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Opinion | Ask Any New Yorker: Rudy Giuliani Was Always This Bad

"A small man in search of a balcony," as one columnist memorably described him. Nothing has changed.

Posted on December 12, 2019, at 3:19 p.m. ET

Adam Nadel / Associated Press

Rudy Giuliani gives a victory speech after being reelected as mayor of New York City in 1997.

What is going on with Rudy Giuliani? The man who long enjoyed the flattering if empty sobriquet “America’s mayor” often comes across as completely unhinged these days, as when he screamed “Shut up, moron! Shut up, shut up!” at an antagonist on Fox News not that long ago. Where’s the calming influence the nation turned to after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

The reality, as clear-eyed New Yorkers could tell you, is that this is the same tower of truculence Giuliani has always been: a kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy, someone fittingly described by the late columnist Jimmy Breslin as “a small man in search of a balcony.” Ask him a reasonable question at a press conference, and you stood an equally reasonable chance of having him dismiss you as an idiot in response.

The Giuliani modus operandi of 2019, on display so clearly in his starring role in the Ukraine scandal, is the same as it has been for decades: Smear the other side when you can, cast opponents as corrupt, or dismiss them as intellectually dishonest — if not out-and-out evil.

Consider just one moment during the eight years he ran New York City. Patrick Dorismond was shot and killed by a police officer on a Manhattan sidewalk in March 2000, in an incident that began when he said no to drugs. The cop, part of an undercover team intent on making arrests, approached Dorismond outside a bar and asked where he and his pals could buy marijuana. Dorismond, a security guard and father of two, took offense and angrily said he was no drug dealer. Heated words were exchanged. The men scuffled. Next thing anyone knew, the officer’s gun was out and Dorismond lay on the pavement, mortally wounded.

That’s when then-mayor Giuliani went to work, throwing as much mud on the dead man as he could. Giuliani took the unusual, and ethically suspect, step of unsealing Dorismond’s juvenile delinquency record. This man was “no altar boy,” he sneered. In fact, Dorismond really had been an altar boy. He’d even attended the same Roman Catholic school that Giuliani had.

Like his present patron, Donald Trump, he’s always tended to take all the credit when times are good and slough off blame when the going gets rough. In 1998 he gave a talk in Washington on how he’d reshaped New York. He spoke of watching Prizzi’s Honor — he does have an affinity for mob-themed movies — and spotted a graffiti-scarred subway train in one scene. “I said to myself, ‘Subway trains don’t look like that anymore,’” he told the audience. “And then I said, ‘Oh, yeah, you did that.’”

Utter nonsense. The last subway car covered in graffiti was taken out of service nearly five years before he became mayor. His tendency to bestow credit upon himself for all good things short of a sunrise was not lost on a key constituent, Donald Trump, who has followed a similar path.

As a political candidate, Giuliani was not above slinging dirt on rivals or standing silent when, for instance, some of his police supporters at a campaign rally dismissed New York's first and only black mayor, David Dinkins, as a "washroom attendant." As mayor, he was plainly gay-baiting when he said that a schools chancellor he disliked ought not "be so precious."

And he’s always had a fondness for intimidation as a go-to tactic. When New York City taxi drivers, most of them hardworking immigrants, acted in concert to slow Manhattan traffic in a 1998 protest against city policies, Giuliani likened them to “a terrorist group.” When they rallied loudly, but peacefully, outside City Hall, his police force stationed snipers on nearby roofs.

Even Rudy’s belligerent yelling matches that have become a late-night fixture on Fox News lately are all too familiar to those of us who remember his weekly talk-to-the-mayor radio show. It often became a chance for him to bully everyday citizens, like the time when a Queens man phoned in to complain about a new city policy banning ferrets as domestic pets. “There is something quite deranged about you!” Giuliani bellowed back. “This excessive concern for little weasels is a sickness. You should go consult a psychologist or psychiatrist.”

There’s no question that many in the city appreciated this kind of tough-guy swagger, especially as violent crime was waning. But this governance by fear and snarl ultimately wore thin. Opinion polls taken in the weeks before 9/11 showed that most New Yorkers couldn’t wait to see the last of him.

In 1997, former mayor Ed Koch described Giuliani with words many would say are still appropriate — and, for that matter, apply to the president Giuliani now serves. “He’s got to dominate,” Koch told Esquire magazine. “He’s got to take you on, cut your throat. And vilify people.”



Clyde Haberman is a former New York columnist, foreign correspondent, and editorial writer for the New York Times.

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