American politics thrives on mythmaking. There was no Camelot until Jackie Kennedy retroactively created it. And since George W. Bush burst on the national scene, Americans have been fed a steady diet of Rovian Kool-Aid to convince them that a blue-blooded frat boy is really a folksy Everyman. So it’s only natural that aspiring Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani crisscrosses the country raking in millions selling the Myth of Rudy to hapless Americans who only know him from one awful day and its aftermath.
Mr. Bush, of course, became a born-again Christian, which means that anything that happened prior to his personal relationship with Jesus has been deemed irrelevant. Mr. Giuliani’s born-again moment was Sept. 11, 2001, which resulted in a mass amnesia about what kind of mayor Rudy Giuliani really was-a mayor with a paltry 32 percent approval rating on Sept. 10.
Four years later, the time seems right for a Rudy reality check. Instead, Mr. Giuliani has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, based on the regurgitated propaganda that he was unique among America’s mayors in fighting crime.
Let’s remember something: In 1996, Time magazine featured Police Commissioner William Bratton on its cover, and a Quinnipiac College poll showed that 60 percent of New Yorkers gave Mr. Bratton credit for the drop in crime, while only 18 percent credited Mr. Giuliani. An enraged Mayor made life miserable for his commissioner until Mr. Bratton resigned. Why was Rudy feeling so insecure?
Without claiming all the credit for the drop in crime, he would’ve been seen as a second-rate mayor-a mayor who couldn’t stop fighting with the minority community; who treated the homeless inhumanely; who did nothing to fix the school system; who informed his second wife and mother of his children in a televised press conference that he was divorcing her. He would be the egomaniac who tried to block a New York magazine advertising campaign that said it was the only good thing in New York that Mr. Giuliani hadn’t taken credit for.
Crime reduction, of course, was the signature issue that Mr. Giuliani tried to make his own. It’s true that the crime drop in the 1990′s was remarkable and welcome. But Team Giuliani’s relentless marketing of Hizzoner as the caped crime-thwarting wonder is dishonest. Mr. Giuliani tried to justify much of his hostile reign over New York’s minority communities in the name of crime fighting. But crime had been declining for three years before Mr. Giuliani became Mayor. From 1990 to 1993, David Dinkins’ last year in office, murders dropped almost 14 percent, robberies by 15 percent and auto theft by 24 percent.
Crime continued to drop after Mr. Giuliani took office-not surprisingly, since there was a national trend of decreasing crime, with the steepest declines taking place in the biggest cities. In San Diego and Boston, the murder rate plunged at an even greater clip than in New York. The drop in homicides in Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles was of the same magnitude as in New York.
The mythology of Rudy Giuliani is incomplete without mentioning the “broken windows” theory of policing. While a great P.R. story, the simplistic tale of a crackdown on squeegee men saving the city is not accepted by criminologists. Many crime experts agree that a critical factor in decreasing crime is putting more cops on the street. This creates a deterrent effect and also results in more arrests, which leads to fewer criminals on the street.
Who was responsible for a massive influx of new police officers in New York City? Not Rudy Giuliani. In 1990, Mr. Dinkins won approval of the “Safe Streets, Safe City” tax surcharge that allowed the hiring of 6,000 more police. Indeed, when Mr. Bratton assumed his role as L.A. police commissioner, his highest priority wasn’t arresting jaywalkers; it was hiring thousands of new cops.
The myth of Rudy Giuliani denies this reality and attributes much of the crime drop to the vaunted CompStat process. For this to be true, homicides would have to have been stable or increasing before the 1994 introduction of CompStat. Data show that in 1994, homicides per capita had already peaked and had begun their decline.
What was unique to New York’s crime drop was that it was accompanied by overaggressive, massive police sweeps that created a culture in which tragic deaths like those of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond could occur.
The economist John Kenneth Galbraith says that a key factor in the formation of conventional wisdom is the ease with which an idea may be understood. It’s easy to understand Rudy the One-Man Crime Fighter. That doesn’t mean it’s true. The Nobel committee shouldn’t accept it, and neither should New Yorkers.
Joe Conason will return to this space next week.
Follow Kirsten A. Powers via RSS.