2009-11-06 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Setting The Record Straight
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Recently surfing the Internet, I was disturbed to find an out-of-context quote from one of my past articles on a New York Times blog site.

The writer had excerpted my words to support his own scurrilous attack on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's 2007 run for the GOP presidential nomination.

Although I've long since given up regularly reading the Times be - cause of its blatant and markedly non-journalistic partisanship, I was certainly less than delighted to find my words being used by a Times reader to bolster his case against Giuliani and, as it turned out, Republicans in general. Of course, those are the risks we run when we publish what we say but this also points up the unreliability of so much of what we find posted on the Internet.

The Times reader accurately quoted my words (and, as it turns out, he did the same in a similar post on The Nation's blog site) but, in so doing, he extracted them from their original context:

". . . S. Mirsky throws some good illumination on 'The Real Rudy.' Mirsky worked as a senior policy analyst for one of Giuliani's Deputy Mayors, and then later served as an Assistant Commissioner in a mayoral agency. He says, '... after he

Giuliani) began his second term something changed.

The Mayor began opening the sluice gates and allowing the agencies to grow fatter and sloppier. Substantial salary in crea ses became relatively easy to secure, particularly for higher-ups while demands for office prettification and various personal services for top management skyrocketed.' "

The poster then went on to seamlessly and shamelessly weave in his own conclusion: "Why..., it's almost as if Rudy knew 9/11 would soon make his budget soar out of control...???"

Any unsuspecting reader would suppose that my point was both to attack Giuliani's overall record as mayor and to bolster the kind of conclusion this poster proceeds to draw. In fact, my comments were made in the context of a larger article which asserted that Giuliani was a good mayor for New York City but noted that he wasn't perfect and shouldn't be idealized.

The original article also pointed out that his record was better in his first term than his second - until the events of 9/11 brought out the best in him.

As someone who was inside city government during Mayor Giuliani's tenure, serving for a time as a senior policy analyst for one of his deputy mayors as well as an assistant commissioner in a city agency thereafter (as the poster reports), I had occasion to observe the Giuliani administration from the inside.

While my views reflect my perspective (others may have seen other things), I concluded that the Giuliani administration, while generally do - ing better than its predecessors, didn't go far enough in some areas that were in dire need of reform and was sometimes overly focused on operational minutia in others.

Nevertheless and despite these caveats I noted that Giuliani demonstrated that New York City was governable, despite prior claims to the contrary, and that waste could be cut and costs brought down.

Giuliani's weakness, though, was that he was human like the rest of us and wanted to be liked, despite the vitriol that was routinely deployed against him.

In his second term, intent on repairing his image as a skinflint and tyrant, he loosened things up fiscally. As a consequence, many of the constraints he and his people had so painstakingly worked to put in place began to unravel at the agency level.

In some ways this was a bad thing because it let bureaucrats return to a culture of waste, the very thing he had worked to wring out of the system in his first term.

But in other ways it was actually salubrious because it enabled a beefing up of service levels after the lean years. More, it was part of the mayor's in creasing emphasis, beginning toward the end of his first term, on emergency preparedness.

As a participant in the City's Y2K preparations and in its extensive emergency management training and infrastructure build-up that commenced some time around 1997- 1998, I recall being struck by how much waste was creeping back into the system as a result of this because agency bureaucrats were suddenly stumbling over themselves to use newly available city monies to augment their power and perqs.

The West Nile furor, which followed hot on the heels of the emergency preparedness initiatives, proved to be another case in point as top brass in the agency in which I was serving were soon using every opportunity to squeeze more funding and more personnel out of City Hall under the guise of meeting a supposed "health emergency" posed by the introduction to this country of a new and, as it turned out, relatively harmless pathogen: the West Nile virus.

The waste that occurred in developing the city's response to this crisis, created by often well meaning medical bu reau crats' alarm at the unknown, was real but the mayor's office was keyed to crises and unwilling to avert its eyes from anything that might pose a risk to New Yorkers - even if the extent of that risk was to prove hard to gauge.

Though I often found the emergency drills and operations into which we were thrust during those years distracting from my primary day-to-day responsibilities, and came to believe that bureaucrats in my agency were taking advantage of the various alarms to build their own fiefdoms and bailiwicks, the subsequ - ent events of 9/11 actually demonstrated to me the value of much of this. Despite the excessive waste in all these efforts (a lot of which might have been avoided in my view), when 9/11 happened the city agencies, having been trained and drilled for years in emergency response, were ready. (Com pare our record to that of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina.)

The agency in which I worked, then called the New York City Department of Health, was surprisingly nimble and steady on its feet in the early, chilling days of that crisis, as were the many city agencies with which we were obliged to work.

The emergency infrastructure the Giuliani administration had built up was ready, too, demonstrating substantial flexibility, resourcefulness and organizing skill thanks to Giuliani's newly developed Office of Emergency Management.

My own agency, in the dark days of September 11, 2001, was not the same organization I had initially joined in 1996. It had ceased to be the sluggish and isolated backwater I found on my arrival, focused narrowly on its own concerns, and became, instead, the proverbial well oiled machine, its key staff knowing whom to contact, what to do, how to do it and when. As an agency Health had learned to work smoo th ly alongside other city agencies instead of in solipsistic isolation, ignorant of other agency operations and needs, as in the past.

Our response to 9/11 wasn't perfect by any means but it was light years ahead of what it would have been had it still been the agency I found when I arrived in the middle of Giuliani's first term.

So my comments, as quoted in support of an anti-Giuliani agenda, were not only taken out of their original context by the Times pos ter, they failed to reflect the larger point I had been making.

Had the poster quoted more extensively from the text, this would have been clear. Nobody's perfect and Rudy Giuliani's no exception which, of course, was the point I was making when I wrote the words the Times reader misleadingly cited, thereby reminding us why we need to take so much of what we find online, even if it's under the imprimatur of established media, with the proverbial grain of salt.

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