Deth-th-thpicable, cont’d

Why shouldn’t Giuliani try to ride his 9/11 reputation to the White House? Because the reputation was undeserved, and he gained it with the benefit of a moratorium on partisan finger-pointing that otherwise would have exposed him as seriously deficient in performance both before and after the disaster.

Eugene Volokh asks why it’s wrong for Rudy Giuliani to try to milk 9/11 for political gain. After all, says Eugene, that’s the incentive system we have for politicians: if they do well, they get to take credit. So why shouldn’t Giuliani take credit for his widely-praised 9/11 performance?

Fair question, but I think it has a clear answer. If in fact Giuliani had performed his office well with regard to the 9/11 attacks, he would indeed deserve praise, and ought to be able to use that praise in seeking higher office. But he actually performed very badly, and was protected from accurate criticism by the delicacy (dictated by the situation) of those whose job it would have been to criticize him.

Granted, he was only indirectly responsible for the radio-frequency incompatibility between the police department and the fire department that cost the lives of large numbers of fireman. But he was the CEO, so in some sense the buck stops on his desk.

On the other hand, he was directly and personally responsible for the idiotic decision to locate the emergency command bunker in one of the most likely targets; that decision was made by Hizzoner over the vigorous objections of those who knew better.

How much responsibility he had for misinforming the citizenry about the risks of toxic pollution near Ground Zero, and how much damage that misinformation did, remains to be determined, but he certainly could have insisted on getting the truth from EPA, and certainly failed to do so.

It’s easy to see good public reasons for wanting not to scare the citizens. The economic and social consequences of labeling Lower Manhattan a toxic zone might have been grave. But it’s equally easy to see the deadly long-term consequences of teaching the citizens that reassurances from their government are worthless. Perhaps New Yorkers would have failed to rise to the occasion if their Mayor (and the federal government) had treated them like adults. All that is certain is that Giuliani was complicit in treating them like children in need of protection from the facts.

The part of his 9/11 performance most relevant to Giuliani’s likely actions as President was his insistence that the law be suspended to extend his term of office, as if no one could possibly fill his shoes. That demand having been rejected, the transition seems to have gone perfectly smoothly. (As de Gaulle once said, “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.”)

Giuliani’s 9/11 performance was indeed widely praised: he made himself a symbol of solidarity in the face of catastrophe. But that’s precisely the reason it is indeed despicable for him to try to ride that reputation to the White House.

Ordinarily, when a public official screws up badly, we expect his opponents and the press to expose that fact. In this case, though, Rudy succeeded in identifying himself with the city’s resilience. It would have been in extremely poor taste for his opponents or the press to try to tear down that symbol (just as it was in extremely poor taste for Republicans to blame the catastrophe on Bill Clinton while the rubble was still smoking).

Giuliani’s reputation benefited from an effective moratorium on partisan finger-pointing and journalistic curiosity. (So did the reputation of the President, whose obvious attack of funk went largely unremarked.) For Giuliani to exploit that unearned increment of kudos to serve his relentless ambition is fully of a piece with what the record shows of his moral character and operating style.

“Despicable”? Precisely.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: