When Mayoral Past Is Presidential Prologue

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America’s Mayor, America’s President?: The Strange Career of Rudy Giuliani, edited by Robert Polner, Soft Skull Press, $14.95.

If the trick of politics is convincing voters that you’re the opposite of what you really are – caring rather than conniving, public-minded rather than personally ambitious, a beer guy rather than a martini man – no local politico has been more successful than Rudy Giuliani. His stellar performance in the aftermath of Sept. 11 transformed the former mayor from “nasty man” – as former mayor Ed Koch, himself no slouch in the abrasiveness department, called him – into an international symbol of grace under pressure.

“America’s Mayor, America’s President?” edited by former Newsday reporter and current NYU press officer Robert Polner, is a stern corrective. Re-released to coincide with Giuliani’s run for president, this revised edition contains 19 articles: Three of the contributions are new, and did not appear in the 2005 incarnation of this book; one essay from the earlier edition was dropped in this new edition. They take as their titles themes that are often associated with the candidate by those who don’t know much about him: Character, Loyalty, Respect, Liberty, Integrity, and more. Written mostly by reporters who covered Giuliani from 1994 to 2002 when he was ensconced in City Hall for two terms, the essays give readers a strong dose of the id and ego behind the image and paint Giuliani as, in Polner’s words, “a restless and reckless political opportunist dedicated to his own advancement and little more.”

It’s a worthwhile read for those who would like to know how this man who would be president governed New York City. Indeed, after finishing “America’s Mayor, America’s President?” I began to wonder whether there’s something missing from the dominant model of daily journalism in New York City. This collection amounts to a tag-team smackdown of Giuliani and his impact on the city. But I don’t recall reading such strong stuff while the man was in office – even in dispatches penned by many of the same reporters who write so passionately in this book.

“America’s Mayor, America’s President?” is not without problems, however. The volume has a rushed feel. Some of the essays repeat themselves. Others are marred by clunky writing. And a few feature highly debatable premises, as when novelist and magazine writer Kevin Baker, in an article questioning Giuliani’s legacy, links Jane Jacobs’ fight against Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway, Bobby Kennedy’s backing of jobs programs in Bed-Stuy, and the massively subsidized Times Square redevelopment as programs that epitomize “putting New York back on its feet.”

More substantively, the collection suffers from several weaknesses overall.

First, though some contributors refer to the harsh impact Giuliani had on poor New Yorkers, the volume doesn’t include any substantial on-the-ground perspective by a journalist or activist who spent time covering, or hails from, low-income communities. Second, the dark portrait of Giuliani would be more convincing if the book had at least one contribution from someone who believed that the former mayor did a few useful things during his time in City Hall – ending school custodians’ lifetime tenure to their buildings or pushing for greater productivity from garbagemen might qualify. These things bear mentioning in a book that wants to offer a clear-eyed assessment of the Giuliani years.

Additionally, the book reads as if Giuliani’s life ended after he left City Hall – and at this stage in the nation’s political life, it would be useful to know more. What has the man been up to since 2002? Who were his legal clients? Who are his security firm’s clients? How much money has he made? How much does he command in speaking fees? What does his record tell us about his stance on extraordinary rendition or whether the Geneva Conventions outlaw waterboarding? Who might he pick for the Supreme Court? What would he do if his finger was on the nuclear trigger? On the hot button issues of this campaign, this book is silent, because it only looks backward.

Finally, none of the 19 authors, nor Jimmy Breslin in his eloquent introduction, acknowledge the extent to which Giuliani still impacts our lives. Police abuses have continued under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as cops infiltrated and spied on antiwar groups, improperly arrested demonstrators during the 2004 Republican National Convention, and fatally shot unarmed black men like Sean Bell last year (and, before him, Ousmane Zongo in 2003 and Timothy Stansbury in 2004.) Rents in the city have, if anything, increased more dramatically since Bloomberg took over. And, upping the stakes in the city’s war on “quality of life” offenses, the billionaire mayor wants to charge Mr. Softee trucks with noise pollution violations. For New Yorkers, in many ways, it still is “Giuliani time.”

Longtime City Limits contributor Robert Neuwirth, author of “Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World,” reported on city issues during the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani administrations.

– Robert Neuwirth

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