Monday, January 15, 2007

President Giuiliani: Grand Illusion or National Nightmare?

If I were a nicer person, a more evolved, more compassionate, more empathetic kind of a girl, I might feel sorry for the Republican Party right now. Whether they realize it yet or not, they have a vacuum where their viable 2008 presidential contenders ought to be. Alas, I am a work in progress, on my best day. I've tried and tried to feel their pain, but all I can really feel is glee. They've got nothing! Nothing! Nothing at all!

George "Maccaca" Allen and Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum were supposed to be in the race. Then they crashed and burned in last years mid term elections, losing both their congressional races and their chances for the White House. Cat killer and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist left the senate to prepare for a presidential run, but has since had a change of heart. Jeb Bush might have had a shot, if his brother's presidency had gone well. That hasn't really worked out though, not for any of us, and certainly not for Jeb.

So who's still standing over there? John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani are, for the moment, topping the polls. McCain's busy self-destructing though. As one of three or four vocal supporters of Bush's plan to escalate his war in Iraq, McCain has turned his, "Straight Talk Express," into a sad train to nowhere. His once appealing maverick image disintegrates a little more with ever awkward effort to appeal to Bush's radical religious right base. Unfortunately for McCain, he's not quite crazy enough, not quite misogynistic or homophobic enough, to satisfy their needs. Apparently no one told him his best bet would be running to the center, playing to the moderate swing voters who might have been drawn to his much vaunted independence. Or maybe someone did, but he realized that independent, maverick image wouldn't hold up to even a casual glance at his party line congressional voting record.

That leaves them with Giuliani. If anyone's benefited politically from 9/11 more than President Bush himself, it would have to be Rudolph Giuliani. As we all know, on September 10, 2001, Giuliani was an unpopular, lame duck mayor. Between the police abuses left unchecked on his watch, the absurd spectacle of his very public divorce proceedings, and the endless petty power plays with other state and city officials, his approval ratings were on a downward spiral, and his political future looking nonexistent. That abortive Senate run probably hadn't helped matters much either. Then the Twin Towers fell, taking his emergency command center at 7 World Trade Center with them. As Giuliani wandered the streets of lower Manhattan, foraging for a functional workspace, a star was born.

I remember that day, of course. Even safely ensconced in Brooklyn as I was, it was terrifying, confusing, and horrible in previously unimaginable ways. But then, I guess that was the point. Chaos reigned even on CNN, for a few hours that morning. How many planes had been hijacked? How many had been accounted for? Where had they come from, where had they been headed? Where might they be going instead? No one seemed to have a clue. A successful terror attack indeed.

Then the mayor and the cameras found each other. Marching uptown through the swirling debris from the towers, all those bits of paper and ash, Giuliani projected confidence and control. He struck every note with a new found perfect pitch. Even I, erstwhile Pirate Queen of the progressives that I am, felt safer knowing Giuliani was in charge that day.

Once the immediate crisis had passed, Giuliani set about constructing a new reputation for himself as a prescient expert on counterterrorism and domestic security, founded on a few days' stellar tv performance. He's done a good job of it too, even persuading the rest of the world to take his reportedly long standing presidential aspirations seriously. He's transcended all the usual steps required between a stint as mayor of any city, even this one, and the presidency. Some time in the Senate perhaps, or maybe the governor's mansion? Not necessary, not for this mayor. He's like the kid in the mailroom whose great good luck takes him directly to the boardroom, without any tedious stops in middle management.

Sounds a little absurd, doesn't it? I thought so too. In their recent book on Giuliani, before and after 9/11, Grand Illusion, Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins show us just how absurd it really is. Juxtaposing Giuliani's extravagant claims on his own behalf with the realities of his record, they bring the gaps between the two into sharp focus, in prose as clear and engaging as Giuliani himself was on 9/11.

It's not so much that they're telling us anything we didn't already know. The problems with the Fire Department's radios, the long running feud between Giuliani and the Port Authority, and the lack of unified communication and command between the police and fire departments that increased the inevitable chaos of 9/11 have all been common knowledge for years. The ignored recommendations for security enhancements after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and inexplicable choice of 7 WTC for the mayor's emergency command center are, similarly, old news. Maddening, certainly, but hardly revelatory. Barrett and Collins do the work for us, though, of bringing these disparate facts together in the compelling narrative they've created.

