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.

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