Commentary Magazine


Giuliani and After

Now approaching his eighth and final year in office, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani suddenly seems an enigma. What is one to make of a politician who defined himself by means of a combative, no-nonsense toughness, accomplishing miracles in the process, and has now begun redefining himself as Mr. Compassion? Is the change substantive or merely stylistic? Is it driven, as the mayor himself has suggested, solely by the private misfortunes—a diagnosis of prostate cancer, a collapsed second marriage—that also led to his withdrawal from a run for the U.S. Senate, or might it also be viewed as a tacit surrender to the Sharpton-Sulzberger axis (to coin a phrase)?

To lend credence to the latter possibility, Giuliani has been dogged throughout his administration by the kind of racial demagoguery personified by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and also by the inescapably liberal take on the city’s priorities espoused by the New York Times and its current publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. Until very recently, he seemed essentially disdainful of their joint and several criticisms. But they may have come to seem more formidable when, only a year after the unfortunate shooting of an unarmed illegal immigrant named Amadou Diallo by four police officers, another city policeman killed another minority-group member this past spring and Giuliani found himself assailed yet again for not having “reached out” to the slain man’s family.

But all this also raises the ultimate question about Giuliani’s tenure in office: how much of what he has accomplished will, in fact, endure?

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In three dimensions of city life, Giuliani’s accomplishments have been truly extraordinary. Perhaps best known are the crime figures. When he was elected mayor in 1993, New York had the twelfth highest rate of violent crime among American cities with populations over 250,000. As of this August, violent crime in New York had tumbled in all categories: murders were down by 65 percent since Giuliani took office, robberies by 58 percent, assaults by 37 percent, rapes by 3 5 percent, shootings by 66 percent. Of course crime has been falling all across the country; but FBI data—which now rate New York the safest large city in the U.S.—make it clear that Giuliani has done much more than participate in a national trend.

A second area has to do with taxes. When Giuliani took office, the burden on city residents was terrible. It is still terrible—but significantly less so thanks to several of his initiatives. One was to cut the tax on commercial rents (in effect a rent increase on top of the city’s already hefty charges); another was to cut the unincorporated-business tax, which requires self-employed individuals, including writers like me, to pay both the ordinary city income tax and an additional percentage on the same income. Together, these two taxes had kept many thousands of people from moving to or doing business in the city.

Under Giuliani, too, a 12.5-percent income-tax surcharge was permitted to expire, and another surcharge may also be eliminated (unless the City Council blocks that move). All told, his team can be given credit for reducing the city’s tax burden for the year 2000 by close to $2 billion. Although, according to the Independent Budget Office, New York today is still by far the most heavily taxed large city in the U.S., without Giuliani’s efforts the bite would be much, much worse.

Most important of all are changes in the “feel” of city life—changes that in some measure have been spinoffs from the lower crime rates but that also go well beyond them and are much harder to quantify. An apt summary of these changes appears in one of the two extraordinarily revealing biographies of Giuliani that have been published in the last few months. Here is Andrew Kirtzman in Rudy Giuliani: Emperor of the City:1

It is hard to overstate the degree to which the culture of the city changed under his mayoralty. New Yorkers heading for work no longer encounter men urinating on the sidewalks. They no longer travel in graffiti-covered [subway] trains, in which homeless men sleep across the seats and peddlers loudly hawk ragged copies of Street News. They don’t fear for their safety as they exit onto deserted streets. The parked cars they pass no longer sport signs addressed to car thieves taped to their windows reading “No Radio,” and old ladies in the park no longer talk exclusively about who’s been mugged over the weekend. The porn stores have vanished from neighborhoods, and drug dealers no longer sell loose joints in children’s parks.

So much for the credit side of the ledger. But the debit side is on no less abundant display in the two new books, and decisively so in the second, Wayne Barrett’s Rudy!, labeled an “investigative biography.”2 Indeed, one crucial difference between these authors is their level of fairness. Kirtzman, a television journalist, adds his share of warts but generally renders the details of his story matter-of-factly, with a minimum of editorializing, and, as in the passage quoted above, he also credits the mayor with transforming life in New York. By contrast, Barrett, a veteran political reporter at the Village Voice, makes no pretense of objectivity. He comes out swinging, never stops, and is almost laughably unfair—even going so far as to argue that the huge crime reductions owe nothing to initiatives put in place during the Giuliani administration.

