Getting It Wrong on the Giuliani Era

In his biography of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, author Wayne Barrett executes a feat of virtuoso revisionism. He simply excises the David Dinkins mayoralty rather than deal with the disastrous riots and rampant unemployment that helped lead to Mr. Giuliani’s victory in 1993. In “The Real Rudy,” the lead essay in the Oct. 19 issue of The New York Review of Books , James Traub tries something almost as audacious. He has written a lengthy essay about the Giuliani years without once mentioning Al Sharpton. This is no small matter, because it goes to the heart of Mr. Giuliani’s greatest achievement, and to what was perhaps his greatest political failure.

By refusing to recognize Mr. Sharpton’s leadership, Mr. Giuliani brought to a halt the reign of riot ideology, in which politics were driven by fear, crime and threats of disruption. Mr. Giuliani returned civility to the streets and revived the city’s faltering credit rating. Considerable though this achievement was, it was marred by the Mayor’s failure to support an alternative black leadership. At the end of the Giuliani years, Al Sharpton-beloved by the media, enhanced by his attacks on the Mayor-stands as the city’s premier African-American politician.

By excising Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Traub, whose genteel sensibilities have been offended by Rudy’s rhetorical excesses, would have the reader believe that the Mayor alone has brought a confrontational tone to New York politics. But, for better or worse, conflict and confrontation have been the meat and potatoes of New York politics for the past two centuries. It was New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein who famously insisted, during the 1968 Ocean Hill–Brownsville school decentralization fight, that “the alternatives left to the white majority are capitulation or genocide.” More recently, former union leader Victor Gotbaum described Mayor Koch as a “pimple on the rear end of civilization.” Down the road, Reverend Al and his minions will no doubt discover hitherto hidden racist tendencies in Mr. Giuliani’s eventual successor.

Mr. Traub has some shrewd insights into Mr. Giuliani’s personality, and he correctly notes that part of what has made Mr. Giuliani so powerful is that he is the first effective Mayor to govern after the Board of Estimate was abolished in 1989. But Mr. Traub’s article is marred by misstatements and misunderstandings that have important implications for the post-Giuliani years.

He says that “very few welfare recipients have joined” the private economy. How does he know this? There are no numbers. One of the administration’s failings is that it has, until recently, refused to keep track of what happens to former welfare recipients. He worries that the police have become “too ready to pull the trigger” under Mr. Giuliani. What? Police killings have dropped from a high of 41 under Mr. Dinkins to a record low of 11 last year. He insists that Mr. Giuliani’s achievements were “rather narrow,” but never mentions the promising reform of the City University. He’s outraged by Mr. Giuliani’s “cruelty” in driving Ray Cortines from the school chancellorship. But he neglects to mention that Mr. Cortines was unable, despite repeated requests, to let City Hall know how many people actually “worked” at the school board’s Brooklyn headquarters.

For Mr. Traub, the Sturm und Drang of the Giuliani years were unnecessary because the liberal establishment- The New York Times in particular-has been “largely converted” to the Mayor’s point of view on most issues. This is odd, since the very journal he’s writing in has fought welfare reform tooth and nail, while The Times has carried its criticism of Mr. Giuliani’s anti-crime and welfare policies to a near-fever pitch.

In fact, The Times has gone so far as to regard low-level heroin dealers as simply part of the “diversity” of Brooklyn, while it accuses the police of trying to impose the “mores of Mayberry” on street life. Mr. Traub insists that Mr. Giuliani has “won the battle of ideas,” but the Mayor’s would-be successors are falling over themselves in arguing for new massive housing subsidies-just the kind of program Mr. Giuliani opposed. For its part, The Times recently ran a front-page piece that approvingly reported a liberal advocacy group’s claims that the city’s rapid growth in entry-level jobs poses a terrible problem that must be solved with a new round of day care, housing, and training subsidies. If these debt-defying proposals constitute a victory, what does defeat look like?

If Mr. Traub has it right, we’re about to sail off into a rosy sunset; the city will be prosperous, tranquil and well-governed, even as it rids itself of the “bully” in Gracie Mansion. Don’t bet on it.

(Terry Golway will return to this space next week.)