The Prince of the City by Fred Siegel
The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life
by Fred Siegel
Encounter. 320 pp. $26.95
According to the conventional wisdom already circulating about the next presidential campaign, New York City’s former Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani is “unelectable.” He is, as both critics and fans point out, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control. Add to this his messy public divorce, and his early support of the Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo over the Republican challenger George Pataki in the 1994 race for the governorship of New York State, and one can well imagine the negative ads his opponents in the Republican primaries could produce.
Yet the wisdom of political sages notwithstanding, polls show that Giuliani remains the runaway favorite to lead the Republican party in 2008. According to a recent survey conducted by the Marist Institute, more than 70 percent of GOP voters would like to see him enter the race.
Granted, polling data at this early date are little more than contests of name recognition. But the fact that the “liberal” Giuliani remains popular among the increasingly conservative base of Republican voters is just one of the many paradoxes that surround him. He is, after all, a Republican who won office in a Democratic stronghold; a strong ego who surrounds himself with equally headstrong personalities; a combative, divisive, and confrontational figure who, in the wake of 9/11, became a force for national unification and a voice of tender compassion for the families of victims.
The Prince of the City by Fred Siegel, a longtime student of urban politics and policy, is an effort to explain Giuliani’s extraordinary post-9/11 appeal by closely examining what came before it. Indeed, the book devotes fewer than ten pages to the attacks of September 11 and their aftermath. Instead, Siegel burrows deep into the details of Giuliani’s tenure as mayor of New York City from 1994 through 2002, providing not only a history of municipal governance but an exposé of the unrelenting ideological war Giuliani brought to City Hall.
Whatever reputation Giuliani might have as a social moderate, Siegel demonstrates, has to be counterbalanced by the fact that no other politician has so aggressively challenged the encrusted, stubborn liberalism that dominated New York politics since the 1930’s. “It was,” says Siegel “precisely his intransigent hostility to the city’s reigning political pieties that made him so effective.”
Siegel’s book begins with a bracing reminder of what an awful place New York City had become in the 1980’s and early 90’s. Although residents paid the highest tax rates in the country, the city was on the brink of fiscal ruin. The national economy was humming, but hundreds of thousands of jobs were leaving town. Meanwhile, prison guards were on strike, Rev. Al Sharpton and his allies were injecting racial tension into every civic dispute, and student performance at public schools was among the worst in the country.
At the same time, the city itself was becoming not just “ungovernable,” in the phrase of the day, but close to uninhabitable. Aggressive panhandling was rampant on the filthy subways. Budget cuts had reduced the frequency of trash collection. Unsupervised psychiatric patients attacked citizens in even the poshest Manhattan neighborhoods. On every block, cars displayed “NO RADIO” signs, the only apparent defense against urban marauders. In 1990, Time ran a cover story on “The Rotting of the Big Apple.” The mayoral contest between Giuliani and incumbent mayor David Dinkins in 1993 was, writes Siegel, “a referendum on urban decline.”
When he won office, Giuliani’s response to these pathologies amounted to a rethinking of every operating assumption in New York City politics since the time of Fiorello LaGuardia. For decades, the city’s ruling elites had firmly believed that its unique qualities exempted it from the normal strictures of municipal governance. To every problem, the answer was more funding—from taxes, from Albany, or from Washington. Only days after Giuliani’s election, Siegel informs us, Mark Green, an erstwhile mayoral candidate and activist gadfly, perfectly expressed this entrenched attitude: if the federal government, Green declared, could invest “billions of dollars in the 90’s in a Gulf war [called Desert Storm], isn’t it time now we invest in an Operation Domestic Storm here at home?”
Giuliani asked a different question. In his first year in office, he challenged the entire belief system of City Hall by reducing taxes, insisting that city projects be bid out to the private sector, advocating the fingerprinting of welfare recipients in order to prevent fraud, selling off city-owned assets, and proposing the elimination of 2,500 positions at the Board of Education. In doing so, Siegel remarks, Giuliani “offended virtually every interest group in town.”
More interesting still was the new mayor’s philosophy. Months before his election, Giuliani had delivered what was billed as his “quality of life” speech. The greatest threat to any city, he argued, was the sort of social and political breakdown that made civic life impossible. “What unnerves most city dwellers is not crime per se,” Giuliani explained, “but rather the sense of menace and disorder which pervades day-to-day life.”
