Friday, March 12, 2010

There's Something about Rudy (but I'm still not quite sure what it is)

Rudy Giuliani was recently interviewed by the Washington Post for their "On Leadership" series. As expected, most of the interview dealt with 9/11. The obligatory Churchill reference was thrown in the mix. What I'm trying to understand - what I've been confused about for a while actually - is why Giuliani emerged as some sort of "hero of 9/11". As far as I can tell, his leadership consisted of his TV appearances where he comforted Americans, and of course calling the shots of the rescue effort. I don't want to belittle that, but it seems like an odd thing to highlight, to continue to talk about a decade later, or to call him the "man of the year" for.
What, exactly, did Rudy Giuliani do that Jay Fisette, the Chair of Arlington's County Board in 2001, didn't do in response to the Pentagon attack? As far as I can tell the difference is that Jay didn't talk on TV as much, and Jay didn't have the national name recognition. That's meaningful, but does it justify the singular identification of Giuliani with 9/11? What's even more off-putting about the Giuliani cult is how often it is framed as "Giuliani comforted the nation when Bush was nowhere to be found". It reeks of being a deliberately constructed cheap-shot at Bush. I was not a big fan of the Bush administration, but this strikes me as unjustified. If Jay Fisette of Arlington could have been said to have matched any substantive accomplishment of Rudy Giuliani, George Bush certainly surpassed both of them in his response to 9/11. Was he where he should have been in the hours after the attack? Maybe, maybe not. But his response was measured and deliberate (remember the criticism of the administration for actually waiting too long to go into Afghanistan?). He responded with lethal (and well justified, non-impulsive) force against al Qaeda and the Taliban. He created a new Department of Homeland Security which, despite its inevitable implementation problems, represented a meaningful shift in the way that government thinks about national security. At least for the fall of 2001, Bush did far more than appearing on TV and offering comfort. He addressed the problem.

It all eventually went downhill, of course. My first real hesitation about the Bush administration occured when they refused to finish al Qaeda off when they had the chance at Tora Bora. It was the first real sign that the faith we had put in this president to defend the nation was probably misplaced. That suspicion was repeatedly confirmed throughout his tenure. An intelligent reorientation of national security policy quickly degenerated into unconstitutional public surveillance, secret prisons, and torture. And then of course there was Iraq - the most objectionable distraction from fighting our real enemies of all. In the middle of a war on Islamic terrorists, the administration decided that it was time to divert our attention elsewhere and spread democracy out of the barrel of a gun. What's more, there are indications that they always wanted to do this and only used 9/11 as an opportunity to get it done. So I want to be clear: my kind words for Bush in the previous paragraph aren't an embrace of the administration. But in 2001, Bush was genuine, Bush was courageous, and Bush seemed to do far more to justify the title of "hero of 9/11" than Giuliani ever did.

The other problem with lifting up Giuliani for something like this is that it minimizes the far more substantial efforts of ordinary citizens. Giuliani has been criticized by rescue workers for saying that he had been at ground zero "as often, if not more, than most workers" (a claim that was easily demonstrated to be ridiculously inaccurate). The average soldier in Afghanistan did more to make sure such an attack never happened again than Giuliani did, and the average citizen riding on a plane could do more to stop a future attack than Giuliani ever could. Obviously we can't highlight every single one of these people (that's sort of the point), but why do we feel the need to highlight anyone? Who was the "hero of Pearl Harbor"? Nobody. We just remember it as a day of infamy. Nobody pulled December 7th out at every stump speech. Insofar as Roosevelt did reference it, it would be a reference to real accomplishments and decisions in response. Giuliani is essentially being recognized by the media for being recognized by the media in the hours after the attack.

There is no "hero of 9/11", it was simply a horrible, horrible day. Everyone thinks that "there's something about Rudy", but I just don't get it - and now that I've gotten the chance to actually write this out on paper it turns my stomach even more than it did before. Many leaders did at least as much as Rudy did. Some, like George Bush, did much more good in the months after the attack. And in addition to these leaders, countless anonymous citizens did even more than that to respond and recover. What's so special about Rudy? And why does he seem to be using this so opportunistically?

I don't often get to say this, so I'll take the opportunity: Al Sharpton said it best. Here's what he had to say about the issue -

"You didn't bring us together, our pain brought us together and our decency brought us together. We would have come together if Bozo was the mayor"

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