The Perils of Rudy’s 9/11 Strategy

When Rudy Giuliani left office, nobody imagined that a half decade later New Yorkers would again be confronted with the death of firefighters in a building unoccupied since September 11, 2001, or that Ground Zero would still be a hole in the ground. In that light, this week's deadly Deutsche Bank fire serves to further burnish Mr. Giuliani's special claim to 9/11 greatness, which one GOP hand calls "the lynchpin of his candidacy, something he needs to guard and preserve."

Yet despite the contrast between Mr. Giuliani's swift moves to decontaminate and rebuild the site and the inaction since he left office, his 9/11 record may prove his undoing.

For all of Mr. Giuliani's success in bringing crime down and pulling the city back from the verge of economic collapse, his popularity had plunged during his second term, as his confrontational demeanor, aborted Senate run against Hillary Clinton and ugly divorce reminded New Yorkers just how dislikable the mayor could be. As of September 10th, 2001, Rudy Giuliani had no future in elected office.

All that changed when the Towers were struck.

Mr. Giuliani's run for the presidency has been predicated on his actions after the attacks—his shining hour, as it were. By focusing on that, and by speaking only in generalities about the previous years spent "turning the city around," the Giuliani campaign has helped insulate his mayoral record from criticism on the right about his liberal stances as mayor on gun control, abortion and immigration.

Thus far, the gamble has paid off. With no declared candidate igniting the passions of the conservative base, Republican voters have embraced the former mayor's brand of strength and leadership.

Democratic attacks and media hit pieces (most recently in The New Yorker and Harper's keyed in on the one-name scandals every New Yorker can reel off: Louima and Dorismond; Kerik and Harding; Donna, Andrew and Caroline. None of this has dented his numbers among Republican primary voters, who mostly see the mayor as the man who turned around an ungovernable city.

But Mr. Giuliani's real problem is the very thing that has been regarded until now as his greatest strength: his strong association with post-9/11 leadership.

Ironically, that brand was strengthened when his request for an additional 90 days in office—highly unpopular at the time—to oversee the rebuilding process was turned down. Instead of a longer record of specific decisions and events that likely could have fed ammunition to critics and opposition researchers, he was left with the symbolic significance of his short stint unvarnished.

It is Michael Bloomberg and other elected officials have left the process in the hands of slow-moving and politically insulated bureaucrats. (Headline in the Aug. 22 Daily News: "Tragic Blame Game.")

Yet it is Mr. Giuliani who has the most to lose from the constant trickle of stories about first responders who've fallen ill (and who Mr. Bloomberg is fighting against providing with health benefits), new human remains discovered at the site, communications devices failing, and buildings decaying—not to mention attacks from politically antagonistic firefighter unions and 9/11 widows.

Mr. Giuliani has shown signs that he is aware of this vulnerability. Last September 11, he told the AP: "'I spent as much time here as anyone. She did. She did,' Giuliani said, indicating his wife, Judith, and his spokeswoman, Sunny Mindel. ‘[Deputy Mayor] Joe Lhota did, and Joe got ill. [Deputy Mayor] Rudy Washington did and Rudy clearly got sick as a result of September 11.'"

But his efforts to defend his record risk doing more harm than good, as was the case last week, when he said that he "was at Ground Zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers" and that he was "exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to."

In response, the Times issued a report tracking his time at Ground Zero (29 hours between September 17 and December 16 of 2001), and critics pounced, with International Association of Firefighters President and frequent Rudy foil Harold Schaitberger declaring, "On 9/11 all he did was run. He got that soot on him, and I don't think he's taken a shower since."

Mr. Giuliani did put his health on the line, and deserves credit for it. But the aggressive comparison about his physical role at Ground Zero with those of the first responders and volunteers who worked on the pile upset the delicate political balance by which he had benefited from his 9/11 record without appearing to exploit it.

As Mr. Giuliani must now be well aware, he is as little as one news development or poorly framed comment away from having the rationale for his political campaign pulled from under his feet.

Harry Siegel is the co-author of Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life.

The Perils of Rudy’s 9/11 Strategy