A flair for self-aggrandizement, and a flexible relationship to reality are, admittedly, par for the course in presidential politics these days. Reading "Grand Illusion," though, I found myself wondering if Giuliani hadn't brought both to new heights. An accident of his own bad decision making left him walking the streets, readily available to television crews, without a command center when he needed it most. President Bush's peculiar choices to continue learning about pet goats after he knew both towers had been hit, then to spend the rest of the day jetting around the country on Air Force One, left a void on our tv screens and in our minds. Who, many of us found ourselves wondering, was running things?

Giuliani filled that void the second he showed up on our screens. By simply being present, calm and courageous for the cameras, he won himself a new, and nearly presidential, stature, to which he's held on tightly ever since. Trouble is, that unearned stature was just a trick of the light, and the timing. That impressive figure was only brought into existence by virtue of other absences.

I've learned better than to presume to speak for anybody else, but my personal surge of post 9/11 affection for Giuliani dissipated as soon as he started trying to use the attacks to justify an unprecedented extension of his last term. Reverting to type, he was looking for ways to turn unspeakable destruction into political gain, while fires still burned in the ruined towers. Remember the smell of all that smoke, drifting around the city for weeks? I do.

I also remember Abner Louima, Amidou Diallou, Patrick Dorismond and the other casualties of the policing tactics Giuliani repeatedly defended and endorsed. The endless tension and jockeying for position with Governor Pataki, that benefitted no one. The silly anti-jaywalking campaign, and all the rest of it. "America's Mayor," wasn't always such a god mayor for this city, in case anyone's forgotten.

That's almost beside the point though, in considering Giuliani in his latest role of presidential hopeful. The best of all possible mayors would still be woefully underqualified for the White House. Running a city is quite different from running a country, to put it mildly. It doesn't confer any foreign policy experience, or military expertise, for starters. Giuliani's loud insistence of having both doesn't change that truth.

Nor does he have the temperament to make it through a national campaign. The commanding demeanor we all found so comforting on 9/11 isn't necessarily what Americans are looking for, when we cast our presidential votes. We like presidents who can at least pretend to be just like us. Regular guys we think we'd like to hang around with. Guys who we think would like us back. Giuliani doesn't really seem to like anybody much. And don't let's forget his difficult pre-9/11 relationship with the media. Difficult questions asked of Mayor Giuliani tended to receive snappish nonanswers. A lot of difficult questions are put to presidential candidates. Temper tantrums don't go over so well on the campaign trail.

I may well have gotten my progressive political DNA from my mother. Talking to her about all of this the other day, I noticed she was oddly silent. Half jokingly, I said, "You like Giuliani kind of, don't you?" She answered, "No, but I don't hate him like you seem to." I don't hate Rudolph Giuliani, I promise you, I don't. Rather, I find his rush to power, on the backs of the unburied dead still being found at Ground Zero, offensive, in a personal way I barely know how to explain. I took it personally when my city was attacked, and so terribly wounded. Who here didn't? And I've taken it personally each time that event's been exploited to further a political agenda. Giuliani's doing so feels the worst though. After all, on 9/11, he was my city's mayor.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Rat Assassin! Doing Darwin's Work in Washington Square.

The New Year's off to a fantastic start for Sita, one of my two Siberian Huskies. She's the one I usually call, "the good one," or, "the sweet one," or, "the freakishly smart one who can sometimes find my keys when I can't." Before nine o'clock this January 1st, though, my little monkey girl had gotten herself another name for the day. She started the year off as "Killer."

She's obsessed by the rats in Washington Square Park. They spend a lot of time darting around on the other side of the dog run fence, and she spends a lot of time staring at them, longingly. They tease and torment her, skitter skattering hither and yon, in their ratty way. When one of them makes the foolish choice to squeeze in under the fence, she's right there, ready and waiting to snatch it up.

Huskies like to kill small, squiggly things. There's nothing they love more. Especially when those things make high pitched, squeaky sounds. Then they like to toss them around, because, apparently, dead rats are the best toys ever. It's just part of the package. They are smart and independent, they shed a lot, they've got those pretty blue eyes, and they are expert killers.

