A review of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life, by Fred Siegel

Modern politics is often about little more than adding another government program—or demonizing opponents in order to attract marginal voters. Yet from time to time a statesman comes to power who breaks the mold and tries to govern against the grain. Ronald Reagan did that in the 1980s for the nation. And Rudy Giuliani did it the 1990s for New York City.

Giuliani, as everyone knows, became wildly popular after he handled his city's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. But many people do not know that in his eight years as mayor before 9/11, he rescued New York City from becoming a Third World basket case that would have driven out jobs and the middle class, surviving only on demands for more federal grants. Fred Siegel, a professor of history at Cooper Union, has recovered the full story of Giuliani in New York in his superb new book,The Prince of the City.

To appreciate what Giuliani did, one must first take a close look at what had happened to his city. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who kept track of these matters, noted that in 1943 there were 44 murders by gunfire in the city and in 1992 there were 1,499. In 1943 the illegitimacy rate was 3%; in 1992 it was 45%. When Giuliani took office in 1994, the unemployment rate was 11%, far higher than the national average; and the joblessness existed despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that one-fifth of all the workers in the city were employed by the city itself. In addition, over one million New Yorkers lived on the welfare dole. 

The city managed 3,000 public housing units, though perhaps this could be explained. What could not be so easily explained was that it owned 500 gas stations, 5,000 abandoned buildings, and 30,000 apartments. With a mere 3% of the nation's population, New York City spent more than one-fifth of all local social-service dollars, and in return for this generosity, Siegel notes, it had a poverty rate about as high as Mississippi's. 

People and jobs were deserting the city. In the 10 years before Giuliani's inauguration, the city lost 10% of its private-sector jobs. When he took office, Harlem did not have a single supermarket or movie theater and 80% of the births in that area were out of wedlock. The city owned almost a third of Harlem's housing, and much of that was vacant. Times Square was an outdoor bazaar for sex and drugs. The Financial Control Board and the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC) were created to help the city deal with bankruptcy. MAC, or "Big MAC" as it was affectionately known, came into being so that it could sell bonds, funded by a share of the city's sales tax, and use the proceeds to bail the city out of some of its financial hardships.

The prevailing view among New York politicians was that there was nothing wrong with the city that higher taxes, more spending, and appeasing racial bigots couldn't fix. Mayor John Lindsay, the dashing mid-Manhattan liberal, governed in the late 1960s and early '70s in a way that made matters worse. Siegel quotes Robert Moses, New York's premier urban planner, on Lindsay: "If you elect a matinee-idol Mayor, you're going to get a musical-comedy administration." Lindsay watched over a half million jobs leave the city while he deferred to New York's most radical black leaders. With the aid of the Ford Foundation, he inflicted on the schools an inept community control board scheme that enriched a handful of radicals such as Sonny Carson, who was later charged with killing two men and sentenced to jail for kidnapping.

Abe Beame, Lindsay's successor, watched helplessly as the city's finances were taken over by Big MAC. Ed Koch, Beame's successor, benefited from the financial boom created by the Reagan tax cuts and regulatory reforms, and was able to stabilize the city's finances. But that stabilization enabled him to spend more. After Koch, David Dinkins became mayor in 1989 and set about reasserting the values of urban liberalism. He denounced Reagan and said that it was time again to endorse "progressive" ideas.

Dinkins was a decent man who did not hesitate to condemn Louis Farrakhan, or to reproach New York fixture Al Sharpton for having concocted a false story about a young girl's being kidnapped and raped. Siegel describes Dinkins as less a classic black politician than a coalition pol, eager to do more for almost everybody. But Dinkins knew that the city lacked money, and so he promised to trim the size of the city's work force. He contracted out some city jobs to private employers, and reformed the rules that made the civil service virtually ungovernable. (His plan was, of course, denounced by the New York Times.) But Dinkins could not make his ideas work, and indeed did not try very hard. He suspended the incoming police academy class because the city supposedly could not afford them, but then added thousands of new workers to the city's payroll and to the mayor's office. To pay for all of this, he tried to get more federal money. When that failed, he helped push through what Siegel calls the biggest tax increase in the city's history.

