Leonard Quart: Urban tough guy turned fear-monger


NEW YORK >> What happened to Rudy Giuliani?

I remember him as a New York mayor who by his second term had become increasingly vindictive, ruthless, and graceless, a dour authoritarian personality, without a touch of subtlety. A mayor, who in the name of constructing a more "civilized" New York, launched campaigns against street peddlers and artists, cab drivers, jaywalkers, bicycle riders and sex shops. The campaigns were characteristic of his aggressively tactless, though in some cases justified, approach to social disorder.

Giuliani served two terms in office from 1994 to 2001, and no matter how alienating he was, those years saw him achieve some successes as mayor. One may ask if Giuliani's law and order policies were the prime reason that most New Yorkers were now living in a much safer city. However, the fact was that he was the person in power when the city became more civil and controlled, and when it exuded a greater sense of well-being than it had done for at least two decades.

He also deserves some credit for the city's economic turnaround during his tenure, by cutting unemployment by half, taxes by 17 per cent, and attracting many more tourists to a more secure, cleaner and inviting city.

Contempt for liberties

At the same time, Giuliani's prime commitment to establishing order meant it always took precedence over the right to dissent and to civil liberties, which one felt he had implicit contempt for. There were 12 lawsuits against the Giuliani administration that concerned free-speech issues, and the plaintiffs won all the cases, He even extended his draconian rule by banning his political opponents from holding news conferences on City Hall's steps.

Giuliani's efforts at crime and social control also involved alienating large numbers of New Yorkers through overbearing police tactics in minority neighborhoods--that included constant searches of black and Hispanic youth; and ruthless, random displays of police force, such as the reckless gunning down of an innocent young man, Amadou Diallo, and the barbaric beating of a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima.

Giuliani's main theme and obsession was dealing with crime. But he also appealed to his white working class and lower middle class base by cutting off federal food stamps from the poor whenever possible, slashing funding for homeless shelters and housing construction, and framing new welfare requirements that made it so difficult for many of the city's poor to find work that they dropped off the welfare rolls.

On other issues like education, the long-awaited completion of the Second Avenue subway line, and utilizing the city's waterfront for recreation and new neighborhoods, Giuliani did close to nothing. When it came to dealing with state legislature he supported their abolition of the city commuter tax, and remained passive while the legislature severely limited the city's rent control statutes.

Giuliani was mayor without a transcendent vision, conservative or liberal, of what the city could become. He understood that New Yorkers at a minimum wanted to live lives that seemed manageable and see that services were efficiently delivered, and he succeeded.

When it came to 9/11, Giuliani was able to calmly and skillfully rally the city through the most apocalyptic tragedy in its history. He may have whitewashed his own mistakes in dealing with the tragedy, but he built his future career as an expert on national security on his firmness and strength during that calamitous time.

After that he started giving speeches on global terrorism (not his area of expertise), and made a failed run for president in 2008, ending up with only one delegate after spending $50 million. Some Republicans spoke of his being too liberal on social issues like gun control, gay and abortion rights, and immigration reform. Giuliani, however, saw where his political opportunities lay, and abruptly turned his politics to the right.

That brings us to his bellowing, arm flailing, and hyperbolic performance at the 2016 Republican Convention. His high decibel talk centered on how to keep America safe, with his mayoralty in New York being the model: "What I did for New York, Donald Trump will do for America." Giuliani's police could at times be brutal, but his police chief William Bratton successfully tracked crime with daily computer statistics and used other sophisticated strategies, none that have applicability in fighting international terrorism.

Giuliani also delivered a partisan homage to that decent "good man" Donald Trump, and playing the panic card foreshadowed what Trump would say on the convention's last night: "The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe. They fear for their children."

Tough talk, half-truths

He then got on to the red meat of the speech — a tough-talking attack on the weakness of Obama, on Hillary Clinton's supposedly nefarious role in Benghazi, on the need to undo the Iran deal, and on a commitment to unconditional victory over ISIS ("You know who you are, and we're coming to get you"), a meaningless rhetorical flourish that the Republican delegates wildly applauded.

Giuliani's speech consisted of one half-truth and distortion of fact following another, invoking "secure borders" and the threat of Syrian immigrants (so far we have accepted only 1,285 new refugees out of the 10,000 we have agreed to take in). It was a pedestrian and repetitive speech that Giuliani tried to make more significant with his feverish tone and forceful gesticulation.

That night, Giuliani had turned himself into a right wing version of 1930s Jimmy Cagney — an urban tough guy who instead of snarling at cops, makes liberals the subject of his venom.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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