You're a Bigoted Person, Monroe
Probably the best way to see the mayor of New York City in action is not to see him at all but to hear him. Rudolph Giuliani hosts two live call-in radio shows every week. On a Friday morning in the spring of 1999, I sat in on one of the mayor’s broadcasts—WABC’s Live from City Hall.
|Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.|
The setting, the mayor’s office in city hall, is a high-ceilinged room with a chandelier, paned windows, tasteful sofas and armchairs, and a thick carpet patterned with a geometric design. It conveys just the impression of sedate and historic tastefulness that many law firms and investment banks spend a great deal of money to attain. I almost expected to see Alexander Hamilton enter the room wearing a frock coat and a powdered wig. Instead Rudy Giuliani walked in in his shirtsleeves, his thinning hair swept back over his forehead. He nodded quickly to the radio technicians in the room, then sat down at his desk, beneath a portrait of his favorite mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, slipped on a pair of earphones, and tapped the microphone, asking a technician, “You’re sure this thing is working, right?” Waiting for airtime, Giuliani glanced over papers on his desk, making notes. Giuliani’s press secretary, Sunny Mindel, sat in a chair across from him.
"I’m going to talk about the defense budget," Giuliani said to her without looking up. "Whaddya think about that?"
Mindel shook her head. "No, you don’t want to do that. Not on a Friday morning." In an aside to me, she explained that the story would be buried in the weekend newspapers.
Giuliani overheard her. He grinned, "What she’s really worried about is that she’ll get stuck here answering calls from reporters all day when she wants to get out and start her weekend early."
A technician announced that there was one minute to go. Glancing up, Giuliani noticed that I was trying to read the brass plaque on the front of his desk. "The desk was La Guardia’s," he said. "Ed Koch used to use it. Then Mayor Dinkins sent it off to Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York’s mayors. Can you believe that? I brought it back and had it raised. La Guardia was barely over four feet tall. I kept banging my knees."
The technician began the countdown. Three . . . two. . . one.
"Hello, everybody," the mayor began. "This is Rudy Giuliani speaking to you from city hall." He would get to callers in a few moments, Giuliani explained, but first there were a few items he wanted to mention. In the course of the next three minutes he discussed half a dozen topics, staring off into the room as he engaged in a staccato, stream-of-consciousness monologue.
"I’m going to talk about the defense budget," Giuliani said to his press secretary. "Whaddya think about that?"
First he was the city historian, explaining the construction taking place around city hall. "We’re restoring City Hall Park to its nineteenth-century glory," Giuliani said. When workers started turning up old objects, Giuliani had called in archaeologists. They had identified everything from minor, everyday items such as old bottles and toothbrushes to sites of major interest, including burial grounds. "The city has a history that goes back to 1625 when the Dutch first settled here. In the very early days, the character of the city was set, and the character of the city remains the same today. It’s a business city. The area of Wall Street was used for trading items way back as early as 1634 or 1635. Teachers, if you’re looking for a good field trip for your class, we’ll have a big historical display here in city hall when the construction is completed."
Next Giuliani became the city’s top sports fan. "Talking about the present, tonight the Knicks take on the San Antonio Spurs, and they’re down three games to one." The mayor told his listeners not to worry. The Knicks would end the season by winning the next three games. "It’s exactly where the Knicks want to be, with their backs against the wall. In an underdog team, it’s the only way in which they can really function." (The Knicks lost that night, ending the series.)
Next Giuliani became in effect the secretary of defense. Moving from a basketball team to the defense establishment of the entire nation, he conveyed no awareness that he had jumped from a small topic to a big one. He simply kept talking.
In a recent speech, Giuliani explained, he had mentioned that the Clinton administration had permitted the nation’s defense spending to fall to historic lows. "You know what? Somebody in the Clinton administration said my figures were wrong. So I went and checked. I was absolutely right." Reading from a memo that a member of his staff had prepared–the only time throughout the broadcast that Giuliani referred to notes–Giuliani reeled off a string of figures. "Defense spending as a proportion of GDP," he concluded, "has dropped to the lowest level since the Great Depression back in the 1930s, during the time that we were disarming after the First World War without anticipating the Second World War. So like I said, I was absolutely right."
Then Giuliani became the city’s head nurse, urging New Yorkers to donate blood to the Red Cross, which was facing a shortage of Type O supplies. He wasn’t pleasantly making a suggestion. He was barking out a civic duty. "Everybody who’s eligible should donate blood now." He had just donated blood to the Red Cross himself. "It doesn’t hurt–well, except for a little prick. It’s good for your character development anyway."
