As he neared the end of his tenure as New York’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani seemed the perfect heir for Marx‘s epigram dismissing the French politician Adolphe Thiers as a man with a “private life as infamous as his public life is odious.” Giuliani’s political vindictiveness and his opera buffa staging of an already scandalous love affair appeared to doom his legacy to a purgatory whose caretakers are op-ed caricaturists and standup comedians. But then came September 11 and the terrible days that followed, when Giuliani‘s reassuring voice became the antidote for a city deafened by sirens and whose immediate appearance at the World Trade Center inspired confidence in a country that might have otherwise withdrawn into grief and paranoia.
Americans are fascinated by characters who are transformed by great events or personal crises, but only part of Giuliani’s newfound fame rests with the calm, statesmanlike poise he showed in the face of seismic catastrophe — much of it derives from the fact that this poise came in spite of himself and precisely because the man‘s private life was so infamous and his public reputation so odious. Giuliani’s transformation into a national hero has made him an indispensable Republican fund-raiser and should guarantee hefty sales of his forthcoming book, Leadership — which also happened to be the title of his appearance Monday at the Kodak Theater.
Giuliani eased into the evening with some jokes, and, as he paced about the stage, he once more became a voice of reason, explaining that, despite all the hand-wringing editorials and pundit jabbering, America is now a much safer place than it was before 911, and how wrong it is to equate the terrorist acts of a few people to, say, the massive military attacks a country like Great Britain had suffered during WWII.
But he also called for the invasion of Iraq and made the new Homeland Security regime sound like one of those minor inconveniences that his fellow New Yorkers are used to enduring, like a garbage strike or the temporary closure of a subway station. Much of his talk, in fact, expressed his opinion of why America had been attacked in the first place. It was a surprisingly Cold War view that ascribes international animosity toward America to brute jealousy. His is a Ptolemaic view that sees America, while perhaps not a perfect country, as nevertheless the wisest nation on Earth.
Giuliani told his listeners that we are a land of laws that cherishes tolerance and freedom and this fact alone drove some deranged men to fly planes into our biggest buildings, and accounts for the rest of the world‘s resentment toward us. Never mind that the United States breaks international treaties whenever it suits us, that we spurn any attempts to extend international war crimes statutes to our own armed forces, or that we routinely sabotage world conferences by trying to ram down their attendees’ throats the positions of whatever gang of corporations or Christian obscurantists control the Republican Party during that particular week.
The Kodak turnout must have disappointed Giuliani‘s people, for even though the house had been papered with high school students and employees of the event’s sponsors, there were so many unsold tickets that attendees in the $50 bleachers were upgraded upon arrival to the top-priced $125 seats. Still, the crowd loved Rudy and lobbed him soft-pitch questions that were written out and handed to the KFWB news anchors who, weirdly enough, acted as event chaperones. Some questions were predictably jokey (“What‘s your favorite pizza parlor?” “Can I marry you?”), and Giuliani deftly turned even serious ones into gags, as when someone asked about the desirability of adapting NYC’s borough system of government to secession-fevered L.A. (“If you want it, you can have it!”) and, amid some clapping, about his plans to run for higher office (“There wasn‘t enough applause!”).
Overall, Giuliani conveyed the same kind of rectitude that led him last fall to turn down Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s $10 million gift to the city, as though it had been a bag full of 20s sent to him by John Gotti, because of the prince‘s presumably pro-Palestinian agenda. Giuliani made no mention of his talk’s sponsors or their agendas, however. Aon Insurance might seem a natural choice to underwrite the evening since 175 of its employees died at the World Trade Center; then again, Aon, whose logo was plastered on the Kodak‘s podium and plastered on two large video screens, might have also seemed a fitting choice because its billionaire CEO, Patrick Ryan, is a major contributor to GOP candidates. Likewise, AEG, which owns and operates Staples Center and the Kodak Theater, among other things, is one of many toys owned by Philip Anschutz, the right-wing billionaire who has contributed money to many Republicans, including Giuliani, and whose corporate oil division is seeking Alaskan drilling rights.
When the “Leadership” lecture ended, Rudy Giuliani hadn’t said a single word about leadership. As people began filing out of the theater, Staples Center president Tim Leiweke bounded onstage to present Giuliani with a larger-than-life bronze head of himself. Giuliani looked at this bronze visage, frozen in laughter; he seemed a little flustered, thanked Leiweke, then escaped, leaving the head alone onstage, resting on a table with a white cloth on it.
“It doesn‘t look anything like him,” a woman in the audience said. “It’s more like W.C. Fields!”