Rudy Hits the Campaign Trail

Is Giuliani vicious enough to win the Republican nomination?

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani

With the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, I thought it would be a good idea to check up on Rudy Giuliani. He is the last remaining political action figure from that tragedy, having left office at the top of his game, before anything like the Iraq war could tarnish him. After years of private-sector buck-raking, the mayor is back in campaign mode, traveling across the country to help Republican candidates and thinking about running for president.

But is he ready for the brutality of a presidential race? This would be the week for him to practice savaging Democrats. The GOP effort to caricature Iraq war opponents has become both more coordinated and more creative. Would the nation’s mayor talk about appeasing terrorists as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld did? Or would he use Vice President Cheney’s line about self-defeating pessimism? Would he at least dish out a little “cut and run?”

I drove Wednesday night through rush hour to see Giuliani in Potomac, Md., a wealthy Washington suburb and sanctuary for bad architecture. He was visiting a local restaurant with Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who’s running for Senate. Steele recently has been on the defensive about critical remarks he made about the Iraq war and Republican Congress. You couldn’t tell that from the candidate’s raucous supporters. (The event was hosted by the Women of Steele, an organization that sounds dangerously like a USW pinup calendar.) The cell phones and Treos went up like periscopes to photograph the two men as they struggled to wade through the packed room. Giuliani already looked like a presidential candidate, surrounded by thick-necked security guards, signing copies of his book, and listening politely as voters gushed about the Yankees or explained how they spent time once in New York.

When Giuliani started to speak, I was expecting a Lifetime vignette: A story about a fallen firefighter or a 9/11 widow bearing up under unspeakable pain, or perhaps a riff about how he looks out his office window toward lower Manhattan and never forgets. Every other politician is misusing the 9/11 anniversary, why wouldn’t he? But he did none of that, showing tasteful restraint he’ll have to give up if he actually runs for president.

Instead, Giuliani’s remarks about 9/11 were general. “Sept. 11 is not over. It’s not just a piece of our history. Sept. 11 is still going on. There are still people like that who want to attack us today. They’re trying to do an attack that’s even bigger than Sept. 11 to kill more Americans. That’s just the reality of the world we live in. To deal with it, you have to be on offense.” And the mayor didn’t even mention Iraq as the central front of the war on terror.

Yes, but what about the Democratic appeasers? Disappointed that the mayor didn’t rustle up a stirring anecdote about his experiences with 9/11, I hoped he wouldn’t miss an opportunity to compete with Cheney and Rumsfeld by whacking the opposition party.

I asked him in the brief question session afterward if he thought there was a move toward appeasement anywhere in America. “Some of the history of the war on terror was that it wasn’t taken seriously enough,” he said before recounting the reactions to the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and other weak responses to historical acts of terrorism. But even old mistakes were just mistakes: “I don’t know if you would call it appeasement,” he said.

At least one person in the audience seemed disappointed that Giuliani was being so stingy right in the middle of half-priced red-meat week. As the mayor answered the last of the three questions from reporters, he talked about the root causes of terrorism: “oppressive governments that demagogue and blame and project their problems other places and do nothing to solve the problems of their own people.”

“Sounds like the Democrats,” shouted a man.

The crowd roared.

It was the kind of stupid remark candidates usually ignore. They either agree but can’t show that they do, or they don’t want to cause a stir by contradicting one of the partisans they’ve come to court. Giuliani’s aides were already preparing to move him to his waiting SUV. He could have just left.

“Time out,” he said bringing his hands together to make a T. “Time out.” The crowd quieted down. “The other thing we have to learn is that we can’t get into this partisan bickering. The fact is that Republicans and Democrats have the same objectives. … Democrats are loyal Americans. Republicans are loyal Americans. I think we have better answers, but we have to respect each other.”

This guy is never getting the nomination.