2008-02-01 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Rudy Does Florida . . . But Florida Doesn't
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Rudy Giuliani, who boasted a strong national lead in the race for the GOP presidential nomination among Republican voters in the early months of this campaign season, got his head handed to him this past Tuesday in the Florida primary, a race that had been deemed by many a must-win for him. Why did New York's former mayor pass on the early primaries and all but cede those state races to the other candidates, forgoing the visibility that comes with being in the fray, and will this now end his hopes for claiming the Republican presidential nomination and a shot at the White House?

This city's former mayor knew his socially liberal positions, which helped him win over a largely Democratic electorate in New York, would do him little good in more socially conservative precincts like Iowa and South Carolina. And he figured he had only a small chance against Mitt Romney in New Hampshire who, as former governor of Massachusetts, was well known in next door New Hampshire. Michigan, Romney's home turf, also seemed forbidding so Rudy decided to place his initial bet on Florida, a relatively late entry in this year's accelerated primary season but one with a large New York expatriate population. Now that strategy looks to have been a major mistake. The early wins by Mitt Romney and John McCain in the first primary states, and the surprise Iowa win by Mike Huckabee in the caucuses there, put all these contenders in the news while making Rudy seem like yesterday's story. People vote for the familiar and Rudy began to seem less so compared to the others who were slugging it out as Rudy remained on the bench.

He wasn't just warming it, of course. He was down there in Florida, long before the others arrived, shoring up his support. But the excitement of the several races he had skipped combined to burnish the luster of the other GOP candidates who managed to claim wins while diminishing his own. It didn't help that Rudy seems to have less hair than the septuagenarian John Mc- Cain, or that he comes across as less charming than the smooth talking Mitt Romney or the folksy ex-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Indeed, Rudy lacks a lot of the familiar political characteristics that endear candidates to voters. He's not particularly good looking and tends to rhetorical intensity at times, his humor often too dry to detect. His voice, too, has a certain thinness to it that suggests stridency and his slight lisp sometimes grates. These are all superficial factors, to be sure, but there's no denying that voters pay attention to them, if only subliminally.

What Rudy has going for him, on the other hand, is a prodigious intelligence (he's easily one of the sharpest of the current crop of presidential contenders in either party) and plenty of experience. He has not only run a city that was once considered unmanageable and whipped it into shape, he did more, despite cavils to the contrary, than any other mayor in New York history to prepare this town against disaster. What is not widely recognized today is that Rudy Giuliani began preparing his government and its agencies to respond to terrorism back in 1998 with a series of proactive desktop and field exercises for managers and staffers at all levels of city government. Of course, neither Rudy nor anyone else anticipated the form or nature of the attacks we actually sustained on 9/11. But, unlike the disarray we saw a couple of years later in New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina, New York City under Mayor Giuliani held together and responded professionally to an attack upon this city of unprecedented proportions.

I know because I was there. On the day of the attacks I was driving to my downtown Manhattan office along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Suddenly I found myself stuck in a traffic jam unlike anything I'd ever seen before. After I managed to pull my car onto a side road, I got out to see what was going on and that's when I saw the two towers across the river, one already smoking. I was standing there watching as the second incoming plane hit the other tower.

When I tried to reach my office I found that my cell phone was dead. (We later learned that the cell phone relay stations had all been blown out by the destruction of the two buildings.) But, because of our emergency preparations, I had begun carrying a two-way radio in my car. I immediately pulled it out and contacted our Transportation Director and told him to call our entire fleet back to base, figuring we might have need of those vehicles after what I had just witnessed. I also contacted our agency's police division. When I couldn't get through to my Director of Security I contacted the duty officer and instructed him to go to the commissioner at once and make his two-way radio available for communications purposes.

The two-way radios we had issued to our police, fleet drivers and selected managers proved a godsend that day, enabling us to set up a rump communication system, linking our downtown management to field staff. Having taken these steps, I jumped into my vehicle and made my way through the back streets of Brooklyn to a building we operated at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, on the Brooklyn side, and set up an emergency base of operations. I spent the rest of that day (until 9 p.m. that evening), organizing medical supply and personnel convoys under police escort across the Manhattan Bridge to support the rescue efforts in the downtown area, even as hundreds of thousands of dazed and bleeding people made their way on foot into Brooklyn across the otherwise shutdown bridge.

On subsequent days, we completely evacuated our downtown offices, set up an emergency operations center uptown, relocated other departmental offices, coordinated with other agencies re: rescue and clean-up, opened a workers respite center to support rescue efforts, ran an emergency transport service into and out of Manhattan for key personnel, responded to the anthrax attacks which followed hot on the heels of the World Trade Center attacks, monitored building restoration and safety, etc. The things I was directly involved in were, of course, only a small part of the city's overall response on September 11th and afterwards. But that is just the point. Mayor Giuliani had prepared us.

Giuliani has his faults like everyone else. While the rhetoric of some, like Barack Obama, soars to heights the exmayor can only dream of, Rudy's speeches are rather flat by comparison, even prosecutorial. Still, it isn't rhetoric that makes a good president though it may help elect one and endear him (or her) to voters. Rudy certainly lacks the style and charisma of a John Kennedy or an FDR, or the oratorical skills and larger-than-life personalities of a Teddy Roosevelt or an Abe Lincoln. But what he brings to the table is something more important. In this time of great national danger, when terrorists dream of bringing us down and will stop at little to do so, Rudy Giuliani is the kind of guy you can depend on. Not only did he revive a major American city that was on the skids, he prepared and led us in the face of the most serious attack we have ever sustained at home.

Should Rudy now decide to call it quits, as has been rumored in some circles since he lost the Florida race, this nation will have lost the prospect of a strong hand at the helm in the White House, one who can be depended on to do the right thing without pulling his punches. Giuliani's tendency to be outspoken has often been called confrontational and won him a reputation for being somewhat caustic and blunt. But it would be a shame if that forthrightness ended his chances to win the GOP nomination now and, possibly, the presidency since it would deny America the kind of strong leadership it so desperately needs in these difficult times. rockirreg@aol.com

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