Giuliani’s Self-Esteem Needs a Reality Check

One of New York’s most charming legends is that this is a city sympathetic to underdogs. But the hard truth is that in politics, at least, New Yorkers like a sure and easy winner, no matter how unprepossessing-in short, an overdog.

Rudolph Giuliani, who enjoys a large lead in every poll and a more-or-less fawning endorsement from every daily newspaper, is not the first Mayor to benefit from this slightly nauseous aspect of our local character. When Edward Koch was in his heyday, he, too, could rely upon the press to ignore or belittle his hapless opponents, at least until his City Hall was swamped by scandal just after he won a third term. Barring a remarkable upset on Election Day, term limits will ensure that Mr. Giuliani does not similarly overstay his welcome.

Yet if he achieves the electoral margin that is now predicted, the kind of hubris that undid Mr. Koch after eight years in office may afflict Mr. Giuliani after only four. There are pathological symptoms already. The Mayor’s excess of attitude has been remarked upon by all but his most sycophantic friends. So perhaps voters would be doing him a favor if they deny him a landslide victory that may only encourage his worst tendencies.

It has been obvious for years that Mr. Giuliani suffers from a habit of believing his own rhetoric, regardless of whether the facts suggest otherwise. He is particularly enamored of the myth he has created about himself as a figure of historical destiny-the tough sheriff who rides in to clean up a corrupt town, the jut-jawed reformer who uproots entrenched interests and dispenses impartial justice without concern for the political consequences. It’s a great story, and not wholly untrue. Too often, however, the Giuliani administration has picked on the vulnerable, toadied to the strong, protected special interests and, in general, dared to upset longstanding arrangements less than the Mayor likes to think.

The suppleness that has permitted old arrangements to continue actually is one of Mr. Giuliani’s greatest political strengths. He has no discernible philosophy, few ideological principles, not even any permanent enemies; he totes no baggage that will keep him from “getting the job done,” which means above all getting re-elected. Despite his tough-guy posturing, Rudy Giuliani sometimes makes Bill Clinton look resolute.

His inconsistencies, to put it politely, have been noted in these pages many times. When he was a Reaganite lawyer in the Justice Department, he mercilessly harried Haitian boat people. Now, as Mayor, he’s a champion of immigrants. He virtually defunded the public schools until he realized how serious an issue education might become this election year. His talk about privatization and municipal labor reform was cheap; his deals with the city’s unions (many of which have endorsed him) were not. He despises ethnic pandering-but panders to the Latino voting bloc. He opposes the Democratic machine, but tried to name one of its worst hacks as Schools Chancellor. (Remember the Leon Goldstein fiasco?) He disdains City Hall lobbyists, except for his impeccable pals Herman Badillo and Ray Harding. He resists “special interests,” such as advocates for welfare recipients and the homeless, but gives away hundreds of millions to banks, corporations and developers, presumably because they are so public-spirited. He is far too pure for patronage hiring, although campaign workers, boyhood cronies, distant relatives and other marginally qualified types have turned up on the city payroll. He is a fiscal conservative whose leaking, gimmick-ridden budgets have injured the city’s bond rating.

In all this, Mr. Giuliani is not so different from his Democratic predecessors. To a great degree he has been luckier than they were, benefiting from a stronger economy, a falling national crime rate and a larger police force. But he made the most of fortune by focusing his prodigious energy on the restoration of public safety, which has preoccupied New Yorkers almost to the exclusion of other problems.

Still, the nagging question about the Mayor, even for his fervent fans, is whether his short temper and arrogant intolerance will someday cause serious trouble. He has come close to that kind of error more than once, most memorably when his blustering campaign against resident diplomats almost persuaded the United Nations to consider abandoning New York. His inability to accept even mild criticism or well-meant correction increases the danger of a disastrous misstep.

Certainly that was the hope of Ruth Messinger, whose poorly executed campaign has been unable to gain traction against Mr. Giuliani. Against a patronizing and often openly biased press, Ms. Messinger has tried to articulate the Giuliani administration’s shortcomings. And she has succeeded to a degree, if only in raising education to its rightful place in public consciousness and forcing the Mayor to spend more money on schools. She has conducted herself honorably and even valiantly in the face of worsening polls, particularly during these final weeks.

Yet even if the Democratic nominee were less admirable, there would be good reason to consider voting for her: to preserve Mr. Giuliani from the growing peril of his own self-regard.

Giuliani’s Self-Esteem Needs a Reality Check