Sunday, March 04, 2007

Wrong Time for An Urban Cowboy?
Alter: Wrong Time for An Urban Cowboy?
His lead in the polls makes sense, but Giuliani's leadership style is out of sync with history's pendulum.
By Jonathan Alter

March 12, 2007 issue - Presidential elections are said to be about the future, but they also end up as verdicts on the past. Voters often reject the type of leadership they have recently experienced. In 1960, young JFK was the antidote to dowdy Ike. In 1976, Jimmy ("I'll never lie to you") Carter campaigned to wipe away the stain left by Richard Nixon. In 1980, sunny Ronald Reagan tapped into disgust with the malaise of the Carter years. In 2000, George W. Bush took on not just Al Gore, but Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

The reason the 2008 campaign favors Democrats—at least for now—is that Bush has failed so badly that the next president may be the one who resembles him least. Job One in 2009 will be reviving the prestige of the United States, which is a prerequisite for confronting nuclear threats, jihadists, climate change—you name it—none of which can tackled by Americans acting alone.

So to be effective, Bush's successor must be a tough-minded but flexible and humble chief executive with a talent for building bridges, not burning them. For instance, preventing terrorism is less a matter of war than a subtle diplomatic challenge involving international coordination and a convincing projection of Western values. It's a group activity, which means that the next commander in chief will need a Tom Sawyer-like skill in getting other kids in the global neighborhood to paint the fence. This requires charm and leadership.

Which brings us to Rudy Giuliani. On one level, his consistent lead in the polls makes perfect sense. The trauma of 9/11 still moves through the national bloodstream like a time-release capsule. For many Americans, it was the most significant public event of their lifetimes. If Gen. William Henry Harrison could be elected in 1840 on the strength of his victory over Indian "terrorists" at the Battle of Tippecanoe three decades earlier, the cataclysmic events of 2001 might yet make "America's Mayor" president, whatever his views on other issues.

But from a different angle, Giuliani's leadership style seems out of sync with history's pendulum. Why would voters want to replace a my-way-or-the-highway Texan with a shut-up-and-listen New Yorker? Exchange a Crawford cowboy for an urban cowboy? A woman, African-American, Hispanic, Mormon or Vietnam POW would represent a sharper break from the immediate past.

Not that Giuliani is a Bush clone. He performed in slashing crime and helping to save New York. But Rudy was often petulant and polarizing. To give just one example (minor in itself, but revealing): he broke diplomatic relations with the Manhattan borough president, Virginia Fields, because she dared to criticize him. (Giuliani was feuding with Harlem politicians at the time.) When, amid a racial crisis in the city, I went to Gracie Mansion to ask him how he could refuse to speak for more than two years to the highest-ranking African-American in town, he scoffed that there was no point.

Of course, such detail about his fitness for the give-and-take of the presidency is too nuanced to be a campaign issue. So is the dictatorial way he dealt with local dissent. Unless his temper explodes on the trail, which is not as likely as his detractors predict, we probably won't squarely face the question of whether America is Ready for Petty. The more that liberal New Yorkers warn Republicans in the rest of the country about Giuliani, the more those Republicans will bond with him. The mayor once described by Jimmy Breslin as "a small man in search of a balcony" has found one, and with lots of people standing in rapt attention below.

Including me. In the days after 9/11, I went with Giuliani five times to Ground Zero and to the funerals of several firefighters. Up close, his compassion and calm command were every bit as impressive as advertised. I fell hard for him and what he was doing for New York and the country. Too hard. When he said it was "cynical" to believe he should leave office at the end of his term—nearly four months after 9/11—I bought his argument for an extension. I was fearful enough to write that he had "practical reasons" for moving in an extraconstitutional direction amid the emergency. When cooler heads than mine prevailed, he eventually backed down on that idea, as well as his insistence on changing the city constitution so he could run for a third term.

Rudy was a good mayor in many ways, but his appeal now is based on fear. When terrorists attack again, we'd want him at the helm for the first few weeks. But after that? Even the most skeptical among us might bend too easily to his will, with frightening consequences. As Giuliani moves toward the big prize, voters will have to look closely at how his history and character could condition his behavior in the White House, where past is always prologue.