The last time we gathered here the topic of discussion was the hypocrisy of the late Ed Koch on racial matters, particularly in his constant berating of Rudy Giuliani for treating the city’s race hustlers with the skepticism they deserved – an approach actually pioneered by Koch himself during his own mayoralty.
But Giuliani never did get much love from the city’s permanent political establishment and its prestige media, as evidenced most recently by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who in the wake of Koch’s passing called Koch, Fiorella La Guardia and Michael Bloomberg the city’s “three greatest mayors.”
La Guardia certainly belongs in the top three, and a strong case can be made for Koch, but Bloomberg? The only reason Bloomberg was elected mayor in the first place was the endorsement he received from Giuliani shortly after 9/11, when Giuliani had seized the nation’s imagination with his courageous leadership and Bloomberg was essentially running in political drag, having donned Republican vestments after a lifetime of dressing in liberal Democratic garb.
That’s not to say Bloomberg has been a bad mayor, just that listing him at the top of the heap with La Guardia and Koch ignores the unprecedented challenges Giuliani faced on assuming office and the way he went about transforming the city.
Put it this way: imagine that Michael Bloomberg rather than Rudy Giuliani had succeeded David Dinkins in January 1994. Would political reporter Andrew Kirtzman have been able to describe Bloomberg’s tenure the way he wrote of Giuliani in Emperor of the City, his gripping account of the Giuliani years:
“This is the story of a defiant man whose strength, resolve, and vision helped bring a city back from a state of bedlam. It’s an account of how a person with no experience in municipal government outsmarted its political leaders, union chiefs, and media lords and ended up changing the face of New York…. It’s about a leader whose accomplishments rank among the most dramatic in urban history.”
Giuliani succeeded the inept David Dinkins at a time most observers had given up on New York as a governable city. Bloomberg, on the other hand, succeeded Giuliani at a time when, to quote Kirtzman, “crime had plunged so low that that the FBI was calling New York the safest large city in America. Unemployment was down, and 400,000 fewer people were on the welfare rolls.”
Getting back to The New York Times, though it endorsed Giuliani for reelection in 1997 (he faced an uninspiring Democratic challenger and even Manhattan liberals found it hard not to give him his due), over the years the mouthpiece of New York liberalism generally treated him with varying degrees of skepticism, condescension and moral outrage.
Even as he left office in January 2002 on a note of unprecedented triumph and popularity, the tone of the paper’s editorials and most of its news coverage was startlingly jaundiced (a notable exception was an analysis piece by reporter Sam Roberts who mused that Giuliani would go down in history as a greater mayor than even La Guardia).
An editorial that appeared the Sunday before Giuliani’s departure was particularly churlish, claiming that “Even his staunchest supporters know that much of his success was due in part to good timing. His greatest achievements – the drop in crime, the reduction in welfare cases, the economic boom – were mirrored in other cities that had milder-mannered chief executives.”
Nonsense, responded historian Fred Siegel. “No other city has made comparable gains…. In the closing years of the Dinkins administration, tourists stayed away in droves, while businesses and residents were racing for the exits in what seemed like an evacuation. Had Mr. Dinkins been reelected, the flight from fear would have become a flood.”
As to the assertion that crime had dropped everywhere and Giuliani merely happened to have been in the right place at the right time, it just wasn’t true.
“None of these critics,” Siegel pointed out, “supplies specifics – with good reason. Crime didn’t fall everywhere, as anyone from Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit or a host of other big cities could have explained.”