Giuliani’s Hell Week: Trapped in Jury Box as Crises Unfold

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani harbors a passionate devotion to the law, and so he gave his full attention to the courtroom drama unfolding before him. There he sat, his stiff frame bent forward in concentration on his second day of jury duty in Manhattan, listening to a doctor testify that his patient, Oliver Johnson, had allegedly suffered such bad shower burns to his, er, johnson that he could no longer properly service his wife.

“He was complaining of a taut sensation whenever his organ would be stimulated to erection, which prevented intercourse because of pain and tightness,” the doctor said of Mr. Johnson, who is suing his landlord for damages suffered by his member in an allegedly faulty shower.

“The scarring existed over the entire length of the penis and glans, along the shaft to the base of the penis,” the doctor continued. Mr. Giuliani removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes wearily.

Later that morning, the Mayor, who made mobsters crumble with his courtroom interrogations during his days as a U.S. attorney, seemed to be intrigued by the cross-examination conducted by the landlord’s lawyer.

“How frequently do you come in contact with scarred penises?”

“Rarely,” the doctor conceded.

“How many other scarred penises have you treated this year?”

“No other.”

Without question, the first week of September was one of the strangest yet in Rudy Giuliani’s City Hall. Even as the Mayor was performing his lowly civic chores, and many of the regulars were off on a late-summer holiday, at least four other crises were unfolding around the city. A picture of Mr. Giuliani trapped in a jury box offers an apt metaphor for the Mayor’s political situation as he considers a U.S. Senate campaign while simultaneously governing the city. Specifically, he is confronting the flip side of incumbency.

Sure, being an incumbent mayor allows him to boast endlessly about turning around the city, etc. And he receives an endless amount of what the hacks call “free media.” And he gets to play his favorite role of crisis manager, complete with props like Police Department hats and a gadget-stocked Emergency Command Center.

But there’s another side to all of this, and it isn’t just a matter of being distracted from campaigning by the 24-hour-a-day job of Mayor. His prospective Democratic opponent next year, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has a free hand to invent herself and woo this or that constituency. But Mr. Giuliani has to play the role he created for himself amid the unscripted narrative of the moment. He may play the starring role, but the story line frequently is being written for him–and it often fails to offer the chief executive a flattering part.

“It’s so ironic,” marveled one seasoned political observer. “[Being Mayor] helps him define the issues, but at the same time, he’s a prisoner of the city. He uses [the mayoralty] cleverly and artfully, but when he gets trapped in it, he’s as much a prisoner as [David] Dinkins or [Ed] Koch ever were.”

A Narrative Overload

Consider the Mayor’s weird week. Even in more conventional times, City Hall fills with a peculiar, heightened murmur when a gripping story line unfolds. The whole building seems to reverberate with Mr. Giuliani’s enormous personality, as everyone from mayoral aides to basement-office City Council staff members speculate endlessly about the Mayor’s manners and motives.

But since August gave way to September, City Hall has been on narrative overload. Cristyne Lategano, the Mayor’s erstwhile communications director, stopped by for a surprise visit and flashed reporters her engagement rock. And Sunny Mindel, the Mayor’s press secretary, went around City Hall telling people she was a “knife-wielding press secretary” because she had been using an X-acto blade to excise coverage of the Genital Affair–which a judge had forbidden jurors to read about–from Mr. Giuliani’s morning papers. (Such attention to detail! But how did the Mayor manage to read articles on reverse pages that had been sliced to ribbons? Or did he just skip them?)

Outside of City Hall, at least four crises played out across the city at once. Khallid Muhammad was planning his now-forgotten Eight Hundred Youth March, a task he punctuated with references to Mr. Giuliani as a “constipated cracker.” Reporters swarmed all over Borough Park investigating the police shooting death of a hammer-wielding Hasidic man. Public Advocate Mark Green, a persistent mayoral nemesis, had successfully beaten back Mr. Giuliani’s assault on his position as first in line to succeed the Mayor. Mosquitoes were spreading a deadly strain of encephalitis throughout western Queens.

Meanwhile, all Mr. Giuliani could do was sit in a jury box, listening to an extended debate about some poor guy’s scalded testicles.

Soon after his appearance as First Juror on Sept. 2, Mr. Giuliani’s political dilemma was again on full display at City Hall. The Mayor stood gripping the lectern in the Blue Room and tried to regain his footing after a long morning in court. As Mr. Giuliani fielded questions from reporters, his head swiveled rapidly back and forth atop his hunched shoulders in abrupt half-turns, giving him that Robo-Mayor aura he so often displays when fending off the press.

