Mayor Rudy Goes Loony; Landslide Win Brings a Case of Power Fever

Call it a severe case of landslide psychosis.

Barely three months have passed since Rudolph Giuliani raised his fists in triumph after becoming the first Republican Mayor since Fiorello La Guardia to win a second term. The victory offered Mr. Giuliani an open invitation to use his heavy-handed style to impose a new order, political and otherwise, on the city. Bold initiatives and sweeping breaks with the past seemed just a press conference away.

But in recent weeks, the news from City Hall suggests a distinctly unambitious agenda: We’ve witnessed petty feuds with imagined enemies, mean-spirited swipes at ghosts from the Mayor’s political past and stubbornly narrow policy initiatives. Mr. Giuliani’s most recent antics have been more than just the usual political theater. The fight over the Grammy Awards, the suggestion that David Dinkins should be “embarrassed to show his face,” the labeling of critics of midtown pedestrian barricades as “hysterical” and “anti-car,” even the ridiculous flap over the rightful ownership of Winnie the Pooh, suggest that the Mayor’s mania for control, his obsession with order and his elevated sense of mission-magnified and distorted by his smashing victory-may have gotten the better of him.

There’s no question that Mr. Giuliani’s larger-than-life flaws have long been on display, and in fact have been considered part of his charm. Even critics will concede that he is a vibrant character, a man done in primary colors. That said, the Mayor’s recent behavior has been so over the top as to border on self-parody: If you were trying to satirize Mr. Giuliani, you’d probably get a few laughs with a routine involving a mayoral campaign against, say, jaywalking.

Except, of course, that the self-parody is, in fact, city policy.

Some no doubt believe that this sort of thing will do nothing to erode Mr. Giuliani’s popularity. Others, more concerned with the serious side of government and politics, see Mr. Giuliani’s recent crusades and outbursts as an inexplicable squandering of his mandate, even a potential threat to his presumed aspirations for higher, perhaps even national, office.

“A Republican winning that kind of mandate in a traditionally liberal Democratic city has given him an enormous confidence,” said Fred Siegel, a historian at Cooper Union and a onetime informal adviser to the Mayor. “Does that sense of being emboldened lead to big policy initiatives, or does it dribble away in splenetic outbursts? I don’t know the answer to that.”

Mr. Giuliani certainly wouldn’t be the first leader to wobble a bit after inhaling the intoxicating fumes of electoral success. Big election victories usually are mind-altering. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 romp over Alf Landon led him to try to pack the Supreme Court and turn it into an extension of the executive branch. (It failed.) Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 triumph over Barry Goldwater led him to escalate the American presence in Vietnam without asking Congress to declare war.

“There’s a kind of arrogance of power associated with enormous victories-a loss of sensitivity to nuances of public opinion,” said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of No Ordinary Time , a biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Former Mayor Edward Koch knows a little something about the disorienting effects of popular affirmation-he won re-election in 1981 with the support of the Democratic and Republican parties. “[Being Mayor] is the greatest honor that New York can bestow: You’re the person who will lead us,” said Mr. Koch. “Hubris always creeps in. You buy your own act. It’s a heady experience to be Mayor of the City of New York, and you [need] a governor in your own head that says: ‘Hold it, stop, think.’

Grammys? Who Needs the Grammys?

Clearly, Mr. Giuliani now believes he can do anything. He can eradicate drugs, replace the Grammys with three-count ’em, three-awards shows, and force New Yorkers to walk in right angles. He can do this because, in his own mind, anyway, he already has performed miracles. All he needs to do is identify a scourge, invoke his past successes (always taking care to note that the ubiquitous “they” said it couldn’t be done) and turn up the volume.

Perhaps he has had good reason to be arrogant. In the last days of the campaign, Mr. Giuliani’s pollster, Frank Luntz, conducted internal tracking research, obtained by The Observer , that asked voters if they agreed with the following scenario: “Just as he brought down crime, if Rudy Giuliani gives his personal commitment, he can greatly reduce illegal drug use in our cities, neighborhoods and schools.” Seventy-two percent of those polled agreed. This is in part a testament to the power of vanity polling-note the “just as he brought down crime”-but it is also an undeniable reflection of the Mayor’s popular mandate. If seven out of 10 people buy this bit of self-promotion, why shouldn’t he?

