The Magazine

Follow a Leader

Rudy Giuliani proved that New York can be governed.

Jul 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 42 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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The Prince of the City

Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life

by Fred Siegel

Encounter, 386 pp., $26.95

FOR BETTER OR WORSE, we live in an era of political celebrities. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all possess outsized public profiles that transcend narrow political affiliations. One of these celebrity politicians is former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Dubbed "America's Mayor," Giuliani emerged from 9/11 as a symbol of national strength and resilience. Now out of office, Giuliani commands enormous fees as he travels the country speaking about leadership. The man who, a decade ago, endorsed liberal Democrat Mario Cuomo for governor now finds himself a leading contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

As with most celebrities, a myth props up this image. The narrative arc is that of a crime-fighting mayor who made New York safe, but wore out his welcome with personal scandals and a number of racially polarizing incidents. Then, in the waning days of his administration, Giuliani was resurrected by September 11th. Though there is some truth to the myth, Fred Siegel reminds us that not only is there much more to Rudy Giuliani than 9/11, but the former mayor's actions on that horrible day were no mere fluke. In The Prince of the City Siegel offers a detailed portrait of a politician who helped reshape politics during the 1990s while holding down the nation's second-toughest job.

New York has long been home to moderate-to-liberal Republicans. We associate the term "Rockefeller Republicanism" with a kind of "liberalism-lite" for the upper-middle-class Northeast. This kind of "moderation" is often equated with "squishiness," or a lack of conviction, bringing to mind Theodore Roosevelt's classic put-down of William McKinley, that the then-president had the spine of a chocolate éclair. Rudy Giuliani is no Rockefeller Republican. According to Siegel, he represents a different type of moderate: a "hard-charging moderate" or "immoderate centrist." (Siegel could also be describing his own political ideology.) Both Giuliani and Siegel prove that there are more than yellow lines and dead armadillos in the middle of the road.

Unlike Rockefeller Republicans, these tough-minded moderates often come from working-class backgrounds. They are not blindly antigovernment. They believe government has a role in assuring the upward mobility of its citizens, but abhor fiscal irresponsibility. They praise immigration, but are skeptical of multiculturalism and racial grandstanding. They might not pass the social conservative litmus test, but are culturally conservative on issues of civility and public order. And they are nothing if not hawks on national security.

During the 1990s, this kind of moderation was in fashion. Ronald Reagan had shifted the national dialogue to the right. The last-gasp liberalism of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as represented in New York by Mayor David Dinkins and nationally by the "peace dividend" crowd, was fading fast. The Democratic Leadership Council was ascendant, and the word "triangulation" was about to enter the nation's political vocabulary. Everyone became obsessed with Reagan Democrats and thought blue-collar Macomb County, Michigan, was the Rosetta Stone of American politics. The prominence of Ross Perot gave rise to the term "the radical middle." David Osborne and Ted Gaebler's Reinventing Government, once touted by Al Gore in his days, tried to move Democrats away from a reflexively big government philosophy. From Indianapolis to Jersey City to Detroit to Chicago to Cleveland to Milwaukee, a new breed of moderate, nonideological mayors--black and white, Republican and Democrat--tried to push cities beyond the failed policies of the past.

The most interesting story of the decade was the revitalization and renewal of New York City. For years, it was said that New York and other cities were victims of vast structural problems, which they were helpless to change. Federal tax policies, highway subsidization, "redlining," racism, "Reagan budget cuts," poverty, and deindustrialization all helped imprison cities in perpetual decline. According to this theory, no elected official could be held responsible for the urban crisis. Such thinking revealed a deeply pessimistic strain to modern liberalism. Whereas an earlier liberalism championed the power of government to solve problems and improve society, now not only were some government policies being blamed for the urban crisis, but the structural theory seemed to deny the power of government officials to do anything about it.