The Giuliani of September 10th

(John P. Filo/CBS)
Jeff Greenfield is senior political correspondent for CBS News.
If you ask a lot of New Yorkers, "What did you guys think of Rudy Giuliani the day before September 11th," you may well get an answer along these lines: "We were ready to say goodbye; we liked the job he'd done in making the city safer, cleaner, more confident, but we'd had enough." If you pursue the idea a little further, and ask those who cover politics about the Mayor's approval rating, they're likely to guess that it was somewhere in the mid-30s or low-40s.

The reality is more complex. By the fall of 2001, Giuliani had recovered from a series of missteps and bad breaks that had plagued much of those years: police clashes with minorities, including two fatal shootings of unarmed blacks; a messy domestic life including a separation from his wife that he announced at a press conference--apparently, the first time she'd heard he news. There were endless fights not with hoodlums, organized crime big-shots, and incompetent bureaucrats, but with street vendors, jaywalkers, cabbies, museum officials who display offensive materials.

(AP Photo/Mark Avery)
But by the late summer of 2002, his job approval rating had climbed back above 50%. And had term limits not rendered him ineligible to run, he might well have won a third term, though not by a landslide.

What was true, however, was that there was a palpable sense of exhaustion after nearly 8 years of a combative mayor. Supporters, critics, and reasonably neutral journalists are in remarkable synch on this point.

The Village Voice's Wayne Barrett, one of his severest critics, says: "Rudy is a tremendously successful human behind when he knows what he's going to do next...He had no idea what his personal career plan was in the second term [so] he was all over the place. He was getting street vendors. He was getting jaywalkers. He went from one crazy initiative to another crazy initiative."

Andrew Kirtzman, who covered the mayor throughout his tenure, said, "I think New Yorkers were exhausted by Rudy Giuliani by that day...By the time his second term came around, had an an urge for battles. Now, this is a man who needs a big war. He's a general, and he was a general in search of a war that didn't exit t that point. And by the end of that second term, people...they had had enough."

Fred Siegel, a Cooper Union professor and in general a strong admirer of Giuliani, agrees that the second term had been unfocused.

"Giuliani is not a man for all seasons," he says. "He's a man for crisis. He's a man for problem-solving. If the waters are smooth, his oversize personality tends to capsize the ship that was stable."

With these views as background, it is clear that September 11th did more than make Giuliani a national hero. For some New Yorkers, it transformed some of his political liabilities into strong assets.

Did he look for enemies? You can't find a more appropriate enemy than Al Qaeda? Was he too theatrical, too ready to command center stage? On September 11th, New Yorkers--most Americans, for that matter--were profoundly grateful that someone in authority was visible and eloquent, when our national leaders were either invisible or secreted away in undisclosed locations.

Yes, new questions did arise in the wake of 9/11. Why did Giuliani put the emergency command center at the World Trade Center--an obvious target that had in fact been struck by Al Qaeda bombers in 1993? Why did so many rescue workers at Ground Zero come down with serious ailments, and did the city do all it could to protect them? But for most New Yorkers, the doubts that had grown up around Rudy Giuliani by September 10th, were overwhelmed by their reaction to what he said and did the next day.