There are lame ducks, and there is Rudy Giuliani, whose gait is no less purposeful in this, his last year as the city’s 107th Mayor, than it was in 1994, his first year in office. Did you think he would limp gently into that political night? Did you expect to find him working on his short game while his would-be successors prepared to make the city safe for squeegee-men, jaywalkers, anti-Catholic artists and welfare-subsidized layabouts?
Did you really believe there was a new Rudy?
With slightly more than 10 months remaining of the era that will bear his name, the Mayor has made it clear that he will not be ignored. In a matter of just a couple of days in the middle of a dreary winter, he revisited two of his favorite roles-federal prosecutor and municipal scold-and made national headlines.
On the Sunday-morning talk shows on Feb. 18, Mr. Giuliani eagerly recounted his role as the man who tried to bring Marc Rich to justice (“When the indictment was brought, I believe the exact amount that we charged was $48 million in tax evasion,” he told Bob Schieffer of CBS, taking care to use the first-person plural in speaking as representative of the People of the United States) and placed his knee into Bill Clinton’s groin. (“Now you have the President saying that he determined the indictment was wrongful,” he told Mr. Schieffer. “This is a strange use of the pardon power.”)
These were not the words of loony Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican, talking about impeaching Bill Clinton again, even if he is, you know, not the President anymore. (Hey, there’s an idea!) No, this was Rudolph Giuliani, former federal prosecutor, no-nonsense tormentor of the wicked, the lazy and the effete. His words carried weight; people longed to hear them. “The guy would make an incredible law professor because he can tackle and explain the pronouncements behind the law,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “To the networks, he’s perfect to explain Marc Rich.” Prostate cancer, a ruined marriage, term limits and an aborted Campaign of the Century may have emasculated other, lesser politicians. But not Rudolph Giuliani.
It was hard not to notice a certain glee in the Mayor’s Sunday appearances, for he was emerging as the Clinton tormentor of choice. In a story followed around the world, Rudolph Giuliani became the voice of prosecutorial authority, debunker of Bill Clinton’s excuses. This wasn’t some dopey argument with Mark Green over the proper way to maintain police cars; this was history, and this was politics at its highest level. Lurking in the background, of course, was Mr. Giuliani’s onetime foe, Hillary Rodham Clinton, junior Senator from New York. When the Mayor chose not to pursue his Senatorial campaign against Mrs. Clinton, New York political insiders started writing the nut graf of his political obituary. Now, in raising points of law about more Clintonian duplicity in his just-the-facts-ma’am manner, he inspired thoughts of what might have been, and what may yet be.
Seventy-two hours before his tour of the talk shows, the Mayor returned to another field of past glory: the Brooklyn Museum of Art. When Mr. Giuliani condemned the now-forgotten artist who decorated his portrait of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung and pictures of female naughty bits, political observers concluded that the Mayor was stirring up Catholic resentment to win their support for his Senate campaign. (As if … they were on the verge of stampeding towards Mrs. Clinton?) This time around, there is no Senate campaign, no voters to rouse. And yet, here he was again, denouncing the Brooklyn Museum’s latest interpretation of Roman Catholic iconography, the Yo Mama’s Last Supper exhibit by photographer Renée Cox. The work shows the artist herself, nude, standing in for Jesus at the Last Supper. Mr. Giuliani, a Catholic, decided he knew exactly what was going on here: In the name of art, the cultural elite was laughing at Roman Catholicism. So he shared his opinion in the manner the city has come to expect. “You do it because it’s in your genes,” explained former Mayor Edward Koch. “He couldn’t stop if he wanted to. Rudy is going to answer the bugle call until the day he dies.”
A Decency Panel?
“This is an expression of prejudice, of bigotry,” Mr. Giuliani said of the Yo Mama piece on his radio show on WABC. During a news conference on Feb. 15, he suggested he might empanel a decency commission to review exhibits planned for the city’s taxpayer-supported museums. Members of this commission, he said, would come from the ranks of, er, “basically decent people.”
Predictably, the city’s keepers of high culture were outraged. The People for the American Way found the Mayor’s idea deplorable. One of his would-be successors, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, said he detected a whiff of Berlin, circa 1939. Hostile editorialists reacted in a hostile manner. It all must have pleased Mr. Giuliani immensely: not a bad few days’ work for a 56-year-old politician thought to be yesterday’s news. (Editorial note: When The Observer called City Hall to confirm Mr. Giuliani’s age, two press officers asserted that the Mayor’s age was not public information. A 10-second Observer investigation of the public record revealed that Mr. Giuliani was born on May 28, 1944.)
“He opens himself up to editorial writers, but he demonstrates to average New Yorkers that he doesn’t care about the elites,” Mr. Luntz said. He was talking about high-brow reaction to the Mayor’s art criticism, although he might as well have been referring to the frustrated outrage of investigative reporters seeking to expose the secret machinations behind the Mayor’s date of birth. “He doesn’t care about the Park Avenue sniping,” Mr. Luntz said.
Of course, the only thing worse than being sniped at is not being sniped at. In the spring of 2000, when Mr. Giuliani’s life, health and career seemed to fall apart before our eyes, one could hardly imagine Park Avenue snipers even bothering to take aim in these last months of the Giuliani administration. Instead, they should have been counting the days until a new Mayor moves into Gracie Mansion.
No New York Mayor before Mr. Giuliani has ever faced the guillotine of term limits. So there is no true precedent for Mr. Giuliani’s last year. Perhaps the closest comparisons are the final years of three-term Mayors like Ed Koch, Robert Wagner and Fiorello La Guardia. The latter two were exhausted-symbolic if not actual lame ducks-by the middle of their third terms; Mr. Koch spent his last year fighting unsuccessfully for a fourth term. None dominated the scene, for better or worse, like Rudolph Giuliani has in the last months of his administration.
Working in the Mayor’s favor is the thus-far-colorless campaign to succeed him, and the ability of his collective alter ego, the Clintons, to dominate the news even after leaving the White House. (Now there’s a role model!) It’s not hard to imagine Mr. Giuliani regarding himself as the Anti-Clinton; certainly the national media are more than happy to indulge him in such thoughts. Without an iota of self-consciousness-a trait that would inhibit most male politicians who have strayed from the marital bed from issuing stern pronouncements-he has positioned himself as a moral arbiter in a world of unseemly deals and decadent art.
And, unbelievably, he still matters.
-Additional reporting by Greg Sargent and Josh Benson