The Myth of America’s Mayor: Will the Real Rudy Giuliani Please Stand Up?
Guest Piece by Greg Olear
By Greg Olear
Luxuriating in the muck at the center of the president’s Ukraine scandal is Rudolph William Louis Giuliani—a man who, not that long ago, was named “Person of the Year” by Time magazine and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. How could the crisis leader hailed by Newsweek as “our Winston Churchill” have fallen so precipitously from grace? How did “America’s Mayor” become Trump’s partner in crime? When did Rudy break bad?
Ivan IV only assumed the “Terrible” sobriquet after a traumatic illness almost killed him. Henry VIII’s personality completely changed after a bad accident in which he was thrown from his royal horse. Our natural tendency is to look for a similar life-changing event in Rudy’s recent history. How else to square the noble Rudy of 9/11 with the Trumpist traitor who cavorts with criminals?
The answer, alas, is that the Rudy Giuliani we see today—“Colludy Rudy” who operates as Trump’s shadow Secretary of State, doing his client’s illicit bidding in Eastern Europe; “Nosferatu Rudy,” who spewed fire and brimstone at the RNC; “Rantin’ Rudy,” who raves like a madman on the cable news shows—is the real Rudy Giuliani. Not only that, but the 2019 vintage is no different than the 2016, the 2001, or the 1997. Rudy Giuliani has always been egomaniacal, self-serving, loquacious, mean-spirited, and morally bankrupt. This is who he is, and who he has always been.
It’s “America’s Mayor” that’s a fraud.
On September 10, 2001, Rudolph Giuliani was a lame-duck mayor of a city that had grown to despise him. His approval rating was in the toilet. Whatever goodwill he’d generated by a successful first term had evaporated during an increasing autocratic second, when he’d more than earned the moniker “Benito Giuliani.” By the time the sun set the following day, he would be one of the most beloved figures in not just New York, but the country, and maybe the free world. The 180-degree turnaround was, as an AP bureau chief remarked to me a few months later, unprecedented in 200 years of American politics. Rudy, beating the odds, had gone from worst to first.
For all his myriad faults, Giuliani always understood what it meant to be mayor of New York, as opposed to, say, Cincinnati or Jacksonville or even Los Angeles or Houston. As December 31, 1999, approached—the dreaded Y2K—he was asked if he intended to shut down Times Square’s New Year’s Eve celebration, due to safety concerns: “This is New York,” he said with pride. “We get 100,000 people there. If I close it, we’ll get 200,000.” He went on Letterman to announce New York’s new slogan that the Late Night host had cooked up: “We can kick your city’s ass!” He was a Yankee fan; he didn’t like going to Shea Stadium at all. Rudy got it. And he took that same bombast, the implacable confidence bordering if not completely encroaching on arrogance, and applied it to his many press conferences on and immediately after 9/11. Even as Lower Manhattan burned, he reminded us that This is New York, that We can kick your city’s ass. And people loved him for it—New Yorkers especially.
I was no exception. By 9/11, I’d been living in New York for six years. However much I despised Rudy Giuliani the day before the attacks—and I hated him as much as anyone—his leadership that fateful Tuesday forgave a multitude of sins. I was proud that he was our mayor. Who else would have risen so spectacularly to the occasion?
The answer is more complicated than I originally believed. In reality, Giuliani’s reputation as Great Leader, as Preparedness Specialist, as Crisis Manager, is based on falsehoods. Had George W. Bush been a better president—and had Rudy himself been a better mayor—there would have been no America’s Mayor.