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Despite his unabashed prosecutorial zeal, though, Barrett has produced the more interesting book, and one that has the virtue, unlike Kirtzman’s, of dealing with the whole of Giuliani’s life. Barrett has clearly talked at length with all sorts of people who have known the mayor: teachers, law-school professors, individuals close to the federal judge for whom he clerked, friends and girlfriends when he was in private practice at a New York law firm and again during his stint in the Reagan Justice Department where he rose to be associate attorney general and U.S. attorney for the Southern District, and finally friends and enemies at the time of his failed 1989 run for the mayor’s office and during his mayoral years starting in early 1994. Barrett is also capable of getting unexpected mileage out of obscure public records, for example by unearthing the fascinating if somewhat puzzling fact that in high school Giuliani scored only 569 on his verbal SAT’s and only 504 in math—figures that seem far too low for a young man who in only a few years would be impressing just about everybody he met and, with no real money or connections, rising like a rocket.

Barrett’s spongelike interviewing methods yield a number of eye-popping details about criminality in Giuliani’s family background. One such detail that has received extensive coverage is the prison record of his father, Harold Giuliani, who spent a year and four months in Sing-Sing after an armed robbery in 1934.

But there is much more to the story, beginning with the fact that Harold was obviously a tough guy who had a fling at a boxing career and later was a strong-arm man for his brother-in-law, Leo D’Avanzo. The latter ran a bar and restaurant in the Ebbets Field neighborhood in Brooklyn that was also the center of a loan-sharking operation. Leo’s son, Lewis, Giuliani’s cousin and schoolmate, likewise had a high-flying criminal career that culminated in a huge auto-theft ring. (Plainly mob-connected, Lewis was killed when FBI agents stopped his car and he tried to run them over.) Another prominent figure in Leo’s bar was Lou Carbonetti, apparently Harold Giuliani’s best friend and a private secretary to Judge Thomas Aurelio, once caught on tape thanking the mobster Frank Costello for his appointment to the bench.

How did Giuliani make his way from this rather unpromising environment to a career in the Justice Department and as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York? It is true that there were also some police officers in his family, including a cousin, a genuine “hero cop,” who was shot to death while trying to pacify a crazed gunman. It is also true that Harold Giuliani made a point of keeping his son away from the dangerous D’Avanzos. Even so, the young Giuliani’s background included many bad guys, and one might think he deserves special credit for growing up to be a prosecutor who put away mafiosi.

This, naturally, is not the moral reached by Barrett. Instead, he derides the mayor for admiring his “hard-working” father and adds, in a truly nasty rhetorical flourish: “How did New York’s champion of chastity manage to so deftly emboss his past, to sweep such broad, wholesome strokes across it all?” What, one wants to ask, was Giuliani supposed to do—denounce his family?

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One mystery about Rudolph Giuliani concerns the depth of his political convictions. Both books remind us that, in 1989, he initially expected to be running on the Republican line against the then-incumbent Mayor Edward I. Koch, a moderately conservative Democrat, and accordingly positioned himself as a liberal/moderate uttering ritual pieties about the plight of the homeless. But then, finding himself instead up against the left-wing David Dinkins, who had beaten Koch in the primaries, he redefined himself as an enemy of the city’s sick liberalism and took to this new assignment with alacrity. In 1993, when he won the mayoralty, he was plainly a conservative.

Upon assuming office, Giuliani made it clear that he seriously intended not only to challenge the bedrock assumptions of victimological liberalism but to do something about them. His first year at City Hall featured an audacious call for huge cuts in city social services and the jobs that went with them. Giuliani proposed to eliminate 15,000 jobs, and ultimately got 14,000 of them. (Spitting in the eye of the opposition, he exempted the police and firefighters.) He also moved to deny the homeless the right to live on the streets or beg on the subways. He flatly refused to reach out to racial demagogues like Sharpton or, for that matter, to the New York Times.

