It’s been 27 long years now, but I can still vividly remember where I was on Sept. 16, 1992 — at my pre-internet computer terminal in the New York Newsday newsroom, working on an innocuous story — when news started filtering back from breathless colleagues rising up from the No. 6 subway, that something wild was happening in lower Manhattan.
It sounded crazy — an outside-City Hall rally of 10,000 or so off-duty city cops and their friends protesting New York’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, had turned into a beer-soaked riot, an unruly mob that carried signs like “Dump the washroom attendant” and startled my New York Newsday colleague, the late columnist Jimmy Breslin, by screaming at him about an “[N-word] mayor.” But even more shocking was that at the center of the disturbance, egging on the rioters, was none other than Rudy Giuliani.
Just three years earlier, Giuliani had come within a whisper of defeating Dinkins as his Republican challenger, running on a campaign to clean out Gotham’s ungodly temple of money changers and corrupt political bosses. Yet now, as the New York Times reported shortly thereafter, Giuliani and his campaign were handing out voter registration cards to this mob for a planned 1993 rematch, and then: “At Murray Street, the crowd was less hostile but more inebriated. Beer cans and broken beer bottles littered the streets as Mr. Giuliani led the crowd in chants, using an obscenity to refer to Dinkins administration policies.”
Sept. 16, 1992, turned out to be a day of brutal foreboding for everything that was about to go wrong over the next generation. The lesson that Rudy Giuliani revealed in that riot-mongering, racist rant was that he now understood the way to get ahead in today’s America was not to punch up at the corrupt and contented wealthy but to punch down on the poor and the underprivileged. It was the opening act of a Greek tragedy right here in the United States, an epic that spanned three decades as one man’s hubris put thousands of young black men behind bars yet propelled him upward toward the melting rays of a corrupt White House and the Russian mob.
It’s easy to see last weekend’s news that the former two-term New York mayor and personal lawyer to President Donald Trump is under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York for what it undeniably is — a bombshell development on the road to what increasingly seems the inevitable impeachment of the 45th president. In recent weeks, as Giuliani’s efforts to meddle in the politics of Ukraine — with the goal of Trump’s 2020 re-election, and in cahoots with some very bad men — have come into focus, some pundits who recall it was just a dozen years ago when polls showed the New Yorker as a presidential front-runner are asking, “What the hell has happened to Rudy?”
Maybe those pundits should take a step back and ask, “What the hell has happened to America?” — because the essence of Giuliani’s downfall (youthful ideals surrendering without a fight to the lazy divide-and-conquer politics of white supremacy and the clown show of modern-TV politics, throwing away any morals at the first sighting of corrupt billionaires waving foreign currency) is the saga of America’s decline, too.
I’m old enough to have had a front-row seat for far too much of this. In 1985, I moved back to the New York area after a three-year stint in Alabama and I couldn’t turn on my AM car radio without hearing the latest glowing report about the dynamic federal prosecutor in Manhattan who was taking on New York’s unholy trinity of sacred cows — Wall Street, the mafia and the city’s corrupt cabal of Democratic bosses.
It was under Giuliani’s rule that the feds tried the daring tactic of trying New York’s mob bosses as a criminal conspiracy, and it worked. Incredibly, this happened at the same time that the most corrupt Democratic bosses imploded, with Giuliani playing a key role in sending Bronx boss Stanley Friedman up the river. In hindsight, some of this was simply that what was good for Rudy’s ego-driven ambition was also good politics, and he often stole the credit from his underlings. But at the end of the 1980s, the idea of Giuliani marching on City Hall and cleaning out the remaining rot at the top of the food chain seemed like a good idea, even to some liberals.
That’s not what happened. In 1989, racism and injustice in New York in the era of divisions mirrored by Spike Lee’s hit movie from that year, “Do The Right Thing,” trumped the corruption issue and swept the decent-if-diffident Dinkins into the mayoralty instead. Giuliani, who’d lost with a fairly honorable campaign, spurning offers of aid from the dregs of city politics, wasn’t going to make that mistake again. He’s learned the path to power was the backlash of common man white power, not locking up white-collar criminals — and the white riot of Sept. 16, 1992, was the day he revealed his new pact with the devil to the rest of the world.
