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Fred Siegel, The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005, $26.95, xv-386 pages, ISBN 1-59403-084-7)—Stefano Luconi, University of Florence


The decision by Time magazine to name Rudolph Giuliani “person of the year” for 2001 marked the climax in the political rehabilitation of the then outgoing Republican mayor of New York City in the wake of his prompt response to the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. According to the weekly, Giuliani had to be commended “for not sleeping and not quitting and not shrinking from all the pain around him.” Such words contrasted with the usual stress on the mayor’s lack of empathy and his previous characterization as a politician in disgrace.

Indeed, just a year earlier, Giuliani’s reputation was in shambles and his future in public life looked rather bleak to say the least. A tough U.S. associate attorney general and federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York in well-known cases against notorious figures in organized crime and corrupt Wall Street executives, Giuliani became a most divisive mayor during his two terms as the head of New York City’s administration between 1994 and 2001. He was often charged with being deficient in sensitivity to the welfare of the poor in his efforts to cut municipal expenses. He was also accused of being a racist and encouraging the Police Department’s heavy-handed methods, racial profiling, and violation of civil rights in his fight to slash the crime rate. The cases of Abner Louima (a newcomer from Haiti who was sodomized with a plunger in a police station), Amadou Diallo (an illegal immigrant from Guinea who was killed with forty-one shots by officers of Giuliani’s Street Crime Unit who had mistaken his wallet for a gun), and Anthony Baez (a Puerto Rican whom a policeman stifled to death while arresting him for hitting patrol car with a football) offered solid evidence for the mayor’s detractors and exacerbated people’s anger at Giuliani over police practices. Prevented by the city charter from running for a third term, Giuliani devised a 2000 bid for the U.S. Senate in partial vindication of his policies and to remain politically viable. Yet voters never had a chance to express their approval or disapproval of the mayor’s record by casting their ballots at the polls. The discovery that he was suffering from prostate cancer and the public end of his second marriage resulting from the exposition of an affair with Judy Nathan forced Giuliani to withdraw from the Senatorial race even before entering it officially. Political ignominy yielded to widespread popularity in just a few months. While President George W. Bush spent the hours following the knocking down of the Twin Towers in virtual seclusion between an Air Force base in Louisiana and the Strategic Air Command in Nebraska because of concern that terrorists would target him as well, Giuliani rushed to the debris of the World Trade Center and became a compelling public presence. Through this disaster, Guiliani managed rescue efforts, took measures against other possible attacks, and most of all reassured his city and his country alike. New York City’s lame duck, the conservative who looked hypocritical in the aftermath of adultery, and the sturdy politician made vulnerable by illness, hence rose to the status of “mayor of the World,” as noted by the Times’ award commentary.

Even the the harshest critics of the Giuliani administration arguing that the mayor should be judged for his pre-September 11 record of political opportunism, tolerance toward racism, perfunctory morality, cuts in expenditure for education, and failure to curb the budget deficit have been compelled to admit that he was extremely successful in coping with the consequences of the terrorist attacks and behaved as a unifying figure in such circumstances [see, e.g., Jack Newfield, The Full Rudy: The Man, the Myth, the Mania (New York: Thunder Mouth Press, 2002)]. After stepping down, Giuliani himself contributed to safeguarding his own legacy in writing. Coauthored with Ken Kurson, his best-selling Leadership (New York: Hyperion, 2002) displayed numerous statistics about improvements under his administration and outlined the achievements of his mayoralty in the fields of public safety, economic development, social and fiscal policies, education, cultural affairs, children services, and quality of life for New York City. More than this latter volume, however, Fred Siegel’s scholarly but not dispassionate study of the Giuliani administration is likely to restore the former mayor’s political reputation and to make a contribution to his anticipated campaign for the White House.

A professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York City and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, Siegel credits Giuliani with a number of remarkable achievements: cutting taxes, reforming the welfare system in order to reduce its rolls significantly and to get recipients back to work, raising educational standards, attracting new business, breaking the control of organized crime over the fish market and trash hauling, and above all making New York a much safer city than it was when he took over the local government in 1994. In particular, Siegel places Giuliani’s mayoralty against the backdrop of the experience of his predecessors since Jimmy Walker in the 1920s. He contends that Giuliani broke with a long tradition in local politics that had progressively replaced middle-class aspirations with a widespread sense of entitlement to welfare benefits from the municipal government among the destitute since the times of Fiorello H. La Guardia. As the author’s argument further states, while the underprivileged depended on the local administration and this latter on the federal government, dependency not only failed to curb poverty and crime; it also undermined community and family constraints, created a new kind of patronage machine, and caused a remarkable increase in city taxes that induced many corporations and middle-class residents to seek fiscal sanctuary outside New York City’s limits. These phenomena reached their fullest expression under Giuliani’s predecessor, David Dinkins, an African-American Democrat. Significantly enough, in answer to a reporter who had decided to move outside the jurisdiction of Dinkins’ administration in search of lower taxes and better life, the mayor retorted “Sorry you left us. Sorrier still that we can’t raise your personal income tax” [xiii].

Siegel highlights how Giuliani cashed in on voters’ backlash at Dinkins’s supposedly disastrous liberalism in 1993 and suggests that the incumbent mayor’s resort to a racial discourse in this year’s election campaign to revive his victorious 1989 black-Latino coalition in the primary against Ed Koch eventually backfired. The author also stresses that, once in office, Giuliani overcame the constraints of ethnic politics and successfully fought the theretofore unchallenged main special interest within the municipal government, namely the lobby of the public-sector city bureaucracy whose progressive growth thanks to the protection of civil service had allegedly helped destabilize the budget and made New York almost ungovernable. Nonetheless, by the end of his second term, Giuliani himself used a rise in public expenditures as a means to build up political consensus.