On a dismal and dreary January day in 2001, Bush was sworn in as president. He’d lost the popular vote by 50,999,897 to 50,456,002, only securing the presidency by virtue of a fly-by-night Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Gore, that smells even fishier in retrospect. Kindly but incurious and easily led, he was incapable of the sort of resolute leadership needed in the aftermath of the attacks. Bush spent much of September 11, 2001, on Air Force One, careening around the eastern half of the United States, ostensibly for reasons of security—although one wonders what, exactly, the Secret Service was so afraid of to resort to such drastic measures. Osama Bin Laden was holed up in some Tora Bora cave; he was not Thanos, he did not possess the Infinity Stones. By all accounts, Bush was aware of the leadership vacuum and wanted to return to Washington sooner. “The country needs to hear from its president.” But he failed to override the advice of his security detail. As a result, on the most important day of his presidency, when the nation most needed his firm reassurance, Dubya was AWOL.
Giuliani, by contrast, rushed to Lower Manhattan before the towers had fallen. Our first sight of him was when he emerged from the rubble of a building that had partially collapsed. Flanked by his men-at-arms, he was breathing through a handkerchief. What a spectacle! No pesky building collapse was going to stop the mayor of New York from doing his duty! Here was our Churchill. Here was Teddy Roosevelt, another prominent New Yorker, finishing his speech after he’d been shot. “It’ll take more than that to stop this bull moose!” The optics were eye-popping—especially when contrasted with Bush, who was playing hide-and-seek in the sky like a frightened child. Rudy took control of the narrative at that moment and didn’t let go for the next decade and a half.
He made of himself a myth.
Whatever TV might have told us, the Rudy Giuliani we witnessed on 9/11 was a “grand illusion.” This is the title of a 2006 book by Dan Collins and the late, great Wayne Barrett, who warned us years ago about Donald Trump in his Village Voice reporting. Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11 smashes the idol, exposing Giuliani as a lousy mayor whose pre-9/11 preparedness policies—or lack thereof—made the events of that day demonstrably worse.
By 2001, it did not require the gift of prophecy to foretell a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Terrorists had already bombed the Twin Towers, in 1993, during the mayoralty of David Dinkins, and vowed to do it again. And yet in his entire first term in City Hall and most of his second, Giuliani had done precious little to prepare for another attack. His much-ballyhooed Office of Emergency Management (OEM), which he wouldn’t shut up about in the years after 9/11, was supposed to coordinate the response to a terrorist attack or similar emergency, but it lacked the teeth to do so. On 9/11, the city’s police and fire departments still responded independently to crises, as they’d been doing for centuries. The New York Times called it “an undisputed fact” that Giuliani’s OEM “failed to establish the most basic aspect of emergency response: determining who is in charge—and when and why.”
In this respect, New York was decades behind the curve. Edward Plaugher, who as the chief of the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia led the (much more efficient) emergency response to the attack on the Pentagon, testified before the 9/11 Commission that, in sharp contrast to the “unified command” response in his Capital Region, the outmoded and compartmentalized response in New York “dramatically impacted the loss of first responder lives on 9/11.” Giuliani’s city, Plaugher said disgustedly, was still “struggling with understanding the concept of who’s in charge of what.”
Most famously, Giuliani unilaterally decided to build the OEM’s command center in the worst possible location: the 23rd floor of a building, WTC 7, within the World Trade Center complex. This decision looks indefensibly stupid now, yes, but it was also indefensibly stupid in the moment. The chief of police and other high-level NYPD brass fought the move. Even Richie Sheirer, the eventual OEM director and one of Rudy’s most loyal and sycophantic cronies, derided the decision. As Collins and Barrett write: “Rejecting an already secure, technologically advanced city facility across the Brooklyn Bridge, [Giuliani] insisted on a command center within walking distance of City Hall, a curious standard quickly discarded by the [subsequent] Bloomberg administration, which instead put its center in Brooklyn.” So, four years after the first attack on the WTC, “Giuliani wound up settling in 1997 on the only bunker ever built in the clouds, at a site shaken to its foundation four years earlier by terrorists who vowed to return.”
