Politics of grief and grievances Publicity: After the crash of TWA Flight 800, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani stood up quickly on behalf of victims' families. His critics suggest he may stepped over the line into grandstanding.

Sun Journal

July 29, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- In the uncertain hours after the crash of TWA Flight 800, reporters at the scene quickly learned the cast of characters.

At the Airport Ramada Plaza Hotel, where family members of victims assembled, the parking lot teemed with social workers, psychologists and clergy. At East Moriches, launching point for the crash investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board held court.

And everywhere reporters went, they found the mayor of New York City.

Rudolph W. Giuliani met for hours with grieving relatives of the passengers. He was interviewed live on countless TV programs. He gave impromptu news briefings in parking lots. And it went on for days.

For his activism, Giuliani has been praised.

Families of the victims thanked him for his sharp attacks on TWA -- many believe the airline acted too slowly in contacting them after the accident.

The circumspect New York Times has been a supporter, too, noting in an editorial last week that the mayor "served admirably" at the accident scene.

But as the weeks pass, Giuliani's actions also have raised questions. Some critics accuse him of grandstanding.

"I think the mayor is overdoing it," says former New York Mayor Edward I. Koch, another public official who seldom was shy about expressing an opinion. "He's rushing from TV station to TV station. It's overkill, a desire to be continually in the news on this subject."

Koch adds that Giuliani did the right thing the day after the crash, when he pressed TWA to release information to families. It's the mayor's actions since, he says, that don't sit well.

"It has made him look, quite obviously, political," says Koch.

Some observers of the airline tragedy raise a broader issue: What is the role of elected officials in the aftermath of such a disaster?

The simple answer, say political scientists and others, is that there are no rules.

"The problem is we really don't know what the appropriate role is," says Eric Uslaner, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

"Things don't drop out of the sky into the ocean every day, thank heaven. In a major hurricane or tornado, public officials race around visiting people. Maybe they take a hand rebuilding things. That doesn't work after a plane crash. So, you have politicians looking around for ways to show their empathy."

Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Study of American Government, says politicians faced with an accident such as a plane disaster usually behave in one of several ways.

One is a soothing, statesman-like role, one in which the politician leaves the details to others while calmly taking command. That's the approach of President Clinton, says Ginsberg.

"It's one in which the public is reassuring people everything that can be done is being done," Ginsberg says.

Then, says Ginsberg, there is the more frenetic role taken since the TWA crash by Giuliani and, to a lesser degree, New York Gov. George E. Pataki. Unlike Clinton, they sometimes have seemed at the center of the activity, running between appointments to comfort families and urge on crash investigators.

"They seem to be trying to micro-manage events," says Ginsberg, "It's odd because the flow of events is utterly beyond their control."

The denominator common to both roles is the payoff to politicians, says the Hopkins professor.

"In part, they're all trying to make political capital off a tragedy," he says.

Not that Giuliani has been unmoved by the accident. The disaster clearly has touched the mayor deeply, say those who have observed his meetings with family members. The mayor was touched personally by the crash, which killed a friend, lawyer Kirk Rhein.

And, add the mayor's supporters, the long hours he has spent tending to the crash are typical of the way he tackles many important issues.

In New York, his workaholism is well known and, occasionally, laughed about. A former New York City prosecutor, he has yet to take a vacation during his 30 months in office.

Part of what drives Giuliani, say those who have watched him for years, is an unwavering conviction that he can solve problems. ++ It's a confidence, say critics, that lately has been wildly out of control.

"His attitude is, 'I'm the only honest man, the only competent person in New York City,' " says Koch, who supported Giuliani in the last mayoral election but says he now opposes him. "It's an arrogance that doesn't border on hubris: It is hubris."

Whatever his motives, Giuliani has put himself and his political credibility on the line in the TWA disaster. Nobody can be certain how he will be judged by New York City voters.

"He takes a risk that people will say, 'Gee, this guy is a vulture. He's trying to capitalize on a tragic event,' " says Ginsberg, the Hopkins professor.

Others predict Giuliani will get only positive reviews. In New York, the mayor almost has no choice but to get involved in a tragedy like the jetliner crash, says Uslaner.

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