Commentary Magazine


Candidate Giuliani

Will Rudolph Giuliani be a heavyweight presidential contender in 2008? Some of his enemies evidently think so. They have already begun to raise the alarm.

One early entry is Giuliani Time, a newly released documentary film that aims to land a preemptive blow. The title gives the game away even before the start. “It’s Giuliani time” is the phrase said to have been uttered by a New York City policeman as he sodomized Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, with a broomstick in a Brooklyn precinct house in 1997. Louima later retracted that part of his story, but by resurrecting the words here, the movie signals, as a review in the New York Times put it, that its “agenda will be to associate Mr. Giuliani’s tenure with brutality, racial revanchism, and contempt for civil liberties.”

Within the film itself, the director Kevin Keating has lined up a series of talking heads to explain why the two-term mayor of New York is in fact to be regarded as an evil figure. The principal voice is that of Wayne Barrett, a Village Voice reporter and the author of a 1999 book, Rudy! An Investigative Biography, which argued that city hall under Giuliani was “a government of, for, and by white people.” Other witnesses for the prosecution flitting across the screen include some who, in the pre-Giuliani era, helped bring New York to its knees. One of them is the political scientist Frances Fox Piven, whose influence during the mayoralty of John V. Lindsay in the late 1960’s contributed to a doubling of the city’s welfare roles; another is Norman Siegel, who as head of the New York Civil Liberties Union labored tirelessly to thwart the crime-fighting efforts of the New York City police department; a third is Ron Kuby, the attorney who played a bit part in lighting the long fuse that went off on 9/11 by helping to win a murder acquittal for Sayed Nosair in the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane. (Nosair’s apartment contained plans for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that were left untranslated and unread by the FBI.)

To be sure, a few defenders of Giuliani are also seen and heard. But by means of interspersed footage flashing to Victorian poorhouses, their testimony as to the salutary effects of the mayor’s welfare reforms is overridden by the suggestion that the reforms were really responsible for creating Dickensian poverty. Similar treatment of the crime issue is aimed at repudiating the idea—the “myth,” as the film would have it—that the mayor was instrumental in bringing down crime rates by means of his much-touted policies of “zero tolerance” and “broken-windows” policing; instead, we are told, crime rates had already begun to decline under David N. Dinkins, Giuliani’s predecessor, and were also falling simultaneously in other major American cities. The only thing Giuliani accomplished was to turn Gotham into something resembling a police state.

Is it necessary to point out that not only in its particulars but in its entire reconstruction of New York’s recent history, Giuliani Time is a mendacious and wildly distorted piece of work? To make the Dinkins years look like a period of racial harmony, for example, the filmmakers have had to omit any mention of the 1991 Crown Heights riot that eventuated in a full-scale anti-Jewish pogrom, let alone any mention of the poisonous interracial atmosphere, nourished by the accommodating policies of the Dinkins administration, that led to those events. On the other side of the coin, they have had to ignore the mountain of data attesting to Giuliani’s astounding success, beginning in 1993, in restoring lawfulness, order, and energy to a city caught in a relentlessly downward spiral—and this, long before, demonstrating authority and compassion, he leapt into the hearts of Americans everywhere in the aftermath of 9/11. The fact that there is a niche market for a product like Giuliani Time should perhaps rather be seen as further evidence that today, five years after September 11, the former mayor’s star continues to burn brightly in the national political firmament—as far as the angry Left is concerned, much too brightly for comfort.

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Helping to burnish Giuliani’s image around the country have been, ironically, a number of major disasters in which the sort of calming hand he demonstrated in New York has been sorely missed. One of them was the London subway bombing of July 2005; another, not two months later, was Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and whole swaths of the American South. Although Giuliani said very little about either of these events, he did not need to say much. His presence in London during the subway attack (he had earlier been made an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire) summoned fresh recollections, for the British and for television viewers worldwide, of his commanding role in the aftermath of September 11. As Katrina unfolded, he was the figure to whom the hapless politicians of Louisiana were most often unfavorably compared. Former Clinton White House adviser David Gergen was not alone in lamenting about Katrina that “you can’t tell who’s running anything. I mean, there’s no Rudy Giuliani in this story.”

Further in the background, but serving no less to augment Giuliani’s political standing by contrast, has been the continuing chain of American corporate scandals. In January 2002, a few days after the mayor left office, the Enron story erupted, soon to be followed by a string of smaller but equally serious trials of executives at major companies like WorldCom and Adelphia. Each has served to prompt residual memories of Giuliani’s role as a keeper of public integrity from his pre-mayoral days as a federal prosecutor, not to speak of his role as an example of public integrity while in office.

But what about 2008? Are Giuliani’s prospects real, and is he indeed a contender? More particularly, what are his chances in a Republican field where he might well be handicapped by his reputation not as a reactionary right-winger but, to the contrary, as a social and cultural liberal, especially on such issues as abortion, gay rights, and immigration?

At this early juncture, predicting the electoral future is a fool’s errand. One of the few things that can be said with confidence is that the race is likely to be a wide-open affair—the first since 1948 without an incumbent President or Vice President on the ballot, and the first in 44 years without a Nixon, Dole, or Bush (unless Jeb runs) in the race. What is also certain is that this November’s midterm elections, by setting the stage for 2008, will affect Giuliani’s prospects in noteworthy ways.

