Giuliani's handling of crisis transforms his image

Friends, former critics unite to praise him for his reaction to tragedy

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Perhaps the most outdated book on the shelves at this moment in this post-World Trade Center city is Giuliani: Nasty Man, penned by outspoken former Mayor Edward I. Koch.

Need proof? Just ask the author.

"He used to be mean-spirited, but something happened on the way to Damascus," the Democrat now says of Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. "He's warm and generous in his time, and understanding and sensitive, qualities that he didn't exhibit before this catastrophe."

In his deft handling of the trade center disaster, Giuliani has undergone a remarkable transformation, at least in public perception, unlike any seen in the recent history of American politics. Two weeks ago, his political future was on life support, a lame-duck tarred by years of bitter personal and political battles, barred from running again by term limits.

Now, with the mayoral primary just days away, there's talk of getting rid of the term limits and letting Giuliani run again. Chants of "Four more years!" have greeted him on some of his public appearances in the past two weeks. In times of crisis, people often rally around their leaders, and in New York City, some of the nastiest of critics are rallying to Giuliani's side.

"The people of the city ought to be given an opportunity to vote for him," said Koch, the former three-term mayor. "I would vote for him because of these circumstances."

This mayor-for-life movement is not seen as a realistic prospect by most, including some Giuliani aides, but it's a telling sign of how deeply Giuliani has touched the damaged psyche of this city.

The phenomenon has overwhelmed even the New York media -- as close to a natural predator as Giuliani appeared to have while in office -- with the notable exception of the Rev. Al Sharpton. The New York Times has published no fewer than three raves for the mayor, including a front-page story Thursday that hailed him as an "international celebrity." That came after the president of France said something about the French press calling Giuliani "Mayor Hero."

"He's the equivalent of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf," said Mitchell L. Moss, director of New York University's Taub Urban Research Center and another frequent past critic of the mayor. "Whatever he was two weeks ago, he's met a challenge that has global implications, and he's so clearly been the person on the ground in New York helping to address the crisis."

Beginning on Sept. 11, Giuliani sought to reassure with the mere fact of his dominant, unwavering presence. On that first afternoon, he visited with the injured, praised New Yorkers for reaching out to help one another and vowed that the city would come back "stronger than ever." The next day, he gravely pronounced that the death toll from the disaster was uncounted but would be "more than we can bear."

Since then, he has played every role needed of him -- leader, mourner, healer, symbol of strength. He's also filled so many other roles: chief public information officer, daily reciting the grim statistics of the dead, the missing and so many tons of rubble; tour guide, taking countless visiting dignitaries to the attack site; transportation commissioner, urging residents to take the subways again; even real estate broker, advertising available office space and calling on dislocated Wall Street businesses not to leave for New Jersey.

On race relations, never considered his strong suit, he has won wide praise for reaching out to the Muslim and Arab-American communities, and for his emphatic condemnation of racial harassment and bias crimes in the wake of the disaster.

And as cheerleader, he's urged New Yorkers to get back to work (an emotional David Letterman, for instance, heeded his call). He's told them it was OK to enjoy themselves, prodding residents to go out and have fun, to eat in restaurants, to take in a Broadway show.

"He recognizes the power inherent in the mayoralty and how to use it for all the kinds of needs the city has now," Moss said.

The response has been impressive. In a Marist College Institute of Public Opinion poll released on Thursday, 91 percent of New Yorkers interviewed said Giuliani was doing an excellent or good job handling the aftermath of the disaster. (The same poll showed only a third of people wanted to do away with term limits).

The conversion of political opponents such as Koch has been most interesting to watch. Democratic U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has reportedly gushed about how she's "bonded" with Giuliani.

Even Sharpton managed to compliment Giuliani in an interview, if only grudgingly and for a moment.

"He's handled it very well. I give him credit for galvanizing the Fire Department and the Police Department and doing a good job," Sharpton said. Asked if it was the first time he'd said anything nice about Giuliani, he replied, "If it's not the first time, it's the only time I can remember."

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