Two words came to define the awfulness of Giuliani’s eight-plus years running America’s largest city: “broken windows.” This was a vague academic theory — a crackpot one, it later turned out — that the response to the unsightliness of America’s urban deindustrialization and inequity was not empathy but a new kind of police state that placed a priority on graffiti, turnstile jumpers, black pot smokers and “squeegee men” who survived by aggressively washing the windows of Manhattan’s bridge-and-tunnel tourists. The irony that Giuliani had launched his comeback atop the broken beer bottles of drunk cops was never pointed out.
I’d learned as a journalist covering Giuliani’s 1993 campaign that he now had no problem using the city’s poorest black people as political props. I’d discovered, and reported, that the GOP mayoral candidate worked with rogue, sleazy Democratic neighborhood bosses to pay homeless people to hang around polling places that Election Day in the hopes of scaring some voters away. I guess that was his cynical “broken windows” theory not of policing but politics.
Yes, crime in New York was bad at the start of the 1990s, but it had already started falling in the final years of Dinkins’ term, and thanks to demographics, the economy and different kinds of smart policing it was also dropping across the 99% of America not governed by Giuliani and his “broken windows” regime. What that policy did give Giuliani and New York City was a surge in mass incarceration, a wave of innocent black people harassed on their own streets under the soft fascism of “stop and frisk” and some stunning cases of sometimes deadly police brutality.
The quasi-occupation of New York’s black and brown neighborhoods also brought huge approval from the city’s white working class. One person who obviously absorbed the political lessons of this new brand of white supremacy was a failing Manhattan real estate developer who became fast friends with such a simpatico mayor: Donald Trump.
Yet even though New York City boomed during the era of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Giuliani was not a popular mayor near the end. His perpetually messy personal life did not help. Then came the horror of 9/11, and even the mayor’s critics can acknowledge that his display of steely resolve was welcome in the immediate aftermath. Many thought Time’s Person of the Year in 2001 could ride that renewed popularity to the White House, but when that time came six years later, he was already mired in the world he’d helped create, a world of amoral greed.
As a “consultant,” the post-mayoral Giuliani worked for the billionaire autocrats running Qatar, a wealthy outfit pushing for Iranian regime change that the U.S. government has labeled a terrorist outfit, the Canadian company advancing climate change by ramming its Keystone XL pipeline across the American heartland, and (I swear, you couldn’t make this stuff up) helping Purdue Pharma to push its painkillers and cause the opioid crisis.
In worshiping at the altar of dirty dollars, Trump time became Giuliani time as well. Was it his love of the hot cable TV lights, his bottomless need for cash to finance his still-messy personal life or their shared lack of values that formed a close bond between late-stage Rudy and such a clearly unfit president? Probably a perfect storm of all of the above — but it would be halfway around the world in Ukraine where the chickens came home to roost.
The 1985 version of Rudy might have locked up Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the Ukrainian natives turned Florida (of course) businessmen. The two men are, in essence, mob associates, reporting to U.S.-wanted fugitive and scamster Dmytro Firtash, who in turn is said to report to the world’s worst crime boss (and Vladimir Putin pal — again, of course), Semion Mogilevich. But in 2019, the mobsters are now Rudy’s clients/associates, and his logical allies to conspire to warp Ukrainian politics and corrupt the 2020 U.S. election.
Last week, not long after lunching with Giuliani at Trump’s D.C. hotel, Parnas and Fruman were arrested at Dulles Airport with one-way tickets to Vienna — an event that brought Rudy’s much-higher-profile client, Donald Trump, one step closer to impeachment. Giuliani himself was supposed to fly to Vienna the following day.
The airport drama will be a dramatic scene a few years from now when we’ve finally recovered enough to start making “All the President’s Men”-style movies about our long national nightmare. Maybe they can call the movie “Broken Windows.” Because now we know that Rudy’s beloved cops were stopping and frisking the wrong guys. It was Giuliani who was out there shattering the panes of a safe, stable democracy for his rich clients and spray painting “Ukraine Was Here!” on the sides of our voting booths while he wrung every last crooked ruble out of his dirty squeegee. Now it’s way past time for a crime-buster who lost his way to finally see what real justice looks like.
Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.