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Mayor Mud's Last Hat Trick

January 03, 2002|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism.

NEW YORK — In Times Square a few days ago, just after midnight on New Year's Eve, Rudolph W. Giuliani passed the mayoralty of New York City to his successor Michael Bloomberg. It was his final and arguably his bravest showing.

Giuliani and all the other lunatics who came out for the ball drop stood there like arrogant sheep, smiling defiantly, as if this were any other year, as if midtown at midnight on this particular day weren't the plumpest of plum targets hanging mouth-wateringly low in every suicide bomber's dreams.

Mercifully, it wasn't to be. Our mayor dodged another disaster only to pop up, as usual, somewhere else and say, "Next?" As if each new debacle were just another customer.

You have to have lived in New York City for the last eight years to appreciate how absurd Giuliani's newfound god status really is, and how utterly incongruent it is with his pre-Sept. 11 image.

Back then, people saw him as a pint-size dictator whose only ancillary virtue was that he cleaned up Times Square and made the trains run on time. He was just a petty potentate, Napoleonically short and short-tempered.

This perception of the man can be neatly summed up by a T-shirt you often saw for sale on the street. It pictured him grinning with fangs and a Hitler mustache, with the caption "Adolf Giuliani."

The man's tarring as a fascist was legendary. It followed him everywhere. So much so that it became an inside joke among New Yorkers, the kind you could share with waiters in restaurants who, when you asked for water with your meal, sometimes asked you if you wanted bottled water or tap water, which they drolly referred to as "Giuliani water."

Somehow "Bloomberg water" just doesn't have the same sardonic ring to it.

It was an indelible understanding we all had about our town's chief executive, an accepted slur on his ethnicity that gave him a whiff of Mussolini and made the NYPD out to be a marauding band of black shirts, a bitter caricature that had been watered and groomed to fruition by the tabloids.

He was the worm in the Big Apple, or better, the serpent in the garden, holding up that forbidden fruit, his city, to the highest bidder. Never mind that the man had reduced crime to levels not seen since the 1970s and had made the city thrive and blossom in a way no one could deny.

The seedy implications dogged him so thoroughly that no one questioned the veracity of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima's claim that the officers who beat and sodomized him with a broomstick in their precinct bathroom in 1997 had exclaimed, "It's Giuliani time!" while doing so. Later, Louima admitted to lying about this remark, but the damage had been done, mostly because the remark's relevance was a given.

"Giuliani time," like "Giuliani water," had acquired a meaning and an applicability all its own.

Given all this, you can see, why those of us who knew Rudy intimately before he became the most famous and beloved mayor in the country are feeling as displaced as Rip Van Winkle to see him plastered as "Person of the Year" on the cover of Time magazine.

Giuliani beloved? Revered? Can it be?

That's not to say he doesn't deserve the distinction. He manifestly does.

Striding through ground zero, having brushed off a bout with prostate cancer, he outmaneuvered the towering infernos even as they came down around him. By comparison, President Bush looked like a cardboard cutout on the run.

Giuliani was built for conflict. He seemed always to be itching for a fight that was big enough to challenge him, which is why, much to his detriment, he came across as a bully and his opponents came out smelling like rosy Lilliputians.

Finally, on Sept. 11, the chemistry was right and he faced a catastrophe that catered to his strengths. He didn't rise to the occasion. It rose to him.

His name went from mud to master of the universe in a single day, and therein lies the story of what has to be the most stunning popularity reversal in the history of American politics.

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