"The Holy Terror"

by John Tierney
© 1995, The New York Times Corporation

Like the impassioned zealots of Italian opera and like Fiorello La Guardia, his role model, Rudolph Giuliani pushes forward righteously- and with dramatic impact.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, not one to underestimate himself, feels a certain kinship when he looks at the portrait of Fiorello La Guardia that hangs behind his desk at City Hall. "A really terrific role model," Mayor Giuliani calls him. So far the resemblance has eluded most other New Yorkers. In the public mind Fiorello La Guardia is the Little Flower, the builder of modern New York, the benevolent figure who read the comics to children on the radio; Rudolph Giuliani is the control freak, the slasher of budgets, the taut face denouncing the vile stupidity of his enemies on television every night. But consider a few judgments of these Mayors rendered by journalists and public officials of both eras. (For quiz purposes, telltale past-tense verbs have been changed.) See if you can distinguish which of these statements refer to Mayor La Guardia and which refer to Mayor Giuliani:

  • He has exhibited a persistent tendency to disparage and humiliate -- often in public -- anyone who disagrees with him. He seems to enjoy governing by fear, relishing his role as the city's chief whipmaster.
  • He likes to see people cringe.
  • New York has never been nearer a one-man government than today. No one of the Mayor's commissioners dares to decide anything more than a routine matter without consulting him for his O.K.
  • He can't stand his commissioners getting the headlines.... Reports have to come through his office. ... We have to be so cautious because if we breathe a single word he'll go into mad tantrums.
  • He can be cynical, churlish, hotheaded petty and just plain wrong. At one time or another, he has antagonized everyone who has ever worked for him.
  • To the Mayor, the word advice is like a red flag to a bull.
  • When he does not get what he wants he exhibits an ungovernable temper and lets loose an unbridled tongue, seeing red, stirring up trouble, throwing black mud around, bespattering the record or reputation and the family of friend or foe.

    All but the first comment were made about La Guardia. The Little Flower was just one of his nicknames; he was also called Little Napoleon, the Great Infallible and Midget Mussolini. At one public hearing he told a Tammany Hall loyalist, "If you try to start anything with me, you'll go out of that window, you bootlicking valet!" When he spotted a bus driver running a red light, Mayor La Guardia not only copied the license-plate number and had the driver summoned to court, he presided as magistrate and personally imposed the fine. He did have charms that Giuliani lacks, but he could be just as self-righteous. He, too, loved Italian opera and its impassioned zealots. His most appropriate nickname, bestowed by a reporter, was an Italian phrase that would fit either Tosca or Scarpia, and that nicely suits Giuliani too: Il Sacro Terrore. The Holy Terror.

    "He was the last reformer as Mayor," Giuliani says of La Guardia. "For his time he captured exactly what New York City needed: somebody who can challenge the assumptions and is willing to be controversial" Giuliani read a biography of La Guardia during the 1993 campaign, and one of his first acts as Mayor was to move La Guardia's desk and portrait into his office. It was a presumptuous thing to do, but in his first two years Giuliani has fulfilled at least part of his mission. No Mayor since La Guardia has challenged so many assumptions and created so much controversy.

    Why, his critics keep asking, can't Giuliani disagree with people without insulting them? Why must he always be right, always in charge? Was it really necessary to create an international incident by ejecting Yasir Arafat from Lincoln Center) Isn't there something awry in the civic culture on a day when the tabloid front pages proclaim "RUDY'S ONE RUDE DUDE" (an opinion from the State Department) and "GO TO HELL" (a farewell message from Arafat)? Each new fight prompts new analyses of his character flaws, new predictions of doom for--him and the city.

    Yet somehow, despite all these flaws, he has accomplished more in two years than almost anyone imagined possible. Facing one of the worst fiscal crises in city history, he balanced two budgets while cutting taxes. The municipal labor force has shrunk, but the streets and parks are cleaner. Crime has dropped so sharply that New York is now one of America's safest cities, and the Police Department's new tactics are being copied around the country. The city is reducing its welfare rolls and running the nation's largest workfare program. Giuliani hasn't yet reinvented New York's government, but he has begun to reshape it, and he has transformed the city's political debate. He has challenged the assumptions of big-city liberalism, the philosophy that dominated New York for six decades ever since that other Italian-American Republican reformer became Mayor.

    In 1934 La Guardia took over a city essentially bankrupted by the Depression and Tammany Hall's corruption. He demolished the Democratic machine by firing thousands of Tammany's political hacks. But soon he replaced them with even more employees to issue regulations and run housing projects, hospitals and welfare programs. He created a new establishment, something of a Fiorello Hall, with a progressive faith that was not shaken by rising taxes and worsening deficits. The city already had budget problems by the time La Guardia left office in 1945, but Fiorello Hall's ambitions kept growing in the ensuing decades. The fiscal crisis of 1975 required a retrenchment, but the city's budgets went right back up when the 80's boom brought in new tax revenues.

    'The biggest and largest special-interest group in the city is the intellectual establishment. Giuliani says. 'New York is a great intellectual center that has become...unwilling to think a new thought.'