Next Giuliani took on the role of a priest, offering inspiration. He told the story of a young girl, Jamie, who was fighting a brave battle against cancer. He had been keeping his listeners posted on Jamie. "So I just wanted you to know that she graduated from the fifth grade at P.S. 91 yesterday and she’s doing just fine. She inspires all of us about how to face life and make the most of it."
The mayor tapped a pencil on his desk. Moving to the last topic before the calls, he became New York’s social director. "And now to another point, the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade on Sunday. It’s going to be a terrific parade–a great opportunity for New York to show how we are the most tolerant, the most loving, the most understanding city, in which people of different views about politics, religion, and sexual orientation can see our connection as human beings."
City Hall Park, the New York Knicks, the national defense budget, a Red Cross blood drive, a little girl fighting cancer, and the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. At first I couldn’t see anything uniting these disparate topics except the mayor’s intense nervous energy. Then I got it. Listening to Giuliani was like taking a walk down Broadway. You’d see office towers, theaters, diners, rich people, poor people, whites, blacks, Jews, and Hispanics, and all that united them would be the buzz and energy of the city. Rudy and the city, the city and Rudy. Say what you want about him, but he manages a feat that only a bravura politician could accomplish. He personifies New York.
The mayor handled the first three calls without incident. Rocco from Brooklyn, a guard in a public school, called in to complain that his superiors had transferred him to guard duty in the prison on Rikers Island. Giuliani spent a few puzzled moments trying to figure out what had happened–a school guard couldn’t have been transferred to prison duty–then told Rocco to stay on the line while Giuliani had somebody in a deputy mayor’s office talk to him. "T’anks, Mayor," Rocco said. "I t’ink you’re terrific."
Anna from Harlem complained about garbage collection. Judith from Queens complained about bus service. Giuliani had them, too, stay on the line to speak to people in a deputy mayor’s office, but not before demonstrating a detailed knowledge of the routes of the city’s garbage trucks and buses. Anna and Judith both proved effusive in their thanks. Giuliani beamed and thanked them in return.
Then came the call from Monroe in Staten Island.
Monroe informed Giuliani that the Republican leader of the Senate, Trent Lott of Mississippi, had once spoken before a white supremacist group. Monroe asked whether the Republican mayor of New York approved of Lott or would be willing to denounce him over the air. As Monroe spoke, Giuliani’s smile disappeared. His forehead creased in concern. He glanced at his press secretary, raising his eyebrows as if to ask whether she was aware of the charge against Senator Lott. His press secretary shrugged. "I don’t know anything about it," she mouthed. Giuliani shrugged back. Then he attacked.
"I get the sense that this is a setup question," Giuliani said. "I’ll tell you what, Monroe. What do you think Democrats should do about Al Sharpton?" Monroe began to accuse Giuliani of changing the subject, which Giuliani had certainly done. Giuliani cut him off.
"Monroe, Monroe, Monroe, Monroe, you are a prejudiced, bigoted person. I have nothing to do with racists of any kind. I have nothing to do with people who cause fires using the fuel of anti-Semitism [Al Sharpton once called a Jewish merchant in Harlem a "white interloper"; later, the merchant’s store was torched]. The mere fact that you don’t want to deal with it [the question about Al Sharpton] tells me you don’t want to be fair and impartial. The Republican Party has a problem with some people wanting to be involved with it who appeal to racism. The Democratic Party has people like that in it also. You’ve got to be willing to stand up against both of them. I want nothing to do with racism, and I can be clear and unambiguous about it whether it’s Republicans or Democrats. But I think you are unable to do that, Monroe. I think you use racism as a partisan tool. Now we’ll take a short break and be right back."
Monroe had asked Giuliani a legitimate question. Not only refusing to provide an answer, Giuliani had denounced Monroe for even asking. If Monroe in Staten Island hung up infuriated, he would not have been the first New Yorker to feel that way after an encounter with the mayor.
Intense, cerebral, better at discussing policy than at making small talk, Giuliani is a man less interested in making people like him than any other politician I have ever met.
"Mr. Mayor, you’ve turned this city around," I said. "Why don’t people like you more?"
Giuliani smiled and shrugged. "I just don’t know," he replied. His tone indicated that he didn’t particularly care, either.
