I wrote speeches and did a little policy work, mostly on education, for then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani from 1997 to 2001. In those years, it was a fact I shared with some hesitation at parties. My friends, overwhelmingly liberal recent college grads, seemed to think I’d lost my bearings.
I typically responded that I agreed with about half of what the mayor was up to, and it tended to be the more important half: He was professionalizing policing in a city that still wrestled with major crime problems, weaning people off chronic welfare dependency, trying to replace an unresponsive public school bureaucracy with accountable leadership and more.
I had plenty of misgivings. There was his handling of race relations, especially the excruciating police killing of Patrick Dorismond; his withering attacks on his “jerky” enemies (since one of the things I wrote was his weekly radio address, I was in the room when, on live radio, he aimed his withering scorn at a passionate fan of ferrets); his strange obsessions like trying to force heroin addicts to quit cold turkey rather than relying on methadone; and his crazy crusade against the Brooklyn Museum for supposedly smearing Catholics, an especially tough one for me to defend as, um, the child of an art historian.
But I was a Giuliani staffer and, at times, proud of it. Which is why I’m among those especially depressed by Rudy’s long Trump-era unraveling, which of late has gone from merely pathetic to bathetic. He has climbed up the ladder to the highest platform, dived into the deep end of a fetid pool of manufactured election conspiracy theories, and belly-flopped on the surface of the water for all to see.
I would repeat his inanities to mock them, but that would risk giving them more credence than they deserve. The years have been as cruel to Rudy as Rudy has been to them; he entered the Trump echo chamber some time ago and now appears physically incapable of sensing anything outside it.
Sure, there were signs of slippage in his mayoralty and post-mayoralty, but I honestly never expected him to fall this low, because among Giuliani’s strengths were his unwillingness to suffer fools, his reliance on an inner compass, his rejection of easy answers from the right wing and left wing alike. At his core, he never seemed like anyone’s lemming.
Sure, the mayor always had a tendency to inflate numbers — he had this tic of saying an almost true statistic, then following it for effect with two, three or four numbers that were even further from reality. But he also had a willingness to speak truths that others in this often reflexively liberal city shied away from, such as the fact that unclean streets and parks and seemingly low-level crimes could be major irritants to the general public, irritants that demanded an effective government response. Meantime, he championed strong gun laws and a humane approach to immigration, against the tide of the party with which he identified.
All along, he believed, with some justification, that the press and establishment pols of New York City were ideologically lazy and almost hard-wired to go against him, while the people were often with him. Culturally, that made him a mini-Trump, gleefully shredding the dominant dogma to the thrall of his supporters.
Like many former Giuliani staffers, I’ve written critically of Rudy. He absolutely deserves it. But I also understand why some people hesitate.
In leading an administration made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents, Giuliani did a lot of good.
He was personally decent to those who worked for him; you can’t say that about some politicians. In the daily course of business, I made plenty of mistakes, as I still do, and can’t recall being berated after doing so. I remember him treating me with respect, and I saw him do the same to others in his orbit, no matter what job they did.
During my time in City Hall, my father had to have a serious operation. I had no reason to believe the mayor was even aware of it. He called me during recovery and wished my family well. That kind of decency breeds a lasting sense of loyalty.
And though invoking Giuliani’s leadership of the city after the Sept. 11 attack is now likely to elicit an eye roll due to how many times he and his boosters have invoked it — a typical Giuliani sentence was a noun, verb and 9/11, said Joe Biden back in 2007 — I saw him run meetings in those days. His command was impressive. He listened and he made decisions, and he communicated to the public with clarity and calm, and all of that made a real difference.
For all of that, I was grateful and remain so.
As with so many politicians and people, Giuliani’s strengths were his weaknesses. His allies magnified his achievements; his foes overstated his defects, and his actions over the Trump years in particular have made it harder to look past those defects when considering his past accomplishments. His legacy was very much debatable as of 2010 or 2015. As of 2020, forever tarnished by Trump and Trumpism, it’s sad and bleak, a damned spot that will not come out.
Josh Greenman is the New York Daily News editorial page editor. E-mail: email@example.com.