Rudy and the city

The title of the new, brilliant, thoroughgoing biography of Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, cuts both ways in its assessment of the outsized character of this mob prosecutor turned self-described savior of the city.

The first part of the title, The Prince of the City, suggests that there is more than a dollop of Machiavellian posturing in the man’s methods, whether it be in a courtroom surrounded by handpicked assistant U.S. attorneys or in a conference room at City Hall, flanked by political allies.

But the subtitle, Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life, declares the author’s ultimate regard for Giuliani and his methods. And it also identifies the “genius” inherent in the political life and choices of not just Giuliani, but also the New York City citizenry at large: America’s most famously bigheaded city requires a leader with an equal-sized ego to tease out its finer qualities and tame its less-civilized ones.

When Giuliani shoved his way into the fray of New York City politics, the city was drowning in a sea of crime, racial tension and violence. David Dinkins, a soft-spoken African-American with a long history of racial activism, had been elected mayor in a spasm of fear by middle-class New York that was convinced the city was about to implode racially, to become “another Detroit.”

As author Fred Siegel describes it, “Gotham had always been an open, tolerant city, invigorated by the chaos of commerce and imperiled by what its first mayor, Peter Stuyvesant, called a ‘disobedient community.’” The ferocious protectiveness of the “traditions of tolerance and lawlessness” had been amplified under Mayor Edward Koch, and by the late 1980s the city was all but unlivable.

Deinstitutionalized mental patients roamed the streets, prompting a frightening new wave of tuberculosis. Public spaces were dominated by the homeless, “aggressive panhandlers, and underclass toughs.”

Enter Giuliani, who immediately set about mopping up the cesspool of political slush funds and fiefdoms that seeped into every quarter of New York City’s life and services: builder and contractor kickbacks, phantom school employees that bloated budgets, public hospitals with empty beds, and so on and so on. With the same self-described fearlessness that Giuliani demonstrated in prosecuting the mob in his years as Manhattan’s U.S. attorney, now Giuliani took on the unionized, highly partisan, mostly Democratic civil-service sectors, determined to lance the bloat of a city bearing the weight of a $2.8 billion budget deficit. He made fighting crime his main objective, beefing up the police force. After his famous “quality of life” speech (and guided by his new political primer, “reinventing government,” by Brandeisian intellectual David Osborne), Giuliani set about making the city livable again. In the process, he made some serious political enemies.

It seems that the very qualities that made Giuliani able to shake down the corrupt pols and bureaucracies of the city—a relentless, sometimes myopic, authoritarian confidence—also inured him to the more delicate matters of race and class. By the time he was preparing to leave office in 2001, the “kinder, gentler” New York City that Giuliani had claimed to create was still roiling with resentment, in many quarters, at his methods. Giuliani, who has been described as the “most ambitious man alive in America,” seemed to have shot himself in the foot with his own success.

Then came 9/11. Giuliani, who himself was almost trapped in a building close to the World Trade Center as the towers collapsed, demonstrated a majestic heroism, courage and spirit. New Yorkers say that under Giuliani’s guidance, they never felt for a moment like they were a city without a government, without a plan, to rally back against the terrorist acts. Siegel’s biography exemplifies why suddenly Giuliani was a man with a golden future again.