New Yorkers have traditionally expected their mayor not so much to govern the city as to incarnate it—to radiate to the bland hinterland west of the Hudson the exuberance, quarrelsomeness, wit, and unassimilable ethnicity that make New Yorkers, at least in their own minds, a species unique on the planet. Even such ineffectual mayors as James J. Walker in the Twenties and William O’Dwyer in the Forties have reinforced the impression that New Yorkers live inside the world of Guys and Dolls. The most popular mayor of the century, Fiorello LaGuardia, was an Italian Jewish Protestant, a tyrant and a wag and a shameless ham who read the Sunday funny papers over the radio to the city’s children. Closer to our own time, Ed Koch is remembered not so much for anything he did as for the torrential flow of his chatter about city life, as if he had been elected cabdriver-in-chief rather than mayor. The proudly corrupt world of Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine that had driven the city’s political life for 150 years, enjoyed a final moment of efflorescence in the Eighties, before its chief practitioners were thrown in the slammer.
The man who threw them in was New York’s current mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. Unlike Koch, or Koch’s predecessor, Abe Beame, or his successor, David Dinkins, Giuliani was not a product of clubhouse politics, and thus was not ready to accept the immemorial norms of the city’s political life. He was a prosecutor, and a famously remorseless one; in City for Sale, an account of the scandals of the Koch years published in 1988, journalists Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett described Giuliani as a “priestly prosecutor,” an ascetic figure driven by a profound hatred of corruption and the abuse of power. This Savonarolaesque lawyer, with his terrible glare and his hatchet profile, corresponded to no known New York type.
After an incoherent campaign in 1989, when he lost by a hair to David Dinkins, who thus became the city’s first black mayor, Giuliani ran as an enemy of the status quo. He positioned himself as an opponent not only of the machine politics he had helped to destroy but of the social-welfare liberalism that had flourished since LaGuardia’s day, and of the preoccupation with individual rights that was a legacy of the Sixties. Giuliani was one of the least ingratiating candidates in recent memory; but that was part of his appeal. Who, after all, would want to identify himself with a city so violent, so dirty, so irresponsible? New York could no longer afford the politics of charm; it needed a priestly prosecutor’s harsh corrective.
And Giuliani has been as good as his word. Since becoming mayor in 1994, he has done the one thing to the city that nobody, New Yorkers included, could have imagined: tamed it. Crime is way down, but so are lesser forms of social disruption…
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