But if landslide psychosis led Roosevelt to imperil his mandate by treating the Constitution as a series of mere suggestions, Mr. Giuliani is devoting a good deal of time and energy to a new and useless round of personal squabbles. The Mayor, of course, always has been prone to ill-tempered outbursts. But in the past, he launched assaults that resonated with the public, choosing his targets with care: United Nations “diplo-brats,” squeegeemen, panhandlers, overfed bureaucrats.

Lately, though, New Yorkers have been witnessing the spectacle of Rudy Giuliani Unbound. The more recent attacks seem to have no political rationale. When the Mayor heard that Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, had cursed out a member of his staff, he did something no other Mayor in recent memory has done: He basically challenged the man to a fight. “Abuse me and see if you get away with it,” he said. All that was missing was a chest thump. It was as though Mr. Giuliani had mistaken his collection of crime-fighting medals and bureaucratic scalps for a World Wrestling Federation championship belt. The New York Times recently called the Mayor’s anger “paternal.” Paternal ? What kind of childhood did those Times reporters have, anyway?

Holy Mackerel!

Mr. Giuliani also outdid himself with his blistering attack on Mr. Dinkins, a gentle and courtly soul. When Mr. Dinkins voiced his displeasure with the Mayor’s behavior over the Grammys, Mr. Giuliani failed, even more miserably than usual, to take the high road. Asked about Mr. Dinkins’ criticism at a presentation of the Mayor’s Management Report, Mr. Giuliani stepped away from his backdrop of sober charts (which boasted, among other things, that Mr. Giuliani’s crusade to kick the Mafia out of the Fulton Fish Market had succeeded in cutting the price of mackerel) and let fly. The mayoral cranium seemed to swell with rage.

“He was Mayor of the city when record numbers of murders took place, jobs left the city,” Mr. Giuliani said. “If I had his record, I’d be kind of embarrassed to even show my face. He is a constant critic. It almost gets to the point of being boring now.”

Even a standard photo-op stunt like the previous week’s phony flap over a Member of Parliament’s request that Winnie the Pooh be returned to England provoked a surreal moment, steeped in the ooze of Mr. Giuliani’s self-regard. Preparing to read to children from a Pooh story, “In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump,” Mr. Giuliani did his best imitation of Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as It Gets by donning gloves to handle the stuffed bear. Strange, but cute. But then the Mayor’s ever-vigilant handlers added a gooey dollop of self-promotion. They released a statement attributing comments lauding the city as the “capital of the world” and even trumpeting the city’s drop in crime to the heretofore apolitical Pooh.

Some blame Mr. Giuliani’s recent conduct on the city’s new term-limits law, which makes Mr. Giuliani New York’s first official lame-duck mayor. The Mayor no longer needs to tailor his outbursts to one voting bloc or another. “You’re liberated,” said City Council member Walter McCaffrey, a Democrat from Queens, of the lack of accountability. “It feels good. He’s now free to do that which he believes is right without the glance to the side to see what is politically astute.” In short, Rudy is free to be Rudy, or to play Rudy to the hilt.

“It is incorrectly said that the most omnipotent person in the world is a sea captain,” said the Republican consultant Jay Severin. “The first is a Mayor of New York not facing re-election. And I’m not suggesting a Captain Queeg connection.”

Perhaps he isn’t. Still, it might be wise for Mr. Giuliani to consider his fiery reputation if he harbors aspirations to run for Senate, Governor or even President. The Mayor’s famed booting of Yasir Arafat out of a United Nations ceremony had already raised concerns about Mr. Giuliani’s diplomatic skills. But now that the Mayor is threatening an official with the Grammys, it’s a bit scary to imagine how Commander in Chief Giuliani might react if some tinpot dictator made a passing reference to Yankee devils in Washington, D.C. It makes you wonder if we have enough smart bombs to cover every possible insult.

“Here’s a guy who can say, ‘I took over New York,'” said William Kristol, the Republican strategist who is editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard . “That is a terrifically powerful story. [But] I think, generally speaking, Americans don’t want to elect a President who seems really short-tempered, really thin-skinned and occasionally petty … He’s a hardheaded and disciplined guy. I don’t see why he couldn’t toughen his skin up. But judging what I hear from my friends in New York, he hasn’t started doing that yet.”

