Rudy Giuliani marked this week’s 9/11 anniversary by reminiscing about that fateful day from the friendly confines of Fox & Friends. His hosts dutifully recycled the TV footage of Giuliani walking the streets of smoky Lower Manhattan, paper mask affixed to his face, imploring people to flee northward. He told his Fox couchmates that he walked for hours, and that there were times when he could barely breathe.
That’s still the way many Americans see Giuliani, notwithstanding his current stint as Donald Trump’s truth-averse emissary. The 9/11 visuals resurface once a year, burnishing the myth of “America’s mayor,” and it’s seemingly hard to square the Giuliani of 2001 with the Giuliani of 2018—the TV lawyer who says, “Truth isn’t truth”; who says presidents can’t be subpoenaed (at least three have been subpoenaed, starting with Thomas Jefferson); who says Robert Mueller’s hiring was “illegal” (in the Paul Manafort case, two federal judges have ruled otherwise); who says the FBI agents raiding Michael Cohen’s office were “storm troopers” (Cohen himself says the agents, acting with a legal warrant, were “extremely professional”); who says that Cohen has “lied all his life” (before Cohen flipped, Giuliani lauded him as “honest”); who says that Donald Trump Jr. didn’t know he was meeting in Trump Tower with Russian government representatives (an email to Trump Jr. explicitly said so); who spilled the beans about Stormy Daniels—telling the world, during his TV-lawyer debut in May, that Trump knew about “the general arrangement” to pay hush money on the eve of the 2016 election. At the time of Giuliani’s disclosure, Trump’s denial of all knowledge was still the official position.
And because it’s difficult to reconcile the two images—the healing mayor who walked the dusty streets and the brawling motormouth who’s constantly walking back his remarks—there is a strong temptation to believe that Giuliani has changed, that he has tragically plummeted from greatness. This is the widely accepted narrative, articulated by smart commentators as diverse as the former GOP foreign-policy adviser Max Boot (who says that Giuliani is “the most conspicuous Republican to fall from grace”) and the columnist Matt Bai (who says that Giuliani’s current incarnation is “the last sad act of a once serious man” who made New York a far safer city.)
But since truth is truth, the counternarrative is perhaps more compelling: The current Giuliani is the same Giuliani who successfully fought crime, jailed mobsters, and prosecuted miscreants on Wall Street. He is not a fallen figure worthy of Greek tragedy. He is who he always was; in the words of the Greek philosopher Hericlatus, “Character is destiny.”
Giuliani and Trump have been friends and allies since at least 1989, when the real-estate magnate supported the federal prosecutor’s first run for mayor. And by all accounts, they’ve always shared character traits—most notably, in the words of the legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, “naked aggression and a thirst for attention.” The aggression has taken many forms, including a refusal to accept advice from subordinates. And during Giuliani’s two terms as mayor, that trait was arguably most evident during the security-related run-up to 9/11.
The myth is that Giuliani was at the apogee of his greatness on the day the towers fell. But the truth, which can’t compete with the TV visuals, was that Giuliani, plagued by low poll ratings at the tail end of his mayoralty, relentlessly walked the streets because he didn’t have an emergency headquarters to commandeer. He didn’t have an emergency HQ—officially called the emergency-operations center, at a cost of $13 million—because it had been destroyed in the terrorist attack. It had been destroyed because it had been located on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center. It had been located at 7 World Trade Center because Giuliani had wanted it there, defying the vociferous protests from people in his administration, including the police commissioner, who felt it was foolhardy to put the HQ in a place that had already been targeted by terrorists in 1993. Giuliani rejected the advice and insisted that the new HQ was impregnable.
The nonpartisan 9/11 Commission later examined Giuliani’s track record and found it less than mythical. The HQ was gone, and that exacerbated long-standing communication problems between the police and firefighters. The 9/11 Commission’s senior counsel, John Farmer, spoke with the journalists Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins—the authors of Grand Illusion, a book about Giuliani and 9/11—and punctured the image of America’s mayor. He said that if the emergency HQ had been located elsewhere, “I really think it would have made a difference. Maybe the failure to communicate among the agencies doesn’t happen that day because that thing is functioning. That’s the point of it … I think the number of responder deaths could have been greatly reduced.”
Barrett and Collins found it ironic that Giuliani’s HQ decision wound up rendering him iconic: “It was at once the dumbest decision he ever made and the one that made him a legend. If the center had been elsewhere, all the dramatic visuals that had turned Giuliani into a nomad warrior would instead have been tense but tame footage from its barren press conference room.”
Just as crucial was the fact—cited by Farmer—that the police and firefighters didn’t have the capacity to communicate on the same emergency frequency. In the aftermath of the ’93 terrorist bombing in a World Trade Center parking garage, Giuliani had nearly eight years to solve that problem. He failed. The New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, in their book, 102 Minutes, which meticulously reconstructs that fateful morning, filled in the background as well. They wrote that Giuliani’s predecessor, David Dinkins, had created the Aviation Emergency Preparedness Working Group, which included representatives from the fire and police departments; in 1990, “the group concluded that the agencies needed to practice working together and to arrange a single radio frequency that commanders could share during emergencies.”
However, the Times reporters recounted, “the group was disbanded in 1994, when [Giuliani] took office … The city did not organize a single joint drill involving all the emergency responders in the eight years after the 1993 attack.” And the 9/11 Commission staff concluded, in a statement released in May 2004: “Any attempt to establish a unified command on 9/11 would have been frustrated by the lack of communication and coordination among responding agencies.”
Actually, the verdict on Giuliani might have been harsher if only the commission had dared to probe deeper. The chairman and vice chairman, the Republican Thomas Kean and the Democrat Lee Hamilton, respectively, wrote in 2006 that Giuliani’s halo essentially inoculated him: “It proved difficult, if not impossible, to raise hard questions about 9/11 in New York without it being perceived as criticism of the individual police and firefighters or of Mayor Giuliani. We did not ask tough questions, nor did we get all of the information we needed to put on the public record.”
So as Trump’s critics—at this point, a solid majority of Americans—ponder his TV lawyer’s rhetorical antics, including his declaration last week that Trump won’t answer Mueller’s questions that touch on obstruction of justice, followed by his walk back that such questions are “not ruled in or out,” it is fallacious to believe that Giuliani has inexplicably soiled his 9/11 sainthood. That was always a myth—unlike his iron bond with Trump, which apparently nothing, not even verbal abuse, can ever sunder.
In Bob Woodward’s new book, there’s a telling episode on Trump’s campaign plane. The Access Hollywood tape had just surfaced, and Giuliani went on TV to defend his friend. But Trump reportedly went ballistic, believing that Giuliani had been too conciliatory, and he yelled on the plane: “Rudy, you’re a baby! I’ve never seen a worse defense of me in my life … You’re like a little baby that needed to be changed … You’re weak, Rudy. You’ve lost it.”
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