Most Americans are familiar with the heroic narrative involving New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and his actions on 9/11. As the horror unfolded on that tragic day, Rudy was everywhere; walking the streets covered in dust and ash from the fallen towers, appearing before the cameras trying to reassure the citizens of New York while hammering home the fact that the casualties from the attack would be “more than we can bear.” His presence – both commanding and calming at the same time – established his public personae of a no-nonsense, take-charge guy with compassion and empathy for the victims, and a cool, unflappable style that assured Americans far beyond the borders of New York City.
That’s because, for all intents and purposes, Rudy Giuliani was the face of the United States government for those first few hours in the aftermath of the attacks. While the President was being shuttled around by the Secret Service to secure locations across the country, the calm visage of the New York Mayor appearing on television before the press or walking the devastated streets of his beloved city was the only connection the American people watching at home had with someone in charge.
This part of the narrative is what Giuliani and his handlers will want the American people to see and remember now that the former mayor is running for President of the United States. No one can take this away from Giuliani. By any standard, he performed magnificently in his role as the voice of sanity and reason when everything around him seemed insane and unreal.
But there’s more to the story, of course. And beyond what Giuliani did or didn’t do before and after 9/11 is a question regarding the propriety of using the attacks as a launching pad for a presidential campaign. Would Giuliani, a high profile mayor of the largest city in the country, even be considered presidential material if not for his actions on that awful day?
To blunt that specific criticism, Giuliani is reaching out to family members who lost someone in the 9/11 attacks and asking them to support his campaign. This is smart politics – especially since other 9/11 family members are lining up to savage him. They have promised to “swift boat” Giuliani’s campaign for his perceived shortcomings in failing to update New York City’s antiquated emergency communications system prior to the attack, as well as taking him to task for the lack of a unified command structure between police and firemen — relying on a “two post” system of separate centers of command for both departments.
And still others criticize the former Mayor for inadequate safeguards for workers who were cleaning up Ground Zero, and ended up being exposed to many different kinds of contaminants that have resulted in respiratory problems and even death. President Bush mentioned this problem in his State of the Union speech, and Hillary Clinton has been in the forefront of the fight in Congress to fund health care for these workers. She brought an amendment to a piece of ports security legislation aiming to create a five-year, $1.9 billion treatment program for those affected.
Herein lies the trap for Giuliani as he seeks to use his well-deserved reputation for leadership gained on 9/11 as a springboard to the presidency. Questions that were arguably glossed over by the 9/11 Commission, about the communications snafus that led to so many firefighters losing their lives, as well as a perceived lack of compassion for workers cleaning up Ground Zero will dog his campaign and actually be used against him by his opponents. Perhaps not in the Republican primaries, although these issues may be hinted at by some candidates. But almost certainly, if Giuliani wins the GOP nomination, his Democratic opponent will feel no compunction about using these issues to blunt Giuliani’s carefully crafted narrative of events on that awful day. Instead of a positive, 9/11 could end up as a millstone around his neck, dragging him down to defeat.
Rudy will be walking an extremely fine line between exploiting 9/11 and downplaying his role in that day’s drama. Americans don’t like a braggart for president, so Giuliani will probably have others touting his positive contributions in the disaster. In his stump speech, Giuliani refers to 9/11 only briefly, and usually when talking about the War on Terror. But his entire campaign is framed by images of leadership and competence – a reminder to voters who don’t know his record as Mayor of New York that on one awful day in September, 2001, Mayor Giuliani made us all proud to be Americans.
It is ironic however, that he himself will probably have to deal directly with the criticisms, answering questions early on in order to tamp down any possibility that negative appraisals of his performance will get in the way of his message. Whether he can use this platform gifted him by history to sharpen his message regarding his leadership and competence as well as his toughness and willingness to make big decisions remains to be seen.
So far, most Republicans seem to accept Giuliani’s use of 9/11 to highlight his strengths as a candidate. He consistently rates at or near the top when GOP voters are polled about which candidate would best be able to fight the War on Terror. But there is genuine danger for Rudy Giuliani just over the horizon. The Democrats are sharpening the long knives in anticipation of slicing his carefully crafted narrative of what happened on 9/11 into very small, unpalatable pieces that voters simply won’t be able to digest.