Just as Donald Trump was bad for the country but great for CBS News, the decision to place OEM’s command center at WTC 7 was bad for New York but fantastic for Rudy Giuliani. Rudy spent the morning of 9/11 wandering around Lower Manhattan, trying to find an alternative location for an impromptu command center to replace the destroyed one. This made for good television, as crews had easy access to the peripatetic mayor, but was negligently bad management. As Collins and Barrett write:
If the center had been elsewhere, all the dramatic visuals that turned the soot-covered Giuliani into a nomad warrior would instead have been tense but tame footage from its barren press conference room, where reporters had been corralled prior to 9/11 for snowstorms and the millennium celebration….Had he been able to get into and operate from a command center he says he “headed” for shortly after 8:46 that morning, he might have been more effective, but he also would have been less inspirational.
Grand Illusion delves into the shameful particulars of how Giuliani’s preparedness failures directly led to loss of life, especially of first responders. Time and again he sacrificed safety and efficiency for political expediency. Like Trump, Giuliani seemed to lack the ability to plan strategically, to see the whole chessboard. This is a catastrophic failure that is rarely discussed.
It is true that Giuliani handled the day of 9/11 beautifully, communicating simply, inspirationally, and often. But is it really the case that the ability to do so was unique to “America’s Mayor,” as the popular narrative would have us believe? Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, was equally up to the task when her city was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017—and unlike Rudy, she did not enjoy the unquestioned support of the sitting president. Are we to believe that, say, Ed Koch would not have acted in much the same way? Or Mike Bloomberg or Bill DeBlasio? Or, venturing outside Gotham, South Bend’s Pete Buttigieg?
Whatever the fawning press coverage said, the Rudy Giuliani of 9/11 legend was a far cry from the real thing. And America’s Mayor had no intention of correcting the record.
Donald Trump was not the first egomaniacal New Yorker to half-assedly lobby for an illegal third term. On the day of the attacks, Rudy Giuliani had just three and a half months left in office. New York law prohibited him from running for a third term—but he sure as hell tried. The mayoral candidates—the Democrats Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer and the Democrat-turned-Republican-just-for-this-election Mike Bloomberg—could not match the wattage of the incumbent, who wanted nothing more than to remain at City Hall. But Rudy’s efforts were stymied by Albany, which refused to repeal the law to help a mayor neither Democrats nor Republicans in the Statehouse much cared for.
His performance on 9/11 failed to deliver more political power, so Rudy sought the next best thing: money. He decided to cash in on his popularity—to monetize his reputation as a security expert. Before he left office, he began promoting his new business venture, a consulting concern called Giuliani Partners. The “partners” were a gaggle of Rudy sycophants, most notably Bernie Kerik. Like Dan Scavino, who started off as the caddie to Donald Trump, Kerik began his ascent as Rudy’s personal driver, rose through the NYPD ranks to become Police Commissioner, and, in 2004, wound up being nominated by George W. Bush to head the Department of Homeland Security. He had to withdraw the nomination, however, because he was a crook; he was convicted in 2008 of tax fraud and making false statements, and served four years in federal prison.
Giuliani Partners was billed as a management consulting firm, but all it really did was allow its clients to bask in the heroic glow of its eponymous founder. After 9/11, remember, the imprimatur of “America’s Mayor” was a hot commodity. What Giuliani did was exploit the situation to maximum advantage. Giuliani took a national tragedy, the worst attack on American soil in my lifetime, and made it his own personal brand. As Joe Biden once quipped, every sentence Rudy speaks contains “a noun, a verb, and ‘9/11.’” If Giuliani could have trademarked “9/11,” he would have. As Collins and Barrett write, he “took the reputation he had won in New York and rented it out to companies who needed an aura of heroic integrity.”
Rudy Giuliani: the pimp who trafficked 9/11.