Putting the Shine Back on the Big Apple
Born to a working-class Italian family in Brooklyn in 1944, Rudolph Giuliani attended Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, then got a bachelor’s degree from Manhattan College and a law degree from New York University. At the age of twenty-six, he joined the office of the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, and, three years later, he found himself assigned to the narcotics unit, where it was his job to go after some of the most despicable people in the world. Less than a decade later, at the age of thirty-nine, Giuliani was himself appointed United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. In his seven years in the position, he won 4,152 convictions, sending drug dealers, mafiosi, white-collar criminals, murderers, and other criminals to prison while suffering only 25 reversals.
Giuliani’s experience as a prosecutor taught him to see life simply, as a battle between the forces of good and evil. If he sometimes overreacts, treating ordinary citizens as suspects, as he did Monroe, New Yorkers appear willing to indulge him. They recognized that by 1993, when Giuliani was elected, the city needed an avenger. The mayor’s temper, his high-handedness, his penchant for going on the attack–all have earned him a dedicated corps of critics. Yet to many New Yorkers, these very traits prove that he is the right man for the job.
Since taking office Giuliani has cut the crime rate in half, the murder rate by 70 percent. True, the crime rate has fallen in other cities during the same period. But it has fallen further in New York, making the city, according to FBI statistics, the safest city of more than one million inhabitants in the country. Giuliani has enacted more than $2.3 billion in tax reductions, cutting the personal income tax, the commercial rent tax, the hotel occupancy tax, and the sales tax on clothing. Giuliani has reduced New York City’s welfare rolls by half a million, a number so big that if all the people the mayor has moved off welfare established a city of their own, it would be the twenty-seventh biggest in the nation. Since Giuliani took office, New York City has created 325,000 new jobs and seen its unemployment rate drop by almost half. If tangible accomplishments represent the measure of a politician, then Giuliani may be the most effective politician in the nation. Yet Giuliani himself is proudest of something that cannot be seen or quantified. It is the way New Yorkers think about their city.
"New Yorkers used to assume several things about the city," Giuliani said after the radio show. He slouched in an armchair across from his desk, his legs stretched out, his arms behind his head. "They assumed that it had to be dangerous, that it had to be dirty, that we were a welfare capital and we would have to stay that way, and that the city was unmanageable. That thinking is gone now."
Raised a Democrat, Giuliani explained, he became a Republican for three reasons. The first was the expansion of the welfare state. "I recognized that the alignment of the parties was changing during the 1970s, and I did not agree with the dependency philosophy that the Democratic Party was embracing, particularly in New York City. It seemed to me that the whole concept of entitlement was very, very, very destructive."
The second reason was foreign policy. "I thought that the Democratic Party, at least as represented by George McGovern and his kind of thinking, did not have an appropriate appreciation of how strong America has to be to preserve freedom and democracy," Giuliani said. "The idea that we should demilitarize, that we should underfund the military–they just didn’t recognize how dangerous the world is.
|Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.|
"The other thing I started to feel," Giuliani said, explaining his third reason for joining the GOP, "was that the lack of political competition was killing cities. I could see that this decrepit Democratic Party, which was all that existed in cities, was able to count on everybody’s votes and not have to do anything for voters in return."
In 1976, Giuliani voted for Gerald Ford, the first vote he had ever cast for a Republican. He has been a Republican ever since.
Rudy and the Squeegee Men
Giuliani makes many members of his own party uneasy. Some, particularly those close to New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki, cannot forget 1994, when Pataki was running for governor against the Democratic incumbent, Mario Cuomo. Giuliani crossed party lines to endorse Cuomo. (Asked about it now, all Giuliani will do is shrug and say, "I made a mistake.") Other Republicans object to Giuliani because he is pro-choice, pro—gun control, and, as his radio paean to the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade made clear, pro—gay rights. They would vote against him if they could. But they can’t. In New York City politics, Giuliani is as conservative a candidate as they’re likely to get.
The mayor’s temper, his high-handedness, his penchant for going on the attack—all have earned him a dedicated corps of critics. Yet to many New Yorkers, these very traits prove that he is the right man for the job.
Fixating upon Giuliani’s liberal social positions in any event misses a larger point. His central principles are inherently conservative. Limited government. Public order. Individual responsibility. He has demonstrated that acting upon these principles can transform even New York. In so doing, Giuliani has rendered Republicans a larger service than most of them realize. I didn’t realize it myself until I wandered the streets of downtown Manhattan, looking for squeegee men.
When I lived in New York City in 1990, everyone I knew believed that New York, already dirty and dangerous, was bound to get even worse, slowly decaying. The United States might defeat communism–the Berlin Wall had fallen just a year before–but cleaning up New York would prove beyond our ken.
