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The Desert Prince

1.

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 that New Yorkers have tolerated for years, such as aggressive panhandling. And he has, to a remarkable extent, won the battle of ideas. He has challenged habits and assumptions—about spending, about welfare, about crime control—that have long been part of the local consensus. And yet, for all that, Giuliani has never really been embraced by the city as some of his predecessors were. The man who would rather be respected than liked has gotten his wish. His enemies despise him and even his admirers occasionally find his behavior repugnant. Perhaps it couldn’t be otherwise; a less ferocious figure would himself have been tamed. And yet, watching the mayor govern has, at times, been a sickening spectacle, like a one-sided schoolyard fight. Giuliani has rarely been satisfied merely to defeat his foes; he seems to need to crush them, humiliate them, leave them no room for honorable withdrawal. There is some spirit of excess in the man, some force of unreason, that has made him fascinating.

Until this past spring, Giuliani was, of course, going to run against Hillary Clinton to fill the Senate seat vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a battle that at times threatened to blot out the presidential race. Giuliani was running an oddly lackadaisical campaign, as if he expected to be made senator by acclamation. Then he made his astonishing announcements: that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and that he was separating from Donna Hanover, his wife of sixteen years. In his illness, he said, he had come to depend on his “very good friend,” a former nurse named Judith Nathan. The mayor seemed equally stunned by mortality and by new love (though not by the prospect of separation from wife and family); and as he very publicly bared his emotions, he showed reporters, who had come to regard him as barely human, a side they had scarcely imagined, much less glimpsed. “Pray for me,” he said to a tabloid correspondent with whom he had not been on speaking terms. Then in mid-May, he ended the protracted drama by announcing that he would not run for the Senate—a discouraging decision for the two journalists who had been commissioned to write biographies of the mayor. The books were hustled out over the summer to catch the expiring Giuliani tide; they now read as epitaphs, if perhaps premature ones, to one of the most improbable political figures of our time.

In Rudy!, which is described as “an investigative biography,” Wayne Barrett, a longtime reporter for The Village Voice, accomplishes something remarkable: he exhumes the buried tale of Rudy Giuliani’s family past, including a great many details with which the mayor himself appears to have been unfamiliar. By interviewing family members whom nobody appears to have thought to talk to, and by beavering his way through ancient police and court records, Barrett discovered, as the world now knows, that in 1934 Giuliani’s father, Harold, pleaded guilty to the armed robbery of a milkman in the darkened stairwell of an East Side apartment building, and was sentenced to two to five years in Sing Sing. Harold’s one professional talent seems to have been the use of violence, and Barrett alleges that he made a living as the “muscle” for a gambling and loan-sharking operation run out of a Brooklyn bar by Leo D’Avanzo, his wife’s cousin, enforcing discipline with a .38 and a baseball bat. Not until Rudy was fourteen did Harold hold a legitimate job, as a janitor in a Long Island high school. But even this didn’t last. Harold was arrested for loitering when Rudy was seventeen; he suffered what a friend described as a “nervous breakdown,” left his job, and eventually drifted back to tending bar, or at least was paid for showing up at the family bar.

Rudy Giuliani has been in the public eye for over fifteen years, intensely so since he first ran for mayor in 1989; and yet none of this was known until now. (And none of it appears in Andrew Kirtzman’s biography.) Though I have written two extensive profiles of the mayor, I had always assumed that Harold Giuliani was a “tavern owner.” I had, it turns out, lifted this quaint description, redolent of tethered horses, waitresses in mobcaps, and servants sleeping on hay, from City for Sale, coauthored, with Jack Newfield, by the very same Wayne Barrett who has now torn the veil from the mayor’s past. I feel better about my own lack of curiosity knowing that so determined a researcher as Barrett had also accepted Giuliani’s fictional accounts of his family at face value. But it raises an embarrassing question: How could the notoriously prying New York press have failed to unearth the most elementary facts about the mayor’s background? It would be as if Bill Clinton had claimed that he had grown up in suburban bliss, and reporters had bought the story until just now.

A certain amount of credit goes to Giuliani himself, who until his recent confrontation with mortality was a shining example of the old school of anti-confessional politics. In fact, since Giuliani hardly talked to reporters at all, except en masse, not many members of the press even had the opportunity to ask him about his childhood. But what is also true is that the few anecdotes Giuliani supplied fit perfectly into the persona that he was shaping for himself. His father had tied a pair of boxing gloves on him at age two; his father had dressed him in a Yankee uniform in the middle of Dodgers-mad Brooklyn; his father had taught him that no work was undignified; his father had run the “tavern.” Was this not precisely the childhood to form the Oliver Cromwell who stood before us?

When they write about great men, journalists take their cue from Plutarch, seeking the mythic narrative that points to the great truth. Think of JFK and touch football on the lawn at Hyannisport, or JFK and Camelot, or JFK and Marilyn Monroe (for the larger truth is subject to fluctuation). Bill Clinton, a thoroughly modern politician, understood that his tale of family dysfunction perfectly qualified him to be the Boy From Hope. And Giuliani, though far more reticent, fashioned himself into a model of the working-class respectability which he vowed to restore to a city corrupted by an excess of tolerance. It fit; and reporters need not just the truth, but a truth that fits.

The real story was, of course, much more interesting. Giuliani was the first mayoral candidate in recent years with a genuinely Runyonesque background. And he had “overcome” something—his father’s wayward life, the family’s dark connections. Giuliani’s obsession with rectitude, his Manichaean sense of the universe, make far more sense when one understands that his own father dwelt in a violent world, and that “going bad” would not have been a mere abstraction to the boy. The story that Barrett tells makes Giuliani a more sympathetic, and a more nuanced, figure than the one that Giuliani himself has presented to the public. But Giuliani chose the conventional morality tale. It is, of course, very dangerous politically for an Italian politician to admit to even a remote family connection to organized crime. And even if such a story could count in the mayor’s favor, it’s not easy to imagine Giuliani—at least the pre-prostate cancer Giuliani—recognizing that this might be so. But finally, it may be that Giuliani has persuaded himself that he was raised in the bosom of respectability. Though a fearsomely rational figure when it comes to pursuing a line of argument, Giuliani also has the gift of ardently believing whatever it’s useful for him to believe.

What, if anything, does this tell us about Giuliani the man? Barrett, who sticks to the facts, at least as he understands them, is silent on this subject, but perhaps we can draw some inferences from what he has discovered. Barrett cites, without comment, a profile of Harold Giuliani written by Benjamin Apfelberg, a psychiatrist with the city’s Department of Hospitals, just before Harold was committed to Sing Sing. Apfelberg described Harold as “a personality deviate of the aggressive, egocentric type,” and went on to note, “This aggressivity is pathological in nature and has shown itself from time to time even as far back as his childhood. He is egocentric to an extent where he has failed to consider the feelings and rights of others.” Does this sound familiar?

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