Analysis - Giuliani: a hero at ground zero

20 Sep 01
Imagine a massive disaster occurring in the UK and the political response being led by a councillor. Impossible.

21 September 2001

However, events in the US after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington last week prove that the political lead need not necessarily come from the centre.

While President George Bush floundered (at least that was the perception internationally, at home his personal ratings were sky-high), the mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, has consistently hit the right note.

Comparing the British and American political systems is not easy: in Britain only London Mayor Ken Livingstone could conceivably have performed a similar role to Giuliani, but his powers are far more limited and the prime minister would almost certainly have assumed command.

In New York, Giuliani demonstrated the perfect reaction in a city afflicted by sudden catastrophe. He was personally one of the first on the disaster scene around the World Trade Center. He immediately began orchestrating the efforts of the city government to ensure that the political response was worthy of the heroic rescue and recovery work of other public sector workers such as the firefighters and police.

By the beginning of this week there were calls for New York's mayoral elections, scheduled for November 6, to be postponed and for Giuliani, 57, to run for a constitution-breaking third term in office.

Yet before September 11 he was seen as a lame-duck mayor, loved and loathed in equal measure by New Yorkers after eight years in power.

Approaching the end of his term of office – officially December 31 – he was beset by personal problems. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year, and ridiculed for the turmoil in his private life after his wife recently got a court order banning him from bringing his mistress into the mayor's official residence.

Subsequently he moved out to stay in the spare room of a long-standing friend.

Now when he walks the streets he is greeted with chants of 'Four more years! Four more years!'. This is something the mayor is resisting so far. But the rush is on to give him hero status.

The New York Times even compared his approach over the past ten days to 'the fireside chats of Roosevelt, the stirring rhetoric of Churchill, the confidence of Kennedy'.

The New York Post's website has a new feature that allows you to e-mail your 'thanks to Mayor Giuliani'.

Even his soundbites seem to have hit the right spot. 'It was New York City's worst week. But it was New York City's best week. We have never been braver,' he said on a visit to Manhattan's Central Synagogue, where he received a standing ovation.

Those lining up to replace the Republican Giuliani are already queuing to seek approval of 'Hizzoner' – New Yorkese for the mayoral honorific.

Peter Vallone, a prospective Democrat candidate, said on September 17 that he would give Giuliani a high-profile role if he won the election. 'I see him very much involved in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city,' he said. No other candidate is likely to demur.

The mayoral primaries to select a candidate for the two main parties, which began on the morning of the attacks on the World Trade Center, have been delayed until September 25. It now seems that when the election does take place on November 6, leadership abilities rather than specific issues will be a main determinant of who eventually triumphs, such has been the Giuliani effect.

On the finance side, New York City looks set to raise billions of dollars through the sale of bonds to fund the reconstruction of downtown Manhattan. For this it will need the approval of New York State. But, given the extraordinary nature of the past week's events, that will prove little problem. Federal money is also expected to pour in to supplement the city budget of approximately $35bn.

Already a Reconstruction Commission, led by the ubiquitous Giuliani, has been convened to aid recovery. This will give New York the power to speed up demolition work and issue building permits to prospective contractors.

The state government, led by governor George Pataki, has weighed in with new anti-terrorist measures, including increased penalties for hoax bomb calls – several have been made in the past week – and amending the death penalty statute to include anyone convicted of an act of terrorism that caused a death.

A Twin Towers Job Center has also been created. A partnership between the city and state governments and the private sector, this organisation is committed to finding jobs and providing expert advice in areas such as unemployment insurance, child care and temporary cash assistance for those affected by the attacks.

Overseeing the commission could be Giuliani's political destiny. It is inconceivable that he will not be offered a high-profile city position.

What is also inconceivable is the amount of work needed to restore the city. As the death toll climbs – among them many New York City employees – so does the fear among those on the ground that the full extent has yet to be uncovered.

Political leadership, that overused phrase, now seems a necessity in a city seeking to repair itself literally and figuratively. After the events of the past week or so, Giuliani seems the prime candidate.


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