The midterm elections are taking place within the context of President Bush’s plummeting national support and a fever of Democratic expectancy. An iron rule of thumb is that a party in control of both houses of Congress, as the Democrats were in 1946, 1966, and 1994, and as the Republicans are now, is a party bound for trouble. That rule should hold this year as well. Although, at the moment, Republican control of the Senate still appears secure, the House is very much up for grabs.

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This is of significance for Giuliani on at least two counts, both somewhat counterintuitive. First, a Democratic takeover of Congress would be a gift for all Republican presidential candidates, but especially for a Republican centrist. The would-be Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has already made it plain that she intends to put an investigation of the Bush administration at the center of her otherwise thin agenda—and thereby to replicate the mistake made by Republicans in the Clinton era. A variety of other high-profile Democratic leftists, including Charles Rangel and John Conyers, would ascend to committee chairmanships, giving the House so marked a partisan complexion as to enable even the most moderate of Republicans to position themselves to the Right of it.

Second, the better the Democrats do this November, the more likely it is that a shaken GOP will rethink its reliance on its core base of conservative voters; electoral defeat will provide impetus to seek out someone with appeal across the spectrum. Giuliani fits this bill handsomely.

True, even if November 2006 were to break favorably for the former mayor, he would have obstacles to overcome. A practical one is his personal finances. Saddled with a $6.8-million divorce settlement, Giuliani has been digging out of debt through the work of his consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, and through speaking engagements around the country. Still, the work of the firm, which specializes in helping troubled companies turn themselves around, has not only been profitable but has produced a national network of contacts of the kind that would be essential for a presidential run; the same can be said for Giuliani’s speeches, which unfailingly elicit resounding and even adulatory responses.

On the downside, with so many different kinds of clients seeking and getting the advice of Giuliani Partners, conflicts of interest and other kinds of trouble will inevitably crop up and might well hamper a presidential run. One of the firms with which Giuliani has maintained a partnership, for example, has had close ties to some of today’s most unpopular energy giants, including the now-defunct Enron. Giuliani was also highly compensated for advice about crime prevention in Mexico City that did not succeed in making much of a dent in that lawless metropolis.

When it comes to the most commented-on obstacle, the fact that Giuliani is allegedly out of step with the Republican base on hot-button social issues, this may turn out to be less of a liability than is routinely assumed. Gay rights, for example, may no longer be quite the third rail among Republicans that it was even a few short years ago. It remains to be seen how Giuliani will deal with the issue of homosexual marriage. (He opposes President Bush’s call for a ban, and has supported civil unions for gay couples.) It also remains unclear whether a candidate with his shifting stance on abortion can win in the Republican heartland. Although he once supported partial-birth abortion, he now opposes it; further statements will no doubt attempt further to differentiate his position from pro-choice orthodoxy.

Finally, immigration. As mayor of New York, Giuliani showed little enthusiasm for tougher enforcement of immigration laws. More recently, he has come out in support of President’s Bush’s earned-legalization proposal. This is bound to play reasonably well among Republicans in the Northeast but poorly in many precincts elsewhere and especially in the Southwest, where wages are declining, crime rates are rising, and the Hispanic influx has led many to abandon the public schools. The widespread resentments that have been generated by the immigration issue place at risk Giuliani’s reputation for toughness. If that goes, so could his support among middle- and lower-middle-class voters of the sort who so strongly identified with him when he was the get-tough mayor of New York.

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So the road ahead is far from trouble-free—which does not mean that Giuliani would be unable to negotiate it. Thus far, his standing in national polls has remained quite high; together with John McCain, he hovers at first or second place in the Republican field, with support from Democrats and independents likewise registering strongly. In seeking a path to the Republican nomination, he would certainly need to retain the good will of these Democrats and independents—in short, to be no more a conventional candidate than he was a conventional mayor.

Here he might draw some lessons from the past. Like Eisenhower in 1952 (the last election year without an incumbent in the race), Giuliani brings a record of genuine, copiously documented, and broadly recognized achievement. His star status, together with that record of substantive achievement, gives him leeway to transcend ordinary political categories. In particular, his combination of a wonkish, even Clinton-like passion for addressing real problems—so much on display during his mayoralty—with a Reagan-like ability to articulate not only the implacable nature of America’s enemies but the glory and promise of the American dream—so much on display in the wake of 9/11—makes him an immoderate centrist, one whose appeal will continue to cross party lines.

Giuliani’s well-earned reputation for aptitude and proficiency can likewise serve him well with swing voters who have lost faith in George Bush’s competency. He could even be that rare Republican able to bring into play the overwhelmingly Democratic states of California and New York; this alone could make him a formidable candidate in 2008.

Between now and November 2008, the political world might easily endure any number of shocks affecting Giuliani’s (and everyone else’s) candidacy. The shocks could come from a variety of directions, ranging from the Middle East and especially Iran, to a new Supreme Court ruling on abortion, to another terror attack on the United States, to a dip into economic recession. Giuliani might also be damaged by the airing of more personal laundry, like his messy personal life, his overzealous conduct as a prosecutor, or his ties to his old friend and ex-partner Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who in 2004 had to withdraw his acceptance of the post of Secretary of Homeland Security and still faces a possible indictment for corruption. It would thus be premature in the extreme for Rudolph Giuliani to start drafting a victory speech. But as the makers of Giuliani Time intuited, the day is hardly inconceivable.

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About the Author

Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.




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