That morning, the papers had been filled with glowing stories about Ms. Clinton’s upstate house-hunting adventures. But in City Hall, Mr. Giuliani was bound up in a familiar story line. Up in Harlem, a man had run from police; a cop squeezed his trigger; the man was dead.

One reporter offered a sympathetic question: Was the Mayor worried whether all the police-bashing would tie the hands of cops?

“You’re damn right I am,” the Mayor answered. “You’re damn right I’m worried about it.”

“[Cops] are trigger-happy when it comes to blacks and Latinos, eh?” piped up Rafael Martínez Alequín, the wiry publisher of The Free Press who is a ubiquitous tormentor of the Mayor.

“That’s an outrageous remark,” the Mayor answered. “That’s an outrageously sick remark, actually.”

Mr. Giuliani jutted his sharp chin at the assembled reporters. He made his now-familiar argument that statistics proved the cops to be the most restrained in the country. “You should spend as much time displaying those statistics on your front pages as you do the unfair attacks on them,” he admonished.

Just the day before, he had offered this answer to a reporter who had asked if he was concerned by the police killing of Gidone Busch, a mentally ill Hasidic man, now that it was known that the dead man had been armed with just a hammer.

“Ha–you gotta be unreal,” the Mayor answered. “Really just a hammer? A hammer is a deadly weapon. Would you like to have a hammer inserted in your brain?”

This argument erupts between City Hall and the press again and again, like bickering over long-held grudges in a bad marriage. Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss Mr. Giuliani’s harangues as clumsy attempts to bully reporters into telling the story his way. But the Mayor’s frustration hints at a deeper political dilemma, one that flows directly from his occasional inability to, in effect, free himself from the city.

It’s a strange paradox of city politics that mayors tend to get pilloried on the very issues that served as their initial launching pad. Abe Beame, the squinty-eyed accountant who would master the city’s books, got swallowed up by the fiscal crisis of the 1970’s. David Dinkins, the self-proclaimed racial healer, failed to control the Crown Heights riots and winked at a racist boycott of Korean delis.

And now, Mr. Giuliani, whose police department restored order to the streets, risks seeing his accomplishment associated with trigger-happy cops. It’s the flip side to his greatest accomplishment that, as he seeks higher office, he is vulnerable to unforeseen crises, particularly ones that put the police in the news.

“Giuliani’s so closely identified with bringing order to the streets,” said City Council member Ken Fisher of Brooklyn, who is running for Mayor in 2001, “that when the police are perceived as acting excessively, that responsibility falls on him as well.”

Searching for Socks

Consider his handling of Khallid Muhammad’s so-called Million Youth March. The event itself was a bust, with a turnout of under 1,000. Indeed, Mr. Giuliani seemed unconcerned, taking advantage of a slow-news Saturday for some photo-op shopping at lower Manhattan’s Century 21 department store in honor of tax-free week.

The Harlem event was no less weirdly disconnected from the city’s political narrative of the moment than the Genital Affair had been. Even as Mr. Muhammad and other speakers were railing about “Adolf Giuliani,” the Mayor was mixing with Saturday shoppers while irritable and hung-over photographers shoved each other aside for the optimum shot of the Mayor fondling underwear.

“Now we’re looking for some socks,” Mr. Giuliani muttered to no one in particular. “Socks, socks, socks.”

As aides hovered uneasily in the background, trading the latest intelligence about the turnout in Harlem, Mr. Giuliani brought his haul to the checkout counter and reached for his credit card.

“Don’t photograph my card,” the Mayor remarked to a nearby photographer. “Otherwise, you know what will happen? People will use it.”

It was a tidy illusion: The Mayor was so unruffled by Mr. Muhammad that he and his aides spent the day stocking up on briefs. Yet Mr. Giuliani had already sustained some unnecessary political damage. His attempt to block the march in court, rejected by an appeals court on Sept. 1, offered yet another reminder of Mr. Giuliani’s uneasy relationship with the First Amendment. And in the days leading up to the march, the Mayor threatened darkly that his cops would be damn sure that the rally ended at the appointed time of 4 P.M.–unnecessarily stirring up memories of last year’s ugly clashes between marchers and police.

At the last minute, Mr. Giuliani realized he could ill afford a similar showdown this year, and dramatically scaled down the event’s police presence. A showdown was averted–but it illustrated yet again just how abruptly the Mayor can be swept up into a politically unflattering role in the city’s volatile drama.

“The nightmare of every political campaign is that an airplane will fall out of the sky on the day you’re planning some big event,” said Mr. Fisher. “If you’re Mayor of New York, an airplane falls out of the sky every day.” Giuliani’s Hell Week: Trapped in Jury Box as Crises Unfold