Nowhere was this “quality of life” approach to city government better exhibited than in Giuliani’s attitude toward crime and policing. A diligent student of the “broken windows” theory first popularized in the early 1980’s by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, Giuliani took its major lessons to heart. Reducing small nuisances and signs of disorder—graffiti, broken windows, panhandling, and so on—could have a much greater impact on the life of the city than focusing on emergency calls to 911.
Giuliani benefited from seeing how the broken-windows theory worked in practice. William S. Bratton, who had been named head of New York’s transit police in 1990, had begun cracking down on the “fare-beaters” who jumped over subway turnstiles—a routine misdemeanor that had been committed with impunity for years. What Bratton discovered was that one out of seven arrested fare-beaters either possessed a weapon or was the subject of a felony warrant. In other words, there was a link between fare-beating and more serious crime.
One of Giuliani’s first acts in office was to hire Bratton as his police commissioner. Together, they began to transform New York policing. In defiance of sociological orthodoxy, the mayor insisted on more cops on the beat, and more arrests for every category of crime—from irritating squeegee men to street drug dealers to murderers. The result was the most dramatic reduction in crime in the city’s history.
Far less celebrated was Giuliani’s focus on the threat of international terrorism. He treated the 1993 bombing in the parking garages of the World Trade Center not as an isolated event but as a harbinger of the future. In the face of much public derision, he built an elaborate emergency-response center, including a high-tech command post in Lower Manhattan. He also made exhaustive New Year’s eve preparations for the turn of the millennium, when mayhem was widely predicted, going so far as to pre-position the National Guard in Brooklyn should it become necessary to evacuate Manhattan. His psychological and practical readiness for the aftermath of 9/11, Siegel persuasively argues, was no accident.
Today, when many of Giuliani’s ideas have become commonplace, it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary they were a scant ten years ago. Reading Siegel’s account of the reaction they elicited from New York’s liberal establishment is a useful reminder. “Frightening . . . radical . . . scary stuff,” declared Norman Siegel of the American Civil Liberties Union after listening to a Giuliani speech. A member of the city council’s minority caucus spoke of a “leaner but meaner city,” while Jesse Jackson suggested there were racial motives behind Giuliani’s policies, and compared the mayor with segregationist governor George Wallace of Alabama. One newspaper columnist likened the fortified command center to one of Saddam Hussein’s bunkers.
It may be tempting to conclude that, like Machiavelli’s prince, from whom the title of this book derives, Giuliani was the beneficiary of good fortune. After all, he led New York at a time when liberalism everywhere was in retreat, and when a booming Wall Street economy was reviving the city’s financial strength. While not discounting these factors, Siegel stresses that Giuliani took on not the easiest but the most intricate and calcified elements of city government, and always in the face of hard resistance. He succeeded by personal boldness and by an indifference to accepted wisdom—qualities Machiavelli also admired.
Thus, The Prince of the City gives a step-by-step account of how Giuliani mastered the city budget, wresting it from the hands of careerists determined to keep union payrolls as expansive as possible. Siegel’s chapters on policing, education, welfare reform, and racial politics are rich tutorials on how, thanks in large part to Giuliani, our thinking about these issues has changed over the past decades—and not just in New York City alone. In telling this important story, Fred Siegel is a compelling urban historian.
But, to return to the issue with which we began, what of the future? Although Siegel cites Giuliani’s powerful speech on terrorism at the 2004 Republican convention, he cannot convincingly explain how the instincts and guts displayed by New York’s mayor make him a viable candidate in the maelstrom of Republican primary politics.
To be sure, Giuliani’s pivotal and perhaps indispensable role in the undoing of New York’s social-welfare liberalism stands as an unrivaled achievement. Combining this with his post-9/11 stance on global terrorism, one could contend that he has staked out a new basis for conservative politics—one that stands apart from debates about judges, abortion, or gay marriage. One could even show, as Siegel has done, how this potent brand of politics worked—against all odds—in New York. But it remains a tantalizing question whether, having succeeded on Broadway, it can play to the rest of the country.