Opinion » Ted Rall

AMERICA'S MADMAN

New Yorkers remember Rudy Giuliani

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NEW YORK—Every presidential candidate has a past as a local party-machine hack. During every presidential campaign, the hometown journalists and local politicians who best know their ex-local pols weigh in.

Arkansas Democrat editorial page editor Paul Greenberg, famous for coining the nickname "Slick Willie," warned America about Bill Clinton's estrangement from the truth when he ran in 1992. We chuckled at the folksy sobriquet and voted him in anyway.

"There is something inevitable about it," Greenberg commented after Clinton's perjury impeachment. "His whole career had taught him that he could get away with this stuff—in fact, that this was the secret to his success. But he left all these loose ends around, loose ends of truth, like roller skates in the living room."

Molly Ivins, the Austin-based columnist who'd watched George W. Bush's rise to prominence as governor, warned in 2000 that the man she dubbed "Shrub" would "Texanise" the nation—and that that wouldn't be good. "Our kids don't have health insurance, our air is filthy and we rank near the bottom in practically every public thing they keep score in," she wrote of her home state.

Now it's my turn, as a New Yorker, to tell you the truth about "Rudy Giuliani." (The quotes refer to the current front-runner for the Republican nomination, a man whose image bears little resemblance to our mayor from 1993 to 2001.) I knew Rudy Giuliani. Rudy Giuliani was a mayor of mine. And Rudy Giuliani was no "Rudy Giuliani."

"America's mayor," Oprah Winfrey gushed after 9/11. Giuliani, wrote Time as it declared him its 2001 Man of the Year, "arrived at the World Trade Center just after the second plane hit, watched human beings drop from the sky and—when the south tower imploded—nearly got trapped inside his makeshift command center near the site. Then he led a battered platoon of city officials, reporters and civilians north through the blizzard of ash and smoke, and a detective jimmied open the door to a firehouse so the mayor could revive his government there."

Here in New York, 16 million eyes rolled at a myth only an out-of-towner could love. After all, one of the most boneheaded and widely criticized decisions of his mayoralty led to his brush with death on 9/11—not to mention his need for an ad hoc office in a firehouse.

After the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, Giuliani moved to build a high-tech Emergency Operations Center to coordinate local, state and federal responses to future emergencies. Despite numerous warnings by Port Authority officials and journalists—New York Times columnist Bob Herbert derided it as a "skybox bunker"—he located it on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center, across a narrow street from the Twin Towers. He went there on 9/11 but never got to use it; the 47-story building burned and collapsed at 5:20 p.m.

As it turned out, the 7 WTC fire may have been caused by, and certainly was worsened by, the placement of 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel to be used by the EOC in case of a blackout. "Fire Department officials warned that [the tank] ... posed a hazard and was not consistent with city fire codes," reported The New York Times. "The Fire Department repeatedly warned that a tank in that position could spread fumes throughout the building if it leaked, or, if it caught fire, could produce what one Fire Department memorandum called 'disaster.'"

Giuliani's 9/11 legacy isn't bravery—it's loudness. And stupidity.

The 343 members of the FDNY who died were the iconic heroes of the day. They too recall a less-than-Churchillian mayor. "If Rudolph Giuliani was running on anything but 9/11, I would not speak out," said Sally Regenhard, mother of a fallen firefighter. "If he ran on cleaning up Times Square, getting rid of squeegee men, lowering crime—that's indisputable."

Firefighters say Giuliani ignored over a decade of requests for up-to-date radios to replace defective "handie talkies" that had failed during previous fires, including during the 1993 WTC bombing. When FDNY officials ordered firefighters to pull out on 9/11, firefighters didn't hear the "mayday" alert. He sparked more anger by calling off the search for bodies, which were scooped up with debris and dumped into a garbage landfill on Staten Island.

"He has alienated pretty much everybody in the 8,000-member fire department—by and large, we all resent him," Fire Captain Michael Gala told Salon.

Giuliani's early "quality of life" initiatives—running off the windshield washers from entrances to bridges and tunnels, cracking down on aggressive subway panhandlers—were popular. But the credit for cleaning up New York really goes to the economic boom of the late '90s. Millions of Wall Street and dot-com dollars poured into city tax collection accounts, reducing poverty and allowing the hiring of more cops and sanitation workers.

By the end of his term, the mayor's relationship with New York had turned sour.

"Giuliani was a frustrated and not very popular mayor on September 10, 2001," Slate editor Jacob Weisberg wrote. "Today, most New Yorkers do see him as a hero, but also as a self-sabotaging, thin-skinned bully. To put it more bluntly, we know he's a bit of a dictator."

Like other dictators, Giuliani thought his police could do no wrong. "Probably until the day I die, I will always give police officers the benefit of the doubt," he said after cops shot Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Bronx man, 41 times. "We also have a vicious form of anti-police bias which leads to entertaining every doubt possible against the police, and, you know, police officers are human beings also." New York City settled Diallo's family's wrongful death lawsuit for $3 million.

"The police can't get an even break here," he complained after Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed security guard, was shot to death by an undercover policeman who had attempted to entrap him. (Dorismond's last words were his angry statement that he was a law-abiding citizen, not a drug dealer.) In 2003, the city paid $2.25 million to the victim's family.

Most disturbing to Americans looking forward to the end of eight years of illegitimate rule by an unelected coup leader, Giuliani tried to exploit 9/11 to remain in power at least three extra months beyond the scheduled end of his term in January 2002. He even threatened to file a lawsuit to overturn the city's term limits law and run for re-election if the Democratic and Republican primary candidates refused to let him stay in power. They called the wannabe dictator's bluff. So should we.