Can Rudy Giuliani Tame the Beast Within?

The day after police officers killed Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets, WCBS-TV reporter Marcia Kramer asked Mayor Rudolph Giuliani how he felt when Police Commissioner Howard Safir told him about the shooting. In one sense, it was a soft question, probing feelings rather than facts.

In another sense, however, it was the toughest question anybody could have asked of a man not known for his public displays of emotion. He replied tersely that he didn’t want to pass judgment until he heard all the facts. Ms. Kramer lobbed the question at him several more times and each time Mr. Giuliani delivered a by-the-book response. His neck stiffened. His shoulders clenched. His lips tightened. This was, it seemed, a journey into uncharted terrain.

At a critical moment in Rudolph Giuliani’s political career, questions like Ms. Kramer’s are being asked of the Mayor, and he thus far has shown himself incapable of adjusting his attack-dog, raging-bull, once-a-prosecutor, always-a-prosecutor persona. Even his physical appearance emphasizes something seething inside: After losing 28 pounds, he looks gaunt and menacing, his features sharp as a knife’s edge. Every politician’s public persona is subject to analysis, focusing on a perceived set of traits: Franklin D. Roosevelt, said one of his close colleagues, “must have been psychoanalyzed by God.” Ronald Reagan had a placid, affable implacability that has had his biographer struggling for a decade to understand him; Richard Nixon–defensive, assaultive, self-pitying–brought out the psychoanalyst in an entire nation. Each moved forward in spurts, showing the ability to evolve and adapt. And when they lost that ability to develop, or in Nixon’s case, retrenched, the public sensed it and it was the end.

Erik Erikson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning psychoanalyst, wrote that great political figures must possess a protean quality: the ability to adopt a multitude of guises and strategies to avoid stagnation and failure. Franklin Roosevelt transformed himself from a lightweight dandy and a small-town state senator to the man who conquered the Great Depression and defeated the Axis. Alfred E. Smith got his start in Tammany Hall and went on to become a reform-minded, progressive Governor. Robert F. Kennedy moved from ruthless back-room operative to compassionate bridge-builder.

More recently, changeling-in-chief Bill Clinton survived multiple crises that would have destroyed a less psychologically flexible leader. Mr. Clinton is no F.D.R., but he fits Erikson’s description of a protean leader: “a man of many disguises; a man of chameleonlike adaptation to passing scenes; a man of essential elusiveness.”

The question is, does Mayor Giuliani have the capacity for growth and change? When, two days after the mass murder in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., he declared that the New York City Board of Education ought to be “blown up,” the effect was startling and not a little scary. It suggested that after three mayoral campaigns and more than a decade as a politician, Mr. Giuliani was still hostage to rage and all manner of unresolved psychological issues. While anger certainly helped him take on the challenges of demoralized New York in the early 1990’s, times have changed. Is the Mayor capable of making the adjustment?

For political consultants, the Mayor’s dilemma is merely cosmetic, resolved easily enough with a few cuddly photo ops and feel-good policy initiatives. But for those who delve more deeply into the human psyche, Mr. Giuliani’s troubles appear more deeply rooted and intractable.

“I’m beginning to wonder to what degree he has the capacity for empathizing with other people’s feelings, sentiments and views,” said Dr. Richard B. Ulman, a Manhattan psychoanalyst who has spent decades studying political figures. “As time goes on and situations and circumstances change, he seems to be having more and more difficulty adjusting.”

Mr. Giuliani seems strangely intransigent. As he contemplates a run for the U.S. Senate, a body that emphasizes decorum, deal-making and collegiality, it would seem to be time for some self-reflection. “He’s won the respect that would allow him to make a different move,” said Stanley A. Renshon, a psychoanalyst and political science professor at City University of New York. “But the same psychology that brings you success, if it’s not embedded in some kind of psychological flexibility, can be self-defeating. That’s what I think is happening here.”

The result is that Mr. Giuliani appears increasingly irritated with the very public that recently adored his toughness, but has grown weary of angry invective, curt dismissals and stern lectures. His initial response to the Diallo shooting was reflexively defensive, as he–at a moment that called for healing–issued stilted, bureaucratic responses. When hundreds of genuinely outraged protesters demonstrated at Police Headquarters, he dismissed them as “silly.” And when he launched yet another attack on Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, he looked like an unyielding bully pummeling a likable and hapless victim who bore the scars of his previous beatings.

Will He Listen?

Sooner or later, Mr. Giuliani will sit down with a political consultant who will advise him to cut down on confrontation and start kissing more babies. The question is, however, will Mr. Giuliani listen? Most of the key advisers who kept his darker impulses in check when he successfully campaigned for mayor in 1993–among them his longtime friend and former Deputy Mayor Peter Powers and political guru David Garth–have been banished or gone into voluntary exile.

Mr. Giuliani has literally barricaded himself in City Hall and is exhibiting what several psychoanalysts interpret as delusions of grandiosity and omnipotence. “Giuliani strikes me as someone who feels he can shape reality to suit his own interests … rather than adjust to it,” Mr. Ulman said. “That’s a narcissistic personality trait that can be very useful and very helpful in politics, but at a certain point if it is not tempered and modulated by a certain level of empathy and introspection, it becomes a very serious liability and weakness. Certainly, that was true of [former President Richard] Nixon.”

Mr. Giuliani’s identity crisis would have fascinated Erikson, who invented the phrase and wrote famous psychological studies of such leaders as Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther and Mohandas Gandhi. The Viennese-trained psychologist was no stranger to New York. In fact, he briefly served as an adviser to former Mayor John Lindsay in 1969 when Mr. Lindsay was trying to keep New York’s social services bureaucracy afloat as the Vietnam War was diverting Federal funds from the nation’s urban centers.