Sita and Sasha, also known as"the bossy one," have taken out their fair share of squirrels, rats, and pigeons, in the past. I'm past the point of being too squeamish about their prizes. So long as I don't have to touch the soft, small corpse, so long as they'll drop it, and there's something around to scoop it up with, without making direct contact, we're ok. Maybe I am a little squeamish still, but believe me when I tell you this represents great progress on my part. A dead rat on such a grim, grey, New Year's Day, though, feels like some kind of omen, doesn't it? And not necessarily a good one.

You could say it was my fault. I could have been watching them more closely. I was feeling inordinately pleased with myself though, in a, "What a good dog owner I am! At the park, in this downpour, at 8 am on New Year's Day. How lucky my dogs are to live with me!" kind of way. Chatting with the only other person in the dog run with her puppy, about more or less just that. The three dogs were playing, and everything seemed just fine. I didn't even see the thing until Sita had it in her mouth. At that point, it was all over for that rat. Sita doesn't mess around. One quick shake, maybe two, breaks the neck, and that's that. At least it's quick and painless, right? She is a stealthy and efficient rat assassin. Maybe she should look into a career with the CIA, as a Secret Agent Siberian, and then I could live vicariously through her death defying exploits!

Washington Square Park is rat central, in case you've never noticed. They are everywhere. I think it may have something to do with its having been a graveyard, and a public hanging ground, before it became a park, but that's not really something I like to think about, walking through it every day, whose bones I might be strolling over, who might have swung from that nice old tree I'm passing under.

You could also say that rat was asking for it. What kind of a defective rat, with an entire park to play in, comes inside the dog run? That's what I never understand. They have sense enough to dart away when my dogs and I cross their paths on the sidewalk. Are the dogs somehow less scary when I take their leashes off? Even on a slow day, the dog run's no place for a rat. The rats of Washington Square Park should really hold an emergency Community Board meeting, to reconsider the wisdom of that approach. It's not working out for them so well.

Maybe this particular rat was suicidal. Maybe the holiday season is stressful for the rat world too. I don't know just how functional rat families are, so I can see how that might be the case. Maybe no one had told this one today was the end of that. Whatever its problem was, developmental disability or mood disorder, the rat gene pool is clearly better off without this one's DNA. Sita is simply doing Darwin's work.

According to the Chinese calendar, I was born in the Year of the Rat. The Water Rat, to be precise. According to Chinese astrology, this means I "have a knack for influencing people," "strong intellectual powers," and am, "obliging, generous, and compassionate." There are some other, less flattering attributes, but I'm keeping those to myself today, to maintain my air of mystery. You know how to Google, if you're curious enough to learn the worst about me. 2007, in case you're wondering, is the Year of the Boar. 2006 was the Year of the Dog.

Sita kills a soaking wet rat, on New Year's day. The lazy oracle might suggest she's going to kill me, most likely before this year is through. Listening to the lazy oracle is generally ill advised, though and Sita is, usually, "the sweet one," so I can't really get myself too worried about that. And I have a true talent for envisioning those unlikely worst case scenarios, but that? Not even I can imagine that one..

Sita's the messenger here, but not the message. I'm taking her out of the equation, and singling out that dead, wet rat. Have I mentioned, by the way, how much I enjoyed disposing of that rat? Fortunately, the dog run's well stocked with scoops and shovels, but still. Just what I'd hoped to be doing at the crack of dawn on New Year's Day.

The Death card in the Tarot deck always sounds, and looks, so ominous. In my deck, Death is represented by the simplest of grim reapers, scythe in hand. It's really not a bad card to get though. It doesn't so much foretell your doom, as let you know there's change in the air. Some kind of risky transition you'll have to navigate well and wisely. Something that may look scary, at first glance, but will offer you a chance at reinvention, recreation, rebirth, if you like. But you have to be paying attention, to see the opportunities at hand, and brave enough to take them, no matter how they terrify.

I'd already gotten some big changes lined up for 2007. Not just to finally lose those last ten pounds, or to be nicer to the tourists, things I'm actually going to do, things that matter. It's past time to shake myself up a little. So I'm taking this as an auspicious omen, and a reminder that the path of least resistance rarely leads to anyplace I'd want to be. That the best things only happen when we give them the room they need to take us by surprise.

In the meantime though, I'm still trying to get the last of the rat blood stains off of my pupcake's pretty white face. I've heard a little peroxide might do the trick. It might be easier if she didn't think it was time to cuddle whenever I come at her with the washcloth. Why would I expect anything else though? After all, she is the sweet one.