The Magazine

The Prince of New York

Rudolph Giuliani's legacy

Aug 21, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 46 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Seven years ago, New York City under Mayor David Dinkins stood on the edge of social and economic breakdown. Elected in 1989 as a symbol of racial healing, Dinkins conducted a largely symbolic mayoralty. Put in power by liberals whose exhausted policy program had been replaced by identity politics, he had no agenda and no idea how to govern.

Dinkins carried himself with such dignity that it was hard for his supporters to believe things could go bad under such a decent man. He was like the ruler, described by Machiavelli, who "never preaches anything except peace and good faith; and he is an enemy of both." While Dinkins dedicated his days to projecting his nobility at ceremonial events, the city was losing 330,000 jobs, and 60 percent of the population was looking to leave.

No one then could have anticipated that the late 1990s would be the best of times for Gotham.

A good way to understand New York's recent rebirth is to think of Rudy Giuliani as a Renaissance prince who revives his republic with more than a touch of Machiavelli's "corrupt wisdom." This is not merely a matter of Giuliani's famously Florentine looks (though his rectangular head and features look as though they had been copied from a tapestry). The problem Machiavelli sets out to solve in The Prince is how to resuscitate his beloved Florence, which has been laid low by feckless leadership, a cowed populace, and a military made up of mercenaries who (like the NYPD under Dinkins) were unwilling to act in the defense of the city's interests.

For his solution, Machiavelli turned to the forgotten virtues of the classical world: discipline, courage, and fortitude in adversity. Giuliani, derided by the New York Times as "A Wonder Bread Son of the 1950s," has been New York's prince: He has recalled the city to an older set of virtues -- enterprise, individual obligation, and self-discipline -- that had been lost since the 1960s mayoralty of John Lindsay. Even his favorite aphorism, "I'd rather be respected than loved," is a play on Machiavelli's "It is better to be feared than loved."

Giuliani was never much of a politician. In three tries, he has yet to run a passably good campaign. He came to power in 1993 only because of emergency conditions like those that faced Machiavelli's Florence. Crime didn't rise much in the Dinkins years, it just stayed unbearably high; what was on the rise was a pervasive sense of menace. Lars-Erik Nelson, a liberal columnist for the Daily News, explained that "when you take your children to a public playground and find that a mental patient has been using the sandbox as a toilet, it is normal to say, 'Enough! I'm leaving.'" When Marcia Kramer, a TV reporter, confronted Dinkins with the fact that aggressive panhandlers had driven her to the suburbs, Dinkins's response was, "Sorry you left us. Sorrier still that we can't raise your personal income tax."

Dinkins wasn't joking about taxes. Like an earlier one-term mayoral hack, Abe Beame, he responded to the national recession by raising taxes on slow-moving targets in order to shield his public-sector constituency. While the sanitation department issued a blizzard of fines against small businessmen, the consumer affairs, buildings, and sheriff's offices initiated a ticket blitzkrieg against small businesses and delivery trucks. But Dinkins's finest shakedown came when gun-toting sheriffs made raids on supermarkets and grabbed money from the cash registers to pay dubious littering fines. The bureaucracy was literally feeding off the city.

By 1992, 80 percent of all the business income taxes collected by local governments in America, and 25 percent of all the personal income taxes, were being collected by the city of New York alone.

Of course, as a result, New York, all by itself, accounted for 25 percent of the jobs lost nationally in the early 1990s recession -- a recession that had been deepened for the entire United States by Dinkins's insistence on higher taxes in the teeth of the downturn.

These huge tax increases produced declining revenues, and the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Governor Mario Cuomo talked of reactivating the Financial Control Board which had been created during New York City's near bankruptcy of the 1970s. (Dinkins in turn threatened to "bring in Jesse Jackson and make this a real black-white thing.")