Everyone had his favorite complaint. The garbage that piled up on street corners when the sanitation department failed to collect it. The countless porn shops clustered around Times Square. The drugs and violence in the city’s schools (a joke in my neighborhood: What’s the dress code at Julia Richman High? Skirts for the girls, handcuffs for the boys). My own favorite complaint was the squeegee men.
The squeegee men operated an extortion racket. When you stopped your car at a light, they scrawled some soap on your windshield, squirted some water over the soap, scraped your windshield with a squeegee, often making it dirtier, not cleaner. Either you rolled down your window to pay them a couple of bucks or they snapped off one of your wipers. In one sense, the squeegee men represented nothing but a petty annoyance–what was a couple of bucks from time to time? Yet in another, they proved profoundly disturbing, demonstrating that the city was lawless. If the NYPD couldn’t control a few punks in the street, what could it control?
After interviewing Mayor Giuliani this morning, I took the subway to the Canal Street stop, got out, and walked the streets near the Holland Tunnel, a favorite spot for the squeegee men, who would move among the cars that were backed up at the entrance. I knew the squeegee men were gone–I’d read that much. I still wanted to see it for myself. I walked for 20 minutes. There wasn’t a squeegee man in sight.
I may have been overreacting, I grant you. But I felt the same elation I felt the day the Berlin Wall came down. Something good had happened that only a few years before would have been unthinkable.
Giuliani solved a problem for the Republican Party. Ever since Ronald Reagan succeeded in achieving so much of his agenda, the GOP has suffered from a certain aimlessness. The Berlin Wall is down. Free markets and democracy have swept the world. Our economy is booming. What is left for Republicans to do?
But if Giuliani can cut crime in New York, Republicans can cut crime anywhere in the nation. If he can restore a sense of order and pride to New York, Republicans can restore order and pride to any city or town. You see my point. Giuliani has made the unthinkable thinkable. If millions of American children are trapped in mediocre public schools, why shouldn’t Republicans enact voucher programs to get them out? If the federal government still spends an amount equal to a full one-fifth of the GDP, why shouldn’t Republicans scale the federal government back? Or reform the tax code? Or privatize Social Security? Giuliani himself might dissent from a social agenda, but why shouldn’t Republicans reduce abortions? Or strengthen the institution of marriage?
To my mind, Rudolph Giuliani and the revival of New York do indeed rank right up there with Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Giuliani, like Reagan, has shown Republicans that their principles are more powerful than even they themselves often suppose.
As I was about to leave his office, Mayor Giuliani said there was something he wanted me to see. He stood, walked to his desk, rifled among some papers for a moment, then found what he wanted and picked it up. He showed me a bound report. "This is hilarious," Giuliani said. "You’ll love it."
The federal government, he explained, had just conducted a study of Yankee Stadium, checking it for accessibility to the disabled. The inspectors had found some three thousand instances in which Yankee Stadium failed to meet federal standards.
"Listen to this stuff," Giuliani said. He read one item after another. The path of travel out of the Yankee dugout was accessible only by steps, not a ramp, making it impossible to get a wheelchair onto the field. The dressing bench in the Yankee locker room was 45 inches long by 16 inches deep instead of the required 48 inches long and 24 inches deep. The toilets in the locker room had a seat height of 16 inches, one inch below the required 17 inches. The spout of the drinking fountain in the weight room was 42 inches off the floor instead of the required 36 inches.
On and on Giuliani read, howling with laughter. The federal bureaucrats had failed to see that although disabled people can perform many duties, including, as Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated, those of president, some duties lie outside the grasp of the disabled by their very nature, including the duties of the New York Yankees.
"The urinals are too high," Giuliani concluded, cackling. "The toilet dispenser is incorrectly mounted on the back wall of the toilet. Do you believe anybody does this? I mean, people get paid to do this."
Giuliani tossed the report back onto his desk.
"The federal government sent people here from Washington to do this. This is the stupidity they use. They are pointy-headed stupid morons! This is ridiculous! This is ridiculous!"
Rudolph Giuliani may no longer be a candidate for the Senate, but even after his second term as mayor comes to an end he will almost certainly remain active in Republican politics, helping to shape the GOP for years to come. Picturing Mayor Giuliani railing against big government—"They are pointy-headed stupid morons!"—I made my way down the marble steps of city hall. As I stepped back onto the street, I was still smiling.