The Big Idea

Rudy Can Fail

He’s a leader, not a manager.

As someone who lived through Sept. 11 in New York City, I will always be grateful to Rudy Giuliani. The mayor’s quick instincts and sound judgment that day prevented panic. His calm authority got the city through the worst hours in its history and set it on the path to recovery. This wasn’t a given. President Bush’s initial public responses to the attacks were shaky, late, and far from reassuring.

But the presidential bid Rudy announced last week is staked on more than that Churchillian moment. It is also based on the notion that he is an effective manager who tamed an out-of-control metropolis and ran it efficiently. The real picture is somewhat more complicated. Giuliani was a frustrated and not very popular mayor on Sept. 10, 2001. Today, most New Yorkers do see him as a hero, but also as a self-sabotaging, thin-skinned bully. To put it more bluntly, we know he’s a bit of a dictator.

The leadership/management dichotomy runs through Giuliani’s two terms. When he first took office in 1994, New York desperately needed the kind of head-knocking at which he excels. After a quarter-century of decline, the city had become ungovernable and increasingly unlivable. The bloated public sector soaked up more and more resources to deliver less and less; quality of life measured by a dozen different indicators continued to erode. Like Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Rudy arrived bearing a strong message of “enough!” With a relish for combat, he took on a long list of civic tormentors who had been comfortable for too long, including municipal labor leaders, racial demagogues, and uncompromising civil libertarians.

Fred Siegel depicts the transformation in the city’s political culture well in his admiring book The Prince of the City. Rudy busted the squeegee men, purged Times Square, defunded the education bureaucrats, broke the back of the city’s welfare culture, and, of course, reduced crime dramatically through reformed policing. His toughness and moralizing were the perfect antidotes for what ailed the city, even when he exceeded his job description. At the United Nations 50th-anniversary celebrations, Rudy had Yasser Arafat ejected from a party at Lincoln Center. When people complained, he regretted not throwing out the dirty little terrorist himself.

The change in daily life was huge and sudden. One began strolling confidently around the city at 2 in the morning without glancing behind. Dinner party conversation ceased to revolve around muggings and burglaries and turned to the latest gentrifying neighborhood. In his new book, The Great American Crime Decline, Franklin E. Zimring, a leading scholar of criminal justice, says that New York’s decline in the 1990s was twice the national average because of “three major changes in the city’s police department”—more cops, more aggressive policing, and management reforms like the famous COMPSTAT system. If this verdict holds up, Zimring writes, “it would be by far the biggest crime prevention achievement in the recorded history of metropolitan policing.”

But over time, Giuliani’s Putin (or Rasputin)-like tendencies became increasingly evident. Instead of taking on new challenges after his re-election in 1997, he dedicated his second term to punishing his enemies, including his wife at the time. He made his former driver, Bernard Kerik, chief of police and retreated even further into the comfort of his cronies. Fran Reiter, who served as a deputy mayor under Giuliani, describes him as depressed and directionless after being sworn in for the second time. “He can get mired in the petty stuff,” she told me. “He doesn’t suffer political opponents well, and there are times when he doesn’t compromise well.”

In his second term, Giuliani showed himself to be a classic micromanager, unable to delegate and unwilling to share the spotlight. He had already driven out William Bratton, his victorious chief of police, in a battle over credit. Bratton’s fate was sealed when he, not Rudy, appeared on the cover of Time. Nor could Giuliani abide mockery. He went to court to try to stop New York magazine from advertising itself on the sides of buses as “POSSIBLY THE ONLY GOOD THING IN NEW YORK RUDY HASN’T TAKEN CREDIT FOR.” After Sept. 11, he threatened, in Caudillo-like fashion, to ignore the legal term limit and run for re-election again if the candidates running to succeed him didn’t all agree to let him stay in office for three extra months.

Rudy’s weaknesses as a manager—and as a human being—have become more evident in the light of his successor, Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has neither a whim of steel nor a pandering bone in his body. Arriving in 2002 at a City Hall that had no e-mail system or computerized payroll, he quietly cleaned up the mess—including a huge number of dubious, no-bid contracts—without faulting his predecessor. He and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, have managed to continue to make further gains against crime, which few thought possible, without becoming obsessed with their press clippings. Above all, Bloomberg has taken on the big problems Giuliani never faced, without the constant attitude that he might declare martial law if you cross him again.

Perhaps the biggest difference is on fiscal issues. Giuliani, who lost interest in curtailing the growth of city government in his latter years, left behind a fiscal catastrophe—a $6.4 billion deficit proportionately bigger than the hole that caused the 1975 fiscal shortfall. “Bloombe rg cleaned this up by cutting spending as much as he could without gutting basic services, negotiating labor givebacks, and increasing property and other taxes,” says Ester * Fuchs, a former Bloomberg adviser and now a professor of public policy at Columbia University. The tax increases were deeply unpopular but necessary. Bloomberg’s style is less theatrical than Giuliani’s, but as a negotiator, he’s probably tougher. Last winter, he took a paralyzing transit strike and sent the union’s chief to jail rather than cave to demands that the city couldn’t afford over the long term. Today, the city’s budget is in surplus, construction is ubiquitous, and despite 9/11, New York has become a more attractive business destination than ever.

Bloomberg has also confronted the predicament of the schools far more directly. Because New York long had an independent board of education, Giuliani lacked power to change the system—and liked it that way, preferring to call for a voucher system that wasn’t going to happen and play whack-the-chancellor. Bloomberg, by contrast, asked the legislature for direct control, got it, and has focused intently on systemic reform. Progress, as measured by test scores, has, so far, been disappointing. But to his credit, Bloomberg has assumed responsibility and is now answerable to parents in a way Giuliani never was.

This comparison doesn’t make the case for Bloomberg as president so much as it underscores what a scary place a Giuliani White House could be. President Rudy would give powerful speeches denouncing terrorism while assuming extraordinary wartime powers. He’d reject compromise with his antagonists and ignore the nuts and bolts of running a government. After a few years, he’d be on nonspeaking terms with much of his Cabinet, never mind his fellow world leaders. By the time he got done, he might make us appreciate George W. Bush.

Correction, Feb. 22, 2007: This piece originally misspelled Ester Fuchs’ first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)