New York City's mayor plays politics of politesse Hizzoner: Calling names, throwing his weight around, Rudolph Giuliani is pushing to make his city more civil. What better way to prepare for higher office?

May 19, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK — "Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it."

-- New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani NEW YORK -- He may have been hanging by a wire high above a stage, made up for a skit to look like the Beast from Broadway's "Beauty and the Beast," but the mayor of New York still had just one thing on his mind: making his city more civil.

"This is the way to beat jaywalking!" Mayor Rudolph Giuliani yelled to the reporters he hovered above.

"Next year I'll do it without these ropes!"

Perhaps only a beast of a man would dare demand that ornery New Yorkers be more polite. It certainly would take someone who believes he can fly to launch a campaign to put himself -- a liberal, Italian-American mayor of New York City -- on the Republican presidential ticket. But this spring, with all the quiet dignity of an air raid siren, Giuliani is doing both.

His idea, it seems, is to capitalize on his hometown's reputation for rudeness. Using the New York Police Department as if it were his own private security service, he has mounted an attack on myriad common offenses so minor that they didn't even qualify for his first-term, "quality of life" campaigns.

Penalties have been increased for littering and noisy car alarms. He is making it more difficult to obtain a taxi license. In midtown Manhattan, Giuliani has had pedestrian barriers put up to prevent jaywalking, a mode of transit as essential to New York commuting as the subway. The Big Apple's finest are under orders from the mayor to ticket anybody who hops the barriers and crosses in the middle of the street. This past week, when angry taxi drivers pulled their cabs off the street for 24 hours, Giuliani responded by suggesting a possible "cab-free" day once a week.

"Every New Yorker," the mayor said on a recent radio show, "must give respect, and get respect."

True to form, though, Giuliani has announced each part of his civility plan in growling, self-righteous speeches, and rather uncivilly accused critics of the crackdown of being "short-sighted," "jerky," "and not really that intelligent."

The net effect of this is a mayor who seems like a raging schoolmaster, cursing at his students for cursing. (Speaking of education, Giuliani recently announced that he wants public schools to add civics classes and require all boys to wear blue blazers and ties.)

"Rudy's Civil War," the Daily News has dubbed the be-civil-or-else effort. The Times called the civility campaign "a quixotic attempt to promote suburban quiescence in the known universe's vortex of urban hubbub." (No need to consult Webster's. That's a put-down).

But Giuliani's staffers concede they care little about dismissive local reaction to his plan. The boss' real goal is to appeal to the rest of the country, an America that finds New York OK as a setting for its favorite sitcoms but wouldn't dare live there.

"The message is that he is taming the city that can't be tamed, New York, and in the year 2000, he is the man to bring order to Washington," says Fred Siegel, an author and professor at New York's Cooper Union college. "What he's been doing for the past six months is positioning himself to run for national office."

Ticketing voters for crossing the street isn't the most common way to win votes, but Giuliani can get away with it. He won a landslide re-election last year, the city's Democratic Party is locked in constant infighting, and New York's decline in violent -- crime has made him a national figure -- one with obvious ambitions.

This spring, he set up campaign committees to allow him to raise money for either a presidential or a Senate run, and made speeches in Buffalo, Michigan and Arizona. While coy about his plans ("I'm not testing any waters right now," he told Michigan Republicans), the trips have earned him the "Mayor Wins Control Over Wild Metropolis" coverage he seeks.

Says Siegel: "The mayor feels like Gulliver amidst the Lilliputians. He bestrides the New York landscape like a colossus."

Hyperbole, perhaps, but the words of this colossus, a former federal prosecutor, have themselves never been so grandiose.

Earlier this spring, after declaring a zero-tolerance day that resulted in hundreds of summonses to anyone who drove over 30 mph in the city, Giuliani began talking about turning New York into a "New Eden." At a crime forum in March, the mayor declared: "Freedom is about authority." In another speech, Giuliani delivered a somewhat condescending lecture on Greek philosophy to a group of elected officials.

"Does everybody remember Plato? Plato developed the notion of the ideal," he said. "You never reached it. But in striving to get there, you kept making improvements in society. The ideal republic, the ideal state of honesty, the ideal state of integrity, the ideal state of cleanliness or safety."

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