Actually, Siegel does acknowledge Giuliani’s shortcomings and failures, including his brusque style, arrogant behavior, and disregard for his troubled relations with the press. Within this context, Siegel points to the 1996 forced resignation of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on the grounds that he had outshined the mayor in the city’s successful anti-crime campaign as the most serious mistake of the Giuliani administration. Bratton’s replacement, Howard Safir, did not steal the mayor’s show, but he was a technocrat so out-of-touch with public opinion that he decided to go off to attend the Academy Awards in Hollywood as few as two days after the killing of Diallo. In addition, Siegel remarks that Giuliani was not the absolute mastermind of New York City politics in the 1990s and that many reforms the mayor carried out needed the support and cooperation from other local politicians, most notably City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, in order to be enacted. Nonetheless Siegel’s volume is overall more considerate toward the mayor than previous book-length analyses of the Giuliani administration that came out at the end of his second term such as Wayne Barrett, with Adam Fifield, Rudy! An Investigative Biography of Rudolph Giuliani (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

Unlike Barrett, who intended to destroy Giuliani on the eve of what should have been the mayor’s forthcoming campaign for the Senate against First Lady Hillary Clinton, Siegel provides a more balanced overview that is rich with insightful statistics and opinion polls. Although the author considers the mayor’s progressive estrangement from his wife as a major distraction, he refrains from elaborating on extramarital relations or digging into Giuliani’s family history in search of skeletons, such as his father’s 1934 conviction on charges of armed robbery and subsequent activity as a loan sharking collection agent. For instance, the mayor’s alleged love affair with his press secretary, Cristyne Lategano, is dismissed as “never-substantiated rumors” [183] and his father, Harold Giuliani, is never mentioned.

Detachment from the hot political climate of the early-aborted 2000 Senatorial race may have contributed to Siegel’s approach. So should have the author’s proclaimed access to the administration’s archival records. Yet, despite Siegel’s claim that his “is the first book to draw on the Giuliani papers” [xv], the footnotes and endnotes of the volume list only limited sources from that collection and references to archival materials are limited primarily to the years of the Dinkins administration.

This is not the only flaw in The Prince of the City. Some events in the racial polarization of New York City under Giuliani, such as Baez’s death, are overlooked. So are the social costs of Giuliani’s welfare reform. The reader also hardly learns of Giuliani’s Italian ancestry, though his identification with an ethnic minority that appropriated whiteness and its biases after immigration to the United States may have contributed to explaining the mayor’s polarizing effect on the city’s racial divide as historian David R. Roediger has contended [Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past (Berkeley: U of California P, 2002), 27-43].

The treatment of the context for Giuliani’s mayoralty reveals some weakness, too. Following in the footsteps of his previous analysis of U.S. metropolises in the late twentieth century [The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America’s Big Cities (New York: Free Press, 1997)], Siegel attempts to extend his examination into an inquiry into turn-of-the-Millennium New York City. However, he seldom deals in depth with the connections between local and national politics. For instance, scant references to the Washington scene make both President Bill Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it” and the attack on the welfare state in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” appear as incidental background rather than the essential political climate of opinion for Giuliani’s handling of the same issues at the municipal level. Furthermore, structural explanations for New York City’s pre-Giuliani decline would have deserved more attention—the slump in manufacturing jobs definitely share the blame with the failures of Manhattan liberals and the entrenchment of the public-sector unions for the social and economic problems of the early 1990s. Likewise, the confutation of the thesis that it was a booming economy, rather than the mayor’s programs, which caused the significant drop in New York City’s crime rate in the 1990s is confined to a footnote [150]. One may also wonder why Siegel never mentions Vincent Impellitteri (another Italian-American politician like Giuliani and La Guardia) in his sketchy outline of New York City’s mayors since the 1920s.

Despite Siegel’s efforts to provide a comprehensive study that even speculates about what may lie in Giuliani’s political future, the second edition of Rudy Giuliani: Emperor of the City, updated to September 11, by Andrew Kirtzman (New York: Perennial, 2001) still stands out as the best analysis of the Giuliani administration. While Siegel’s evaluation is never uncritical, it is definitely sympathetic. Actually, the author’s assessment of Giuliani’s presidential prospects and overemphasis on his “enormous appeal” [331] in view of a 2008 bid for the White House might make several readers reasonably believe that the very purpose of The Prince of the City is to pave the way for such a race by embellishing the former mayor’s record and stressing his leadership capabilities in times of crisis. In this respect, however, in reviewing such a tenure, Siegel paradoxically aims at demonstrating that Giuliani is a true conservative notwithstanding his perception as a social moderate who supports abortion, gay rights, as well as gun control and endorsed Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo against Republican George Pataki in the 1994 race for New York State’s governorship. While even President George W. Bush disguises himself as a moderate and emphasizes his own allegedly “compassionate conservatism” [John C. Fortier and Norman J. Ornstein, “President Bush: Legislative Strategist,” The George W. Bush Presidency: An Early Assessment, ed. Fred I. Greenstein (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003) 145-47], in Siegel’s view, the uncompromising dismantlement of New York City’s welfare liberalism is the mayor’s greatest achievement and what makes Giuliani a potentially viable candidate for the White House in 2008.

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