Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Guiliani excelled as a crisis manager. But what about the rest of the time? Why the former NYC mayor’s temperament makes him a risky pick for pres
Alter: The Trouble with Rudy’s Temperament

Guiliani excelled as a crisis manager. But what about the rest of the time? Why the former New York City mayor’s temperament makes him a risky pick for president.

By Jonathan Alter

Feb. 6, 2007 - Over the last decade, I’ve seen both good Rudy and bad Rudy up close. The question for voters as he enters the presidential campaign is: which Rudy Giuliani will show up on the trail—and which Rudy would go to work in the White House? And if even a little of the bad Rudy is still around, does that make him temperamentally unsuited to the presidency?

The good Giuliani was a tough and highly effective mayor of New York from 1993 until 2001. He whipped the city into shape after some of the worst years in its history (though it should be noted that crime rates in other cities were plummeting at the same time). Like millions of New Yorkers in the 1980s, I often awoke to find the sidewalks in front of my apartment littered with crack vials. After Giuliani showed up, we began to feel safe almost anywhere. That means a lot.

The world got to know the good Rudy after 9/11. On the day after the terrorist attack, I attached myself to the Giuliani high command and covered him nearly every day for the next two weeks. He was every bit as strong as legend has it: calm, commanding and compassionate. I traveled with him to Ground Zero on Sept. 14—when President Bush famously wielded the bullhorn on the pile of rubble—and on four subsequent visits with dignitaries. I interviewed him several times, and the results cast him in such a glowing light in NEWSWEEK that the Reader’s Digest reprinted one of the stories in a collection about heroes. In my own small way, I helped make the myth.

So why am I so worried about him as president? Why do I think it’s Giuliani, not John McCain, who may have a problem with the Big T—temperament?

The story of the bad Rudy has, in retrospect, been oversimplified. There’s reference to his poor relations with the black community and his mishandling of the 1999 Amadou Diallo case, in which police fired 41 shots at an unarmed African immigrant. The truth is, Al Sharpton was hardly alone in his contempt for Giuliani. Most New Yorkers were horrified, not by his defense of the police, but by the arrogant and astonishingly tone-deaf way in which he handled himself. His ridiculously thin skin and mile-wide mean streak were not allegations made by whiners and political opponents. They were traits widely known to his supporters. Which is why, if you ask Giuliani backers in New York City who was the better mayor—Giuliani or Mike Bloomberg—I’d wager that a strong majority would say Bloomberg.

I recall going over to Gracie Mansion in this period to interview the mayor. I asked him why he had not even spoken to C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, for more than two years. (Fields’s experience was hardly unique among elected officials in New York.). “What’s there to talk about?” Giuliani said petulantly.

This is not a minor thing. It’s not like stiffing Sharpton. It’s like the president of the United States saying, “What’s there to talk about?” with the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. Any good politician knows how to reach out. Giuliani was acting like a prosecutor, which is no big surprise. The question is whether a prosecutorial and authoritarian approach is right for the highest office.

It’s a good bet that Giuliani would be a strong commander in chief. If terrorists attacked again, he would know what to do. But how about the next month? And the month after that? The president is more than a crisis manager. He’s also the defender of the Constitution and the leader of his party. He holds a moral and intensely political position that calls for great skills of conciliation. If FDR had a famously “first-class temperament,” how should we describe Rudy’s? Third-class?

Of course it’s always possible there’s a “New Rudy.” He once told me that his experience with prostate cancer had changed him. But we saw a “New Nixon” in 1968 and a “New Gore” in 2000 and we all know what they looked like. It’s hard to change who you really are, except around the margins.

Based on the polls, Rudy Giuliani is now the front runner for the GOP nomination. He could very well be president. Instead of obsessing endlessly over whether social conservatives will scrutinize his record closely enough to see that he is not one of them, we should be debating what kind of president Giuliani—or any of the rest of them—would actually make. Let’s begin by talking about temperament.