* * *

Enter Rudy Giuliani. He had lost to Dinkins in the 1989 mayoral race, and his plan to run against him again in 1993 had to overcome several hurdles. Many business elites remembered Giuliani as an overly aggressive, publicity-seeking federal prosecutor who handcuffed business leaders in full view of the television cameras. The state's Conservative Party worried about his endorsement of abortion and his embrace of some aspects of the gay rights movement. Senator Al D'Amato, the leader of the state's Republican Party, felt no love for Giuliani either. And the Wall Street Journal reported that he had voted for George McGovern in 1972.

Despite these obstacles, Giuliani narrowly won the race. His victory owed to the fact that many Manhattan residents, though liberal, were afraid to walk the streets and voted their fears; while middle-class New Yorkers in the outlying boroughs, worried about higher taxes and fleeing jobs, voted their hopes. Giuliani won for much the same reason that Richard Riordan became mayor of Los Angeles: jobs and crime. 

In his first State of the City address, Giuliani said that he was going to cut the size of city government, cut taxes in order to attract jobs, and bid out many city jobs to private enterprise. Like all preceding mayors since the 1960s, he asked for more state aid, but unlike most of his predecessors he said that the city could not "tax its way out of recession."

The mayor appointed William Bratton as his police commissioner. Bratton, who had reduced crime in the subways when he ran that department's police force (and had helped reduce crime in Boston when he ran its police), brought to the New York Police Department several innovations. One of these was a policy that George Kelling and I had invented, dubbed the "broken windows" theory: attack small crimes in order to increase the level of public order and, we hoped, thus reduce more serious crime. Kelling became a key Bratton adviser. But Bratton did much more than support an attack on "broken windows." He put in place the CompStat system for holding police captains accountable on a daily basis for crime and disorder in their precincts, and created a Street Crimes Unit that took concealed weapons off suspects found on the streets. Uniformed patrol officers were told to arrest street-corner drug dealers. The police intensified a policy, begun in the last days of the Dinkins Administration, of giving tickets to "squeegee men" who had been confronting motorists with dirty window brushes as a way of extracting (in fact, extorting) tips.

The New York Civil Liberties Union was appalled by these efforts to reduce crime by arresting criminals rather than by attacking its supposed "root causes." Many criminologists began working hard to explain that Bratton's changes did not cause the dramatic crime reduction that the city experienced in the 1990s. It is hard to measure these things precisely; after all, the NYPD's effort was not part of a controlled experiment. And it is true that crime fell in many big cities, but it fell faster and more sharply in New York. Many of the stock non-Bratton explanations are clearly false. It was not economic improvement that made a difference; the unemployment rate in New York grew until 1997, long after big crime reductions in 1995 and 1996. It is true that crime rates began to drop before Giuliani took office, but that drop, as far as we can tell, was confined to mid-town Manhattan where, as Siegel notes, Business Improvement Districts had begun funding their own anti-crime efforts. And many of these reductions were helped by the fact that Raymond Kelly had been a tough police commissioner in the waning days of the Dinkins Administration. (Now, under Mayor Bloomberg, Kelly once again holds that job.)

Giuliani began a welfare reform policy long before Congress and President Clinton had made it mandatory for all states. His central idea, according to Siegel, was reciprocity: if you were able-bodied you had to take a job in order to get welfare. "For every benefit," Giuliani said, "there is an obligation, for every right, a duty." By the time Giuliani was serving his second term, he had cut New York City's welfare rolls by a number greater than Buffalo's entire population.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo never understood any of this. Siegel quotes him as saying that "taxes do not matter for business location decisions" and that female-headed families were not a moral problem. After all, he argued, "if you took a fifteen-year-old with a child, but put her in a clean apartment, got her a diploma, gave her the hope of a job…that would change everything." Senator Moynihan gave the best response to this view: "Liberalism faltered when it turned out it could not cope with the truth."