Like a pimp, Rudy was not picky in selecting clients. If you paid the (exorbitant) bill, you were in. And the companies willing to plonk down the requisite coin tended to be shady. When clients of Giuliani Partners, who were “very frequently companies in trouble,” Collins and Barrett write, “told the world they just hired a renowned team of ‘crisis managers,’ no one pretended their critical expertise came from handling snowstorms or subway fires.” Rudy and his cohorts never failed to “brandish the 9/11 club” when the situation called for it:
Helping the pharmaceutical industry stop Americans from getting their prescriptions filled in Canada, where the same drugs were cheaper, Bernard Kerik would warn that terrorists could be shipping biological weapons across the border in the guise of prescription drugs. Giuliani would make a special call to remind a prosecutor about the public-spirited role a client had played after 9/11 or insert plugs for a cell phone client into a talk to public safety officials about what happened to him when the Word Trade Center fell.
Among the beneficiaries of Rudy’s mercenary boosterism: Merrill Lynch, then under investigation by New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer; WorldCom, the telecommunications company wracked by scandals and on the verge of bankruptcy; Aon, the insurance giant that had lost 176 employees on 9/11; Nextel, the telecom outfit whose lousy product contributed to the communication problems in New York on 9/11; and Purdue Pharma, makers of OxyContin and the company most responsible for the current opioid epidemic in the United States. One you’re in bed with Purdue, why not lobby for dictators and mob money launderers? Why not coordinate strategy with Paul Manafort—whose family business, Manafort Brothers construction, had secured the clean-up contract for the 9/11 rubble—from his prison cell?
Giuliani Partners also entered into a joint venture with Sabre Technological Services to start a environmental decontamination company called Bio ONE, which was tapped by American Media, Inc. to clean its Boca Raton facility that had been the victim of an anthrax attack. The cockamamie plan was for Bio ONE to render the offices so clean that they themselves would occupy them going forward; Giuliani himself would be the first to enter the newly-cleaned building. Thus did Rudy’s outfit get unfettered access to the National Enquirer’s mammoth vault of photographs—including untold thousands that had never and would never run—although Bio ONE was ultimately unable to successfully decontaminate the facility. Like Rudy himself, the company was all talk.
What ultimately doomed Giuliani Partners was the revelation that its second-most-famous partner, Bernie Kerik, was a sleazebag and a crook. Not only was the former Police Commissioner cheating on his wife with a corrections officer and the publisher Judith Regan (best known for putting out the O.J. Simpson memoir If I Did It), but he was a big-time tax cheat. Kerik, and Giuliani Partners, “went down in flames,” Collins and Barret write—“hugely publicized, hugely embarrassing flames.”
The real story of Rudy Giuliani reads like this: His fuck-ups as mayor led to the city’s chaotic response to the 9/11 attacks, resulting in more first responder deaths than would have happened under more able leadership. His performance on 9/11 itself was enhanced by his presence in Lower Manhattan—but he was only walking the streets because he had idiotically decided to put the OEM command center in the WTC complex. He tried to use the goodwill generated by that performance to illegally remain in office. When that failed, he pimped out 9/11 for his own financial benefit—usually to clients who were expressly unworthy of positive spin.
In all of this, the possessive Giuliani treated 9/11 like it was his corner. He does this still, going so far as to insist, repeatedly, that Hillary Clinton never visited Ground Zero, despite ample photographical evidence to the contrary. But where was the purported 9/11 hero earlier this year, when Congress wanted to deny medical benefits to first responders? Jon Stewart, a comedian, gave an impassioned appeal that day, and has selflessly helped keep the spotlight on that cause for two decades now. Where was “America’s Mayor?” Rudy was, one assumes, somewhere in Ukraine, pressuring a foreign government to manufacture dirt on Donald Trump’s political opponent, in flagrant violation of U.S. law—which speaks to both his unscrupulous priorities, and his true feelings about 9/11.
The Rudy Giuliani who butt-dialed a reporter, who called Andrew Cuomo a moron on TV, who needed Apple to help him unlock his own iPhone, who angrily defends the Russian mob money launderer in the White House at every turn—that is the real Rudy Giuliani. He’s not a fallen hero. He’s the same piece of shit he’s been his whole life.
“America’s Mayor” was always fake news.
Thank you for reading!
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