Our Finest Hour

Until now, New Yorkers didn’t realize what it takes to be Mayor of this great city. Through his words and actions since the terrible morning of Sept. 11, Rudolph Giuliani will go down in history as New York’s greatest Mayor of the past 100 years, easily surpassing previous favorites like Ed Koch and Fiorello La Guardia. Mr. Giuliani has robustly steered the city through the worst crisis any city can face, and he has done so not by resorting to sentimentality or bravado, but by relying on bracing honesty, clear-eyed compassion and a core belief in the city’s ability to renew itself. He has helped save New Yorkers from what could have been a citywide collapse into bitterness and despair, and across the country he is being hailed as a statesman. Not only has Mr. Giuliani reassured the city, he has comforted a nation.

Can anyone forget that after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the Mayor was on the scene within minutes? That he and his aides had to run for their lives through smoke and debris when the first of the towers collapsed? That in the minutes between the collapse of the Twin Towers, Mr. Giuliani held a quick news conference on a street corner to announce that the city would not fall prey to terrorists? In the week after the tragedy, the Mayor plunged into his city, attending masses, funerals and even a wedding, at which he walked the bride down the aisle. By affirming that life goes on, he robbed the terrorists of their greatest weapon: the power to destroy hope.

Even before this tragedy, Mr. Giuliani had shown himself to be a stunningly effective public servant, making New York into the safest large city in America and returning a sense of pride to a grateful populace. Indeed, one must not forget that Mr. Giuliani’s actions in the eight years prior to the events of Sept. 11 had something to do with the graceful and courageous way in which New Yorkers have faced the current crisis.

In the past week, the Mayor has been surrounded by equally talented people, such as Deputy Mayor Joseph Lhota, Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. Along with Mr. Giuliani’s inner circle of aides and department heads, they have pulled together to keep the city running despite tremendous obstacles.

Several of New York’s elected officials have also emerged as powerful leaders. Senator Charles Schumer has been a forceful presence, taking the lead in making sure that New York receives the federal aid necessary to relieve the city of its expenses and to start rebuilding downtown Manhattan. The Senator’s new relationship with President George Bush should serve the city well. Governor George Pataki, who like the Mayor lost several close friends and associates, has shown a heartfelt, hourly commitment to the city whose recovery will be essential to the health of New York State.

The term “hero” in this tragedy most applies to those whom New Yorkers usually take for granted: the firefighters, police officers, E.M.S. workers and other rescue workers who have shown unblinking courage while suffering tremendous losses. Many of the bravest heroes, such as Fire Department chaplain Mychal F. Judge, who in the past himself presided over many firefighters’ funerals, did not survive. He and more than 300 missing firefighters gave their lives in an attempt to save the lives of thousands of people trapped in the towers.

The citizens of New York also deserve mention. To have rushed forward to offer help of all kinds, and to have maintained a sense of continuity and even normalcy in the past week, shows the true character of this city. New York has a history of recovering from disasters: the Great Fire of 1835, in which 674 buildings were destroyed; the deadly Civil War draft riots. What makes New York different from much of the world is our capacity to overcome the natural and man-made challenges of living together, and to do so without becoming small of mind or heart. The destruction of the World Trade Center poses the challenge of our time: How do we make our city whole again, how do we continue to attract people to live and do business here, how can we ensure our safety while maintaining the openness and freedom, the climate of unregulated life, which is absolutely crucial to the city’s identity?

As the city enters into the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, families are gathering to mourn their losses and celebrate new beginnings. May that spirit of renewal awaken the hearts of all New Yorkers in these difficult days.

Our Finest Hour