Giuliani understood that to win at his new game, he needed to do more than defy the received liberal wisdom; he also needed to get his own people’s hands on the levers of power. This, too, he accomplished with a fair degree of success, even when it meant taking on popular figures like the schools chancellor, Ramon Cortines—and even when it meant installing Giuliani loyalists in positions for which loyalty was their only discernible qualification.

One of these was Cristyne Lategano, a major figure in both books and best known to New Yorkers as the press aide rumored to have had a long-running affair with the mayor. What never got into the papers was her incompetence: the City Hall newsroom was a shambles during her tenure. What she had going for her, well before the affair with her boss gathered steam, was total loyalty to the administration, registered in around-the-clock availability and a habit of warning Giuliani away from others whose fidelity she suspected. Needless to say, she was enormously unpopular within the administration.

Another Giuliani aide whose main credential was unquestioning loyalty was Tony Carbonetti, the son of Lou, Jr. Carbonetti was twenty-five years old, his résumé headed by a stint managing a bar in Boston, when the new mayor named him appointments secretary and chief patronage dispenser. (Since then he has graduated to chief of staff.) By all accounts, he did exactly as Giuliani wanted: Kirtzman quotes one unnamed administrator who estimates that 60 percent of the job applicants pushed at him by Carbonetti were qualified, 20 percent unqualified, and 20 percent “dirt-bags.”

As discomfiting as such stories must be to Giuliani fans, even more bothersome politically is the naked immensity of the mayor’s ego, which has recurrently prevented him from allowing anyone else in his administration to take credit for any serious accomplishment. Exhibit A here is the ugly saga of the mayor’s relations with William J. Bratton, his immensely popular first police commissioner.

Popularity, indeed, was the problem. Almost from the moment the new commissioner entered the administration, Giuliani began to worry that to Bratton would go the glory for the decline in crime. Both men believed in the “broken windows” theory, according to which the neglect of petty, quality-of-life crimes emboldens criminals and leaves ordinary citizens concerned that nobody is in charge. But the media sometimes made it seem that Bratton alone had brought the theory to New York.

Sure enough, when the crime rates tumbled, Bratton was out there explaining what he had done. From the mayor’s point of view, the situation was made only worse by the fact that the commissioner seemed rather to enjoy the spotlight, turning up at high-profile restaurants and signing a six-figure deal to write a book about his accomplishments. Soon, the administration was announcing a review of the deal’s propriety, and Giuliani aides were making themselves available to divulge details to a willing press about the commissioner’s alleged peccadilloes.

The statistics tell us that Bratton was one of the most effective police commissioners in modern New York history. But in March 1996, he felt obliged to resign.

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There is nothing unusual, to put it mildly, in a politician wanting to take credit for every positive development on the landscape. But a one-man band in executive office is problematical, and nowhere more so than in a city needful of permanent change in the status quo. Any such change will require cadres committed to new ideas, not just to the man who embodies them. But because Giuliani’s politics have been so utterly self-aggrandizing, it is now extremely difficult, as he approaches his final year in office, to see any signs of a movement prepared to carry on and extend the extraordinary revolution he launched seven years ago.

Making matters dicier than ever is the unsettling sight of the mayor reinventing himself a mile a minute as he settles in for his final year. His withdrawal from the Senate race put onstage a “new Giuliani” who would be, in the emetic phrase that was soon all over the local media, “kinder, gentler.” Relating the change to his cancer diagnosis, Giuliani indicated that he was now in full outreach mode to spokesmen for the poor and minorities. His latest budget has increased funds for the Brooklyn Museum, whose subsidy he halted only last year after its board notoriously refused to withdraw a painting of the Virgin Mary composed in part of elephant dung. The Daily News is calling him “Deepak Giuliani,” after the feel-good inspirational writer Deepak Chopra.

So the question with which I began is very much on the table: will his accomplishments endure? In the meantime, I think I am seeing more homeless on the streets.

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Footnotes

1 Morrow, 333 pp., $25.00.

2 Basic, 498 pp., $26.00.

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About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.




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