On Inauguration Day, one of the coldest days of this otherwise mild winter, the Mayor stood at a podium overlooking City Hall Park and promised hordes of shivering supporters (the wimps wrapped themselves in overcoats and blankets) that big accomplishments were to come. A new rail-freight tunnel linking Brooklyn and New Jersey. A new Hudson River waterfront park. Development of the Coliseum site. Better schools. Mayoral aides are quick to point out that all these projects are moving forward behind the scenes. Indeed, the Mayor has made admirable strides forward in plans to build a waterfront park along the West Side.

Nonetheless, the initiatives grabbing all the headlines these days seem to say more about the Mayor’s brass-knuckles style than about any overarching vision or big plans. He can’t cross the street without picking a fight.

The recent anti-jaywalking initiatives, for instance, seemed to speak for themselves. But when the predictable public outcry ensued, Mr. Giuliani made the idea look even more ridiculous by digging in and boosting the fines. And the barricades blocking key midtown intersections seemed only somewhat bizarre until the Mayor burst a blood vessel and denounced critics as “hysterical” and “anti-car.”

“I happen to think that he should not be faulted on the pedestrian end,” Mr. Koch said. “I think he stated it badly. If he had said he wants to make sure that fewer [pedestrians] would be injured, rather than making it easier for cars, he would have come out ahead.”

In the view of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, elected officials are unfairly assailed for squandering time on small things and not lavishing enough resources on big projects. “I was constantly doing little things,” he said. “Frankly, I think that’s the way to govern. It’s not the way to be remembered and it’s not the way to win elections. It’s the way to govern. In the city, it’s all there every day: the garbage and the cops and the schools and the snow.”

The problem is that Mr. Giuliani’s initiatives-large, small and midsized-are not so much about policy as they are about personality. In December, Mr. Giuliani’s budget director called underwriters of the Citizens Budget Commission, an independent watchdog group, allegedly to discourage them from aiding the Commission’s fund raising. The group has criticized many of Mr. Giuliani’s budgets, just as they criticized Mr. Dinkins’ and Mr. Koch’s. The comparison is inescapable: Roosevelt sought to stack a Supreme Court blocking his way; Mr. Giuliani apparently sought to remove a similarly annoying obstacle.

“It was Roosevelt’s sense of being imbued with the power of the people that caused him to lose his sense of what works and what doesn’t work in a democracy,” said Ms. Kearns Goodwin.

Telling New Yorkers where they can walk, telling them that they can’t exercise their inalienable right to jaywalk, to hurry -the point isn’t whether or not these ideas are good or bad. They reveal Mr. Giuliani’s disdain for disorder, even that disorder that seems integral to a joyfully chaotic city like New York. But while he tries to enforce order on the city, he occasionally forgets to impose it on himself. He lurches from slap fight to slap fight while his vision blurs. He wants the city to be more civil, even if he must be uncivil to get things done.

Mr. Giuliani’s latest crusades hint at deeper currents of the Mayor’s psychology. It’s almost as if he hates New York-or, at least, all stray signs of the New York that preceded him. That might explain the sneering references to the New York presided over by Mr. Dinkins. It’s almost as if Mr. Giuliani can’t shake his visceral distaste for the city as it was before he transformed it.

In another moment exposing that raw mayoral nerve, Mr. Giuliani was recently asked to comment on a former F.B.I. agent’s assertion that he sold secrets to the K.G.B. because life was so miserable in New York. It could have been a lighthearted moment. But Mr. Giuliani is not a lighthearted kind of guy: “Whatever the conditions in New York City in 1988 and 1989, they certainly didn’t amount to conditions that …” And so on.

In the end, Mr. Giuliani’s enormous personality and cartoonlike foibles actually may help secure his place in city history as a memorable character, a public official who, if nothing else, had a vision and sought to impose it, not with charm but with brute strength. Whether that trait succeeds in making Mr. Giuliani a bigger figure west of the Hudson River remains to be seen.

“With La Guardia and Koch, what people liked, or even loved, was their personality, their eccentricity, their benevolent chauvinism,” said Mr. Severin, the political consultant. “This is the area [Mr. Giuliani’s] into now: He is developing his particular, even peculiar, idiosyncrasies having to do with the city, his office and his role as king. If idiosyncrasies derive from being in sync with voters, people love it. Then it’s called personality. If it derives from incompatibility with the hearts and minds of voters, then you’re a bum or a nut.”

Mayor Rudy Goes Loony; Landslide Win Brings a Case of Power Fever