Erikson died in 1993 at age 90. But Lawrence Friedman, a history professor at Indiana University and author of the newly published Erikson biography Identity’s Architect , knew the seminal theorist for 30 years and is fairly certain how he would have viewed Mr. Giuliani. “It doesn’t seem the Mayor is very happy right now,” Mr. Friedman said.

He said that Erikson, who believed people pass through eight stages of life, would have undoubtedly warned the Mayor that he risks more than just political defeat if he doesn’t change. The seventh stage of Erikson’s life cycle is adulthood, a time when middle-aged people like the 54-year-old Mr. Giuliani move back and forth between “generativity,” reaching out and connecting with other people, particular those with differing views, and “self-absorption,” which can result in stagnation and, later, despair in old age.

“If he wants to avoid a personal disaster and grow old, bitter and dried up, he’s got to [change],” Mr. Friedman said. “And he’s probably got the resources psychologically to do it.”

A ‘Hostile Enforcer’

Aubrey Immelman, a political psychologist at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., who believes Mr. Giuliani is driven by deep-rooted hostility and rage that have their origins in his childhood, offers a bleaker prognosis. He has done personality studies of President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and independent counsel Kenneth Starr and is currently working on Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota. In an assessment of Mr. Giuliani prepared for The Observer , Mr. Immelman said the Mayor fits the profile of a “hostile enforcer,” a person who is “biologically hard-wired” to be aggressive and even sadistic.

According to Mr. Immelman, such people channel their repressed rage into socially acceptable crusades against rule-breakers and other transgressors of societal norms. “They are untrusting and harsh in their interpersonal relationships and the world at large,” he writes. “They are persistently on the defensive and any cracks in their tough outer facade or perceived exposure of personal weakness or inner vulnerability prompts capricious, precipitous surges of hostility and outbursts of rage.”

Mr. Immelman said people with Mr. Giuliani’s personality traits have often been treated harshly by their parents. By most accounts, the Mayor, an only child, was doted on by his father, Harold, a Brooklyn tavern owner, and his mother, Helen. But Mr. Giuliani could be exasperating even as a youngster.

His aunts and uncles told Daily News reporter Paul Schwartzman that he was “a restless baby, prone to staying awake for 48 hours at a time. This restlessness on more than one occasion prompted the nuns at school to smack him.” Helen Giuliani, who meted out the discipline at home, was also a believer in the virtues of corporal punishment.

The psychologist was even more intrigued by Mr. Giuliani’s account of how his father dressed him in a Yankees outfit and sent him out to be mercilessly teased by neighborhood children who were fervent Brooklyn Dodgers fans–which meant, of course, that they were passionate Yankees haters. As the Mayor tells it, the neighborhood kids threw a noose around his neck as if they were going to lynch him. His screaming grandmother intervened before any physical damage was done. “To my father, it was a joke,” Mr. Giuliani has said. “But to me it was like being a martyr.”

To Mr. Immelman, this hellish childhood anecdote offers a “wealth of psychological clues” to Mr. Giuliani’s current crisis.

Of course, the Mayor’s rage and grandiosity have been some of his greatest strengths. Only someone truly angry, someone mad as hell, would rid the city of the brazen squeegeemen and menacing panhandlers who extorted a street tax from passers-by. It took a Mayor who thought he could single-handedly drag New York back to the 1950’s to slash the city welfare rolls by 18 percent between 1995 and 1996.

What’s more, Mr. Giuliani proved to be remarkably in step with the majority of New Yorkers. But even at the height of his popularity at the start of second term, it was clear that Mr. Giuliani might be driven by something more complex and disturbing than his vision for a better New York.

He seemed increasingly paranoid, treating the press as the enemy even though the city’s three daily newspapers had endorsed his re-election. “He’s right when he says people are out to get him, but it’s an exaggerated perception,” said a New York psychoanalyst. “It’s the paranoid style. You filter out the fact that people also love you and they want to be kind to you and they want to connect with you and they want to admire you. All of that is pushed aside.”

The press hasn’t been the Mayor’s only target. Mr. Giuliani has embarked on a number of petty squabbles that have turned his second term into a grotesque parody of his first four years. He has expended considerable energy and political capital condemning jaywalkers, cabdrivers, former Mayor David Dinkins, Virginians opposed to landfilling the city’s garbage, and anybody who dared raise a finger against his efforts to move the Yankees to Manhattan’s West Side.

“He’s been so busy battling that he hasn’t had the experience of what would happen if he didn’t do it 110 percent of the time,” said Dr. Renshon, a City University professor. “It’s sort of like a person who is running and running and running and runs off a cliff for a moment, they are still running and running and running. It’s like the old Road Runner cartoon.”

Even cartoon characters, however, eventually crash to earth when they race off the edge of a precipice. That’s what seems to be happening here.

Bernard Schayes, an Upper East Side physician and member of the International Society of Political Psychology, said he gets an earful from his patients who are city cops. They are livid, he said, over the pressure from City Hall to issue more summonses. Then there’s the irate Con Edison driver who has to worry about getting a ticket and two points on his license every time he double-parks in an emergency.

“I think that is a perfect example of why [Mr. Giuliani] is in trouble,” Mr. Schayes said. “He’s got to relinquish some control and let the Con Ed trucks double-park. It’s not the best quality-of-life issue and he may get stuck in traffic. But people would start to think different about him. Frankly, I don’t think he can do that on his own. I guess what I am saying is, he needs a good therapist.”