The Prince of the City

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Fred Siegel’s The Prince of the City: Rudy Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life would be one of the most important histories of the past couple of years even if its subject were not running for president. The Prince of the City is the best, best-informed, and fairest account of New York’s amazing post-1994 renaissance. But the reason Siegel is about to make a million dollars out of it is that it offers powerful and unique insight into one of the leading candidates for the presidency of the United States.

Giuliani’s accomplishments as mayor almost dazzle the eye:

Crime reduced, work restored, poverty down, taxes cut, revenues increased, private home ownership up, civic spaces restored ….

and these were not coincidences, the happy result of being in the right place at the right time. Every achievement can be directly traced to a policy adopted or imposed by Giuliani, almost invariably over the vociferous objection of the city’s most powerful interest groups and influential media.

Of course, this record now takes on much more than historical significance. Giuliani leads the Republican presidential polls. Everyone wonders: What kind of president would he make? And conservatives wonder: Is he one of us?

To both these questions, Siegel offers provocative and surprising answers.

Giuliani is an intense student of government – not politics, although he cares about that too, but government: the mechanics, the institutions. Unlike George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, he is very much a details man. And unlike his own public image, he is by many accounts a surprisingly open-minded and flexible decision-maker – that is, up to the point at which the decision is made.

“Bruce Bender, the right-hand man for the Council Speaker, Democrat Peter Vallone, says that during their weekly meetings, ‘Rudy was a good listener. He would ask tough, to-the-point questions. But if you challenged him, if you made a strong argument backed up with evidence, he would change his mind even if that went against what his staff had recommended.’” (108-109)

He loves data and numbers, relished dissecting some iconic program by proving that it did not deliver value for taxpayer dollars.

He worried about value: Giuliani never suggested there was anything noble or uplifting about paying taxes. As he constantly put it in his first years in office: Taxes were the price of living in NewYork; the city’s quality of life was the product provided by New York. For years, New York had been raising its prices while degrading its product. No wonder the customers were fleeing. That unemotive way of talking and thinking repelled New York’s liberals. They vibrated instead to the rhapsodies of New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who insisted that there was something almost ennobling about the act of paying for government – and something coarse and vulgar about questioning what the taxpayer got in return. But of course Giuliani is no liberal.

On the other hand, as Siegel reminds us, neither was Giuliani a consistent conservative. He found kind words to say about rent controls during his 1997 re-election campaign – a point of view not supported (to put it mildly!) by either the data or the numbers. He championed school vouchers, but also supported Bill Clinton’s gun control laws. He had shed his early prolife views well before he ran for the mayor’s office the first time, back in 1989.

Siegel calls Giuliani “an immoderate centrist,” and that’s as good a label as any.

Giuliani was passionately committed to public order as his first and most fundamental cause. He identified with homeowners, middle-class people, taxpayers, workers. One of his mottoes was: “a single standard for a single city.” Before Giuliani, it had long been tacitly accepted that certain New Yorkers were exempted from the norms that applied to others.

Siegel tells a story of a raid on a Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem, early in the mayoralty. The NOI had phoned in a false alarm, summoning police to a third-floor space that was not in any way marked as a place of worship. When the cops arrived, NOI thugs jumped them and threw them down the stairs. In the scuffle, the NOI seized a gun and a police radio.

Police cars arrived on the scene and surrounded the mosque. But it had long been city policy to be vry very wary of confrontations with the Black Muslims. Giuliani saw the precinct commander’s hesitation and demanded: “You have officers injured. You have stolen police property. Why aren’t you going in?” That sent a signal. The Nation of Islam got the message too: The property was returned, and the culprits were handed over.

Giuliani often said that he wanted to make New York “more like America.” This irritated and offended some New Yorkers who accused him of over-sanitizing the city. But he was instinctively recognized as a friend and protector by millions of others, who recognized that the mayor upheld authority not for its own sake, but in order to protect people like them from disorder and violence. Toward the end of the book, Siegel offers this little vignette of what Giuliani meant to the people of the city.

“One sign of the change came on Kings Highway in Brooklyn. An elderly lady waiting at a bus stop watched as a group of young teens were throwing pebbles at passing cars. The lady turned to the kids and said, “You better stop that or Rudy is going to get you. The boys, startled for a moment, thought about it, dropped their pebbles, and walked away.”

You often hear it said that Giuliani had lost public confidence on the eve of September 11. That’s not what the numbers show. In the last weeks before the terrorist attack, his approval rating stood at 55%.

Still, no question much of the city’s elite despised both Giuliani’s middle-class vision for the study – and also his often ferocious methods for realizing that vision.

One of the grim pleasures of this book is to be reminded of how very wrong Giuliani’s critics were. One of my favorite examples: Elizabeth Kolbert, who now writes apocalyptically alarmist articles for the New Yorker on how the world is remorselessly warming itself into a convection oven, previously covered city politics for the New York Times. She is quoted at length here ridiculing Giuliani for building a counter-terrorism command and control center – or “bunker” as the critics called it in those days when Giuliani’s concern over terrorism was considered by many only as further proof of his fascist tendencies.

Giuliani had taken the 1993 World Trade Center bombing very much to heart, and he had made emergency preparedness a major priority, drilling the city’s police and fire deparments over and over – absorbing lessons from the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system – and taking warning too from the foiled plot to attack New York tunnels and monuments.

These preparations did not thwart 9/11 of course. But they helped ensure that evacuation and emergency response moved with surprising efficiency. If Giuliani on that day showed sympathy, compassion, courage, and every warm and admirable human quality, he owed much of his splendid self-possession to the tough-minded realism that had long sensed that some such terrible day was coming. Perhaps that is why so many conservatives instinctively recognize Giuliani as one of their own. But why rely on instinct when expert knowledge is available between the covers of Fred Siegel’s once again timely and indispensable book?

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