They never got the word. It’s easy to second-guess people in such a traumatic event, and anybody could be forgiven for not making the right decisions in the middle of everything. But to go to Congress months later and lie about this–I find that despicable.”

The workers at Ground Zero in the following months, we now know, were exposed to significant health hazards. How much of that is Giuliani’s responsibility? “He made no real attempt to determine the safety of working there,” Baker said. “That was also the responsibility of Christie Todd Whitman, was the EPA Administrator at the time.”

So what did Giuliani do after 9/11?

“He very quickly took the disaster of 9/11 as a great opportunity,” Baker told me. “He proposed that his term in office be extended to give him more time to deal with things, and he tried to put his mistress of the time, who later became his third wife, Judith Nathan, in charge of a fund set up to give money to survivors and victims’ families. Right from the beginning he was trying to exploit this. The words he said on TV were wonderful, but they weren’t backed up by any actions at all.”

Before 9/11, one of the things that made Giuliani famous, in New York at least, was his success at getting the “squeegee-men” off the streets. Baker explained that “The scourge of the squeegee-men involved a couple of dozen homeless black guys with buckets and squeegees who would come up to cars at red lights near the tunnels and bridges and offer to clean your windshield, expecting some kind of tip in return. They were not terribly threatening people. Usually you could deflect them by tapping on the window and shaking your head. End of story.

“But these guys were seen as another sign that the social order had broken down in New York. Right-wing institutions like the Manhattan Institute said they were a ‘symbol of disorder’ that encouraged crime, along with graffiti and turnstile-jumping and broken windows. So Giuliani made a big part of his 1993 campaign a promise to clear the squeegee-men off the streets. In fact by the time he took office in 1994, almost all of them had been cleared off the streets, by the police department. But nonetheless he got credit for this.”

Giuliani as mayor said he would reduce crime–and the crime rate did go down while he was mayor. But, Baker argued, “It had already dropped dramatically before Giuliani took office, under Mayor David Dinkins. Under Dinkins the murder rate dropped 14 per cent, robbery 15 percent, burglary 17 per cent–the first time major crime dropped in New York City in all seven major felony categories in nearly four decades. This was before Giuliani ever came to power. It did continue to drop once he was in City Hall, but of course it also dropped dramatically throughout the country.”

New York had real problems when Giuliani ran for mayor: deindustrialization, the disappearance of blue collar jobs, white flight, and then the plagues of heroin, guns and AIDS. But it was Giuliani’s “insidious political genius,” Baker said, to take these real problems and turn them into an argument that “the city was out of control because a black mayor was letting blacks in this town get out of control.” That argument, Baker said, got him elected.

A lot of us would be delighted to see the Christian right lose in the Republican primaries. Baker agreed that Giuliani is indeed a real threat to the Christian right. But, he argued, “the problem with Bush is not so much his religious ideology, crazy as that can be. It’s the arrogance emanating from this man. It’s the cronyism, the incompetence, and the frightening authoritarian impulses. Giuliani embodies all the worst of that, and maybe more.”