BIG IDEAS
BOOKS
 
CIVIL PLEASURES
 
RESPECTABILITY
 
PARKS & RECREATION
 

20 July 2007:

Kevin Baker on the Rudolph Giuliania in Harper's. 

Kevin Baker's cover story at Harper's this month is former New York Mayer Rudolph Giuliani, and the cover story title is "A Fate Worse Than Bush." I kid you not: Mr Baker's title says it all.

Giuliani drew a different lesson than the Clintons in his early political experiences. He watched the winning side in the 1972 election and internalized a strategy that was honed by the likes of George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan over the course of nearly two decades. That strategy can best be described as a sort of "anti-populism," a worldview in which the well-off are continually beset by the poor, the privileged by the disinherited, the white by the black. The remarkable accomplishment of Giuliani was how he was able to use this narrative of disorder to gain power in New York.

Mr Baker carefully recounts the record, showing again and again that improvements for which Mr Giuliani has taken credit were well under way before he took office, and that any impression that voters might have to the contrary owes to his assiduous branding and to some very irresponsible journalists. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, for example, wrote in 1993 that, "Aside from the deranged, there's not a single Gothamite who thinks it has gotten better under Dinkins - no matter what the statistics say."

As Mr Baker responds, "No matter what the statistics say!"

New York's plight had become one big moral parable, about a culture of permissiveness, fostered by a black mayor, on behalf of his black constituents. Cohen provided a prescient definition of our post-ideological politics, writing, "When Giuliani emphasizes civic responsibilities and collective obligations - not just welfare, but work as well - he is sounding no different from Clinton in the presidential campaign. ... Sometimes it turns out that the 'new Democrat' is a Republican.

Mr Baker catalogues Mr Giuliani's most egregious failures, from the death of Amadou Diallo to the mistreatment of AIDS demonstrators, noting that, ironically enough, given his celebrity, 9/11 is probably Mr Giuliani's biggest disaster. His totally misconceived bunker was not only useless but, in the event, destructive: its fuel tanks blew up in the collapse of the towers. Coordination among the services was notoriously inadequate. Workers at Ground Zero were inadequately protected. The man did nothing right - except bluster. This is Mr Baker's real topic. The bluster is what went on television, and televised images rule. The former mayor is a master of the peculiar swagger cultivated by generations of Roman Catholic officials who talk tough but do nothing important. He has, in effect, designed impressive packaging for himself. The label's assertions are so unreal as to be imaginary - but, in today's world, who is going to look beyond a label?

The most interesting part of Mr Baker's essay is its penultimate paragraph. Here, he asks what might happen if a candidate such as Mr Giuliani alienated evangelical Christians from the Republican Party. Where would these voters go, he asks.

The obvious answer would be, into some sort of coalition with those whom the Democratic Party has tried to banish from its ranks - that is, the poor and the working poor, people of color, and all those dislocated by the global economy. This would mean a party of the religious and the disinherited - exactly the combination that has given rise to the sort of extremism we so deplore in the Islamic world.

It is very important that the demythologization of Rudy Giuliani begin right now. It won't be easy. For example, it ill becomes liberals to attack Mr Giuliani on the personal grounds of his strange and somewhat heartless marital history. His authoritarian streak will always be more deeply resented by New Yorkers than by other Americans - indeed, his presidential ambitions may be fired in part by the conclusion that he has already won the votes of his worst enemies. Attacking his spin-mastery is unlikely to arouse the commentariat.

In my view, Mr Giuliani's Achilles heel is his promotion of Bernard Kerik. This is not the place to rehearse Mr Kerik's record of corruption and incompetence. His rise from obscurity to the federal cabinet (stymied at the last minute) owes entirely to the influence of his long-time boss. He is proof that the former mayor is a terrible judge of character, and that an administration headed by Mr Giuliani would be staffed at least in part by henchmen. Nor should it be forgotten that Mr Giuliani fired his successful chief of police, William J Bratton, when Mr Bratton was given too much credit for effective policing. The former mayor is, demonstrably, a deaf autocrat. If his packaging can shown to be false in this respect, the viability of his candidacy will diminish.

Mr Baker's conclusion, while rousing, is a gratuitous assessment of the Bush regime.

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press

Write to me