December 17, 2007

As a native New Yorker who has lived in the City (albeit Queens) most of his life, I have some reason to be grateful to Rudolph Giuliani. His policies—and the capable police commissioner he hired, then enviously fired, William Bratton—helped reverse the decline of a once vital city, whose coffers had been scraped, its thugs empowered, and institutions corrupted through during two decades of bipartisan (Lindsay/Beame/Koch) leftist governance. You need to have witnessed the change in New York after Giuliani’s election in 1993 to understand the visceral loyalty Giuliani inspires in residents of (and even commuters to) the City. For those of you who weren’t there, I’ll try to evoke life as we then knew it:

The city center, Times Square, was once a repellant cesspool of “adult entertainment,” with luridly obscene advertisements, hawkers giving handbills for strip clubs to school kids, and sex toys on display in shop windows. Drivers stopped at red lights were terrorized by “squeegee men,” strapping derelicts who’d run wet, filthy sponges over windshields and loudly demand payment for this “service.” Street crime, while already declining, was grave enough that women feared to ride subways or walk the streets at night. All the trains and stations were coated with graffiti. No one was fixing the broken windows, or arresting the urban youths who brazenly jumped turnstiles. It seemed that every second heat grate or subway car featured an aggressive mental patient who stank of human waste. ATMs, then a recent and welcome invention, had been colonized by pushy, filthy panhandlers who slept inside and cadged for handouts from scared young women at night.

Some people used to call New York in this period “the Wild West,” but it had none of the wholesome, raw energy of a frontier town where order was slowly being imposed. Instead, the place was much more like Rome in the sixth century, when the last vestiges of ancient order had disappeared, and the citizens skulked behind ruined columns, hiding from the Visigoths. (For a vivid picture of New York in its decline, rent Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, or Spike Lee’s brilliant, underappreciated Summer of Sam.) No wonder so many New Yorkers made folk heroes out of thugs like John Gotti, who while they pumped drugs into the ghettos, made it seem that they “kept their neighborhoods safe.”

With intellectual support from the hard work done by neoconservative critics of leftist social policies (remember when it used to be a pleasure to read Commentary?), Giuliani ran for mayor against the insurgent David Dinkins in 1989, and I supported him. Which is part of the reason he lost. Well, I wasn’t personally responsible, but Giuliani’s narrow defeat was caused, the common wisdom went, by his nominal embrace of social conservatism. At least on paper, the ex-altar boy claimed to be pro-life, and opposed to most demands of the burgeoning NY gay lobby. (Of course, a New York mayor can do little about abortion, except perhaps to avoid philandering and causing a few—as Rudy probably has. I wish that someone like Tom Tancredo would ask him about this at the next debate.)

In a city that had grown nearly unliveable thanks to far-left policies, a good government Republican went down to defeat by a mere by 47,000 votes—roughly the number of people who pass through Zabar’s on a weekend for whitefish. Ironically, it is to their credit that the social liberals of New York preferred to risk being stabbed on the street to voting in a mayor who embodied (for them) intolerance.

The white ethnics who made up Giuliani’s base made a different choice—and one that’s understandable, for ordinary people just trying to get through life in a crumbling city, which decayed even faster under the bumbling, pandering Dinkins. Staring into his cup of defeat, Giuliani read the tea leaves, and reinvented himself in 1993 as a pro-gay, “pro-choice” reformer. He beat Dinkins by almost exactly his previous margin of defeat, some 53,000 votes. George Marlin, the principled pro-life businessman who ran third party, picked up a mere 14,000 votes, including mine.

Giuliani had learned his lesson, and he’s applying it today. He discovered that conservative voters are less principled than liberals, more willing to trade off what they hold sacred so as to save their skins. Too many Americans who watched with horror the events of Sept. 11, 2001 on television have turned to the man who stood resolutely behind a microphone all through the day, reassuring them in a deep, masculine voice that all was well—even as George Bush cowered somewhere with My Pet Goat, and Dick Cheney lurked in an undisclosed location studying oil maps of Iraq.

Not that Giuliani actually accomplished much of anything on 9/11, beyond what any decent mayor (i.e., not Ray Nagin) would have done. I know—I was there that day, and have friends who fled the fires, watching bodies plummet to the ground a few feet away. A priest I am close to administered Last Rites in one of the Towers until just moments before it collapsed.

It was the EMT, cops, and fireman who died that day to save some 16,000 people in the towers. We’ll never know how many cops and firemen died directly because of the obsolete radios with which Giuliani had saddled them. That’s why the NYC firefighter’s union is one of Giuliani’s most dogged opponents. Another group speaking out against Giuliani is the 9/11 Families for a Secure America, who remember that Giuliani championed the policy preventing cops from reporting illegal aliens—like the 9/11 hijackers who murdered their relatives, and almost 3,000 other people. No doubt there’s some bitterness also among the recovery volunteers who breathed asbestos and God knows what else for weeks as Giuliani’s now indicted, mob-connected longtime employee Bernard Kerik cavorted for weeks with his girlfriend in the suite meant for rescue workers. It was this man Giuliani promoted to head the Dept. of Homeland Security.

I suspect that there’s a certain hesitation to vote for Giuliani among the families of the children abused by Alvin Placa, the ex-priest who was defrocked for molesting high-school boys and helping to cover for other molesters. (A grand jury report described Placa as “cautious but relentless in pursuing his victims.”) Placa is Giuliani’s childhood friend and remains his “spiritual advisor.” According to Salon, Placa

was the best man at Giuliani’s first marriage in 1968 to his second cousin, Regina Peruggi, then helped Giuliani get an annulment in 1982—over Regina’s protests—so he could marry his second wife, Donna Hanover. Placa officiated at the wedding of Hanover and Giuliani in 1984. In September 2002, while suspended by the diocese over the sexual abuse allegations and no longer permitted to perform priestly duties, Placa received special permission to officiate at the funeral of the former mayor’s mother, Helen. He also officiated at the funeral of Giuliani’s father and baptized both of Giuliani’s children.

Perhaps, in the cabinet position Giuliani grants him, Placa will prove “cautious but relentless in pursuing” Osama bin Laden.

Much of this moral squalor wouldn’t matter if Giuliani were running for mayor again—or as The Onion aptly quipped, for “President of 9/11.” But it makes a difference now, as he crosses his fingers and promises to name “strict constructionist judges” to Supreme Court, where they will (we hope) reverse the decision legalizing a procedure which Giuliani considers every woman’s constitutional right. To this promise I would act the prosecutor and ask Giuliani, “Were you lying then or are you lying now?” Given the massive arm-twisting it took to get the genuinely pro-life George W. Bush to appoint Judge Alito instead of the hack Harriet Myers, does anyone really believe Giuliani will keep this promise? Or is it just a fig-leaf for the conscience, a loophole we’re saving for the annulment?

Social conservatives who support Giuliani for President do so for two reasons—fear and fantasy. They fear the hordes of faceless terrorists (of the very sort Giuliani wouldn’t deport—but never mind). They fantasize that the U.S. military can do for the entire world what the NYPD did for Queens—hunt down the evildoers and make us safe again. They fear Hillary Clinton as if she were incarnate evil—when in fact, her policies would prove indistinguishable from Giuliani’s, since they both sit on the same point of the center-left. They fantasize that American intervention around the world will prove free of hideous consequence, that we can act the bully in every corner of the earth while still grazing safely as sheep. In this, these “conservatives” are no better than the cafoni named Vinnie and Vito who thronged John Gotti’s funeral. Like them, they’re waving flags.

John Zmirak is author of, among other books, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living (, and the upcoming graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor. Image courtesy of


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