* * *

September 11 was, of course, Giuliani's defining moment. He, his aides, and above all the heroic work of New York's firefighters and police officers succeeded in rescuing about 25,000 people from the Twin Towers. Siegel claims that the 3,000 people killed were above the floors hit by the hijacked airplanes; fewer than 100 were killed who were in offices below those floors. Giuliani, who right after the attack was working in a nearby command center that began to collapse, managed to get out through the basement. From that moment on he strove to restore order by being calm, candid, and reassuring. He became America's Mayor.

But America's Mayor was no longer New York City's mayor; Giuliani had to retire because of term limits. And when he retired, he could not affirm that he had permanently altered the city's political culture. It was still in the grip of relatively unproductive public employees, and when the economy boomed before 9/11, Giuliani spent new tax money prodigiously. Nor had the racial antagonisms of key politicians diminished. The Democratic Party primary to pick a new mayoral candidate occurred on the same day as the Twin Towers collapsed. Freddie Ferrer campaigned as the very antithesis of Giuliani, demanding a 30% pay increase for school teachers, denouncing what he claimed was police brutality, and calling for an effort to empower "the other New York" by raising taxes and spending more public money. Al Sharpton, as usual, was even blunter. But Ferrer lost to a more moderate Democrat, Mark Green, who had enlisted the support of former police commissioner William Bratton. The Republican candidate, Michael Bloomberg, eked out a narrow victory with Giuliani's endorsement. 

Bloomberg, who had been a Democrat until he changed his registration just before the election, met immediately after his victory…not with Giuliani, whose endorsement made him mayor, but with Ferrer and Sharpton. Once in office, he raised taxes sharply. In short, there was no reform movement in the city. Siegel concludes that Giuliani was the reform movement.

In his book title, Siegel refers to Giuliani as "the prince of the city," deliberately comparing him to Machiavelli's idea of a prince. He interprets Machiavelli as arguing that no leader can govern on the basis of Christian virtue. Instead, Siegel says, a leader must use the "virtues of the classical world: discipline, courage, and fortitude." Giuliani, he claims, tried to do this by recalling an "older set" of American virtues—enterprise, obligation, and self-discipline.

I doubt this is an argument that many close students of Machiavelli would accept. The Florentine in fact endorsed not virtue (whether Christian or classical) but expediency. He argued for serving one's own ends, pursuing security and glory, by any means available. Machiavelli is famous for advising that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved. Siegel compares this, wrongly, to Giuliani saying it is better to be respected than loved. But fear and respect are two fundamentally different things: the first implies terror or at least the apprehension of evil; the second suggests that there is a principle at one's core rendering one worthy of respect. Siegel's book would be better if he had not embraced so readily what I think is a shallow and misleading account of Machiavelli.

The larger issue, of course, is not whether Giuliani was a Machiavellian prince (he was not) but whether he should become the president of the United States. His first challenge would be to win the Republican nomination, despite his acceptance of abortion and his criticisms of New York Republicans such as Governor George Pataki and Senator D'Amato. That is not an easy job. It is very hard to win the Republican nomination if you support legalized abortion, just as it is almost impossible to win the Democratic one if you oppose it. 

And yet, of all of the issues that might properly define a suitable presidential candidate (and I would put foreign policy at the top of the list), abortion is among the least important ones, practically speaking, because no president can do much about it. No matter who is president, legal abortions will continue. A majority of the American public does not favor reversing Roe v. Wade. Even if the Supreme Court overturned that decision, most state legislatures would still allow abortions. I doubt that in a general election for the presidency, abortion would much matter, but it matters decisively in presidential primary elections. 

Republicans should keep in mind that, more than four years after 9/11, Giuliani still commands Americans' respect and admiration. His worst behavior as mayor leads me to suspect that he is only as domineering and publicity-driven as many of our presidents (good or bad) have been. His best behavior as mayor suggests many of the qualities a good president should have, such as honesty, decency, and a commitment to make government work better and to enable the middle class to live better. As the presidential primaries approach, Republicans concerned with the country's moral character may want to ask themselves whether, in the present predicament, what the country needs most is a strong executive, unafraid of criticism, to prosecute the war we are in.