Giuliani -- immortality with feet of clay

October 06, 2002|By Buzz Bissinger | By Buzz Bissinger,Special to the Sun

Leadership, by Rudolph W. Giuliani with Ken Kurson, Miramax, 288 pages, $25.95.

Sometime in the winter of 2001, back in the days when Rudy Giuliani was the mortal mayor of an immortal city and not vice versa, I was approached to see if I might serve as the writer for a book he was planning to do on his tenure. Aware of how New York had transformed into something spectacular under the Giuliani regime, I was intrigued. It was a fascinating tale, just as Giuliani himself was a fascinating tale, if it was a tale that could be told.

So I thought about it. Since it was Giuliani's book, I knew that the term "writer" on my part was a dangerous misrepresentation. I would be a ghostwriter, which effectively meant I would be a dartboard for whatever Mayor Giuliani decided to throw on the wall.

It was also obvious that increasing numbers of New Yorkers had just had it with Giuliani -- had grown tired of his righteous fights. I concluded that he was a has-been waiting to happen. Who the hell really cared about Rudy Giuliani anymore? So I said no, which, given the course of events over the next several months, may well turn out to be the stupidest rejection in the history of modern arts and letters.

Sept. 11 came, of course, and Giuliani overnight went from just another politician into national saint and icon. It seemed like an act of divine intervention when I was actually approached again to see if I was interested in his book. But I still said no, maybe an even stupider rejection than the first, given that this was a book guaranteed to have worldwide sales into the millions.

Do I regret it? As many millions as Giuliani's Leadership will sell, reader, be forewarned: This is a mess of a book, rambling, rudderless, nonrevealing except for an occasional walnut here and there buried under soporific garbage, written with as much sophistication as a grade-school primer. All of which might even be palatable if Leadership wasn't so deadly, deadly boring.

The book is a thinly disguised campaign manifesto for a man who clearly has some new political act up his sleeve, 400-plus pages of self-aggrandizement that he tries to temper with gratuitous references to others as some transparent show of selflessness -- Joe Torre, George Steinbrenner, Adam Sandler, his current squeeze Judith Nathan among others.

Bizarrely, the best part of the book is the last chapter. It is there and only there that we glean some true insight into the personal enormity of what Giuliani faced in the aftermath of Sept. 11, with the mayor actually acknowledging self-doubt by giving himself a pep talk: "I can handle this. I am handling this." As for the first 340 pages -- a sample of scintillating prose: "Each cluster had a subcommittee, and Denny had a timetable for recommending at least three commissioners for every position." This about his love of golf: "I was hooked (as was the ball)." A statement of stunning insight: "Cancer is a particularly insidious disease."

As for leadership, the presumed intent of the book, Giuliani tamps it down into one aphorism after another, and there are so many of them that they tend to cancel each other out: Listen when you have to and don't listen when you don't have to, disclose bad news quickly but make sure first it's really bad news, tailor your message to the listener, recognize your limitations, go to funerals.

Similar books written by the mighty and powerful, regardless of their one-way point of view, can still be wonderful. Katharine Graham's autobiography, Personal History, was superb. So, for that matter, was Ben Bradlee's A Good Life. What each of these books brought with it was distance, enough distance from events so they could be written about with clarity and perspective and refreshing hindsight. Giuliani reveals none of that. He may be a saint because of Sept. 11. But he is also a profiteer of Sept. 11, rushing a book out the door that isn't ready to seize on his sainthood. And it shows.

It shows terribly.

Buzz Bissinger is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His last book, A Prayer for the City, was an exhaustive account of Edward G. Rendell during his first term as mayor of Philadelphia from 1992 to 1996.

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