IMAGE: Pataki, Giuliani and Clinton at Ground Zero.
Robert F. Bukaty  /  Pool via AFP-Getty Images file
From left to right, New York Governor George Pataki, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton tour the site of New York City's World Trade Center disaster on September 12, 2001.
By
updated 9/21/2007 8:09:20 AM ET 2007-09-21T12:09:20

That first tower toppled at 9:59 a.m., a billion pounds of steel and concrete and bodies raining down. Smoke billowed like thunderheads, and New York’s mayor seemed to disappear into death’s maw.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was two blocks from the south tower, in an office on Barclay Street, trying to get the vice president on the phone, when his world went dark with smoke. Back at City Hall, Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington waited and wondered and dialed the governor.

“We really didn’t know what had become of the mayor,” he said. “I spoke to Governor Pataki, and we closed the schools and canceled the election.”

Then Mr. Giuliani was led through a basement and out onto Church Street, his head and shoulders dusted white with ash. He walked north into the surreal brightness of that day, comforting a police officer and dragooning reporters.

He would walk north two miles, pausing in the bay of a deserted fire station in Greenwich Village to call a television station and urge calm. Three hours later he stepped into a press conference with Gov. George E. Pataki.

“Today is obviously one of the most difficult days in the history of the city,” he said softly. “The tragedy that we are undergoing right now is something that we’ve had nightmares about. My heart goes out to all the innocent victims of this horrible and vicious act of terrorism. And our focus now has to be to save as many lives as possible.”

Inevitably the question arose: How many lost? The mayor looked up through his glasses, aware that among the viewers of this live broadcast were the mothers, fathers, spouses, lovers and children of those who labored in the smashed towers.

“The number of casualties,” he said, “will be more than any of us can bear ultimately.”

That walk north, the spareness of his words and his passion became the founding stones in the reconstruction of the mayor’s reputation, transforming him from a grouchy pol slip-sliding into irrelevancy to the Republican presidential candidate introduced as America’s mayor. The former mayor has made this day the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, aware that millions of Americans hold that heroic view in their collective mind’s eye.

Political leadership is an uncertain alchemy, an admixture of the symbolic and substantive and the visceral. In times of consuming trauma, psychologists and historians say, a leader must speak with a trusted voice and sketch honestly the painful steps to safety. A leader must weave a narrative of shared loss while acknowledging consuming anger.

All this Mr. Giuliani accomplished, mourning the dead, comforting the grieving and cheering the living even as the police and the National Guard moved in. His critics have lambasted the rescue failures at ground zero and argued that his inattention before 9/11 cost lives.

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Natural comparison to Bush
But his performance shone brighter for the implicit comparison with President George W. Bush, who initially appeared — fairly or not — frozen in his chair, listening to second graders read as a nation came under attack.

Mr. Giuliani declined to be interviewed for this article.

Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic governor and senator, a Vietnam veteran and a member of the commission that studied the 9/11 attacks, harbors no doubt about what he witnessed that day.

“Trust me, the range of possibilities for leaders is quite extreme: Some panic, some get paralyzed,” Mr. Kerrey said. “Giuliani was brave and reassuring, and you can’t subtract that from his résumé.”

Nor, Mr. Kerrey added, did the mayor short the importance of grief. “Giuliani did what the president didn’t do,” he said. “He went to all those funerals. And that grieving got us back to normal.”

What was most difficult to bear about Mr. Giuliani’s mayoralty — his operatic personality, his head-throbbing certainty — became points of strengths in the disorienting weeks after Sept. 11.

But this fusion of personality with a wounded city had an underside. Mr. Giuliani became convinced that he was New York’s indispensable man. He tried to overturn term limits and run again. Failing that, Mr. Giuliani wanted to extend his term three months.

The mayor’s book, “Leadership,” published in 2002, devotes not a sentence to this topic. But the campaign was longer and the lobbying more insistent than he has acknowledged.

“That time was absolutely the best and worst of Rudy,” said Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., the city’s former corporation counsel under Mayor Edward I. Koch. “Rudy stood up strong and rallied us. But that confidence created the very dangerous idea that we couldn’t survive without him.”

Rising after falling
Mr. Giuliani’s eight-year mayoralty was a balloon deflating before Sept. 11.

He had stirred a racial tempest by tearing into the reputation of an unarmed black man who had been killed by an undercover police officer.

The mayor had an affair and announced at a press conference that he would seek a separation — without informing his wife.

He contracted prostate cancer and dropped out of a Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Then planes hit the World Trade Center. Mr. Giuliani left breakfast in a Midtown hotel, sped south in a van and arrived in time to watch a man leap from the World Trade Center and fall spinning onto a low roof. Film catches Mr. Giuliani watching with hand over mouth, his head recoiling just before the man hit.

What do I tell the public? Mr. Giuliani asked the fire chiefs. Get out of that tower, they replied. Mr. Giuliani grabbed his police and fire commissioners and headed to Barclay Street, seeking phones.

Slideshow: Giuliani cartoons Then one tower collapsed and another one went down, forcing him to break into a trot as he headed north.

“He was very, very calm,” recalled Joseph P. Dunne, the first deputy police commissioner. “I modeled my behavior after him for the rest of the day.”

By noon, the mayor had set up shop in the Police Academy, on East 20th Street. He asked Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, the medical examiner, about survivors. “Most of the bodies will be vaporized,” Dr. Hirsch replied, Mr. Giuliani recounts in “Leadership.”

The only time Giuliani cried
Surrounded by death and the rumor of worse to come, the mayor and his staff rerouted subways and found police escorts for food deliveries through closed tunnels. Bulldozers and lights were delivered to ground zero, which was lighted up like a movie set.

But what most people remember was the presence of mind with which the mayor spoke of unimaginable disaster. A reporter mentioned that Barbara Olson, a friend of the mayor, had been on the plane that hit the Pentagon. He flinched, but kept talking.

Then he excused himself and telephoned her husband, Theodore B. Olson, the solicitor general. It was, he wrote, the only time he cried.

Late that night, Mr. Giuliani prepared to return to his post-separation apartment. His estranged wife, daughter and son lived in Gracie Mansion.

He directed his police escort to drive him south to what had already become known as ground zero. He wandered a nightmare-scape of fire and ash and smoke, shaking hands with hard hats, whispering comfort to firefighters. “I just wanted to be sure,” he said, “that everything is here that should be here.”

Mockery and mistakes
Here is the rich irony for those who look askance at Mr. Giuliani’s myth-making moment. His march uptown should not have been necessary, many experts say.

Mr. Giuliani insisted in 1997 on placing his state-of-the-art emergency command center at 7 World Trade Center, mocking critics who warned that it was too close to a terror target. On Sept. 11, that building collapsed. Had the center been placed in Brooklyn, as a mayoral aide had suggested, the cameras might not have made a legend of a dust-shrouded mayor.

In “Leadership,” Mr. Giuliani insists he still would have headed downtown. “I wanted the fire commanders to talk to me face to face — to look into my eyes and give me an undiluted assessment,” he wrote.

Some question that.

“It didn’t make any sense for him to be there on the scene,” said Glenn P. Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who studied the attacks.

Lincoln was a wartime president,” Professor Corbett added. “But you didn’t see him on the battlefield at Gettysburg.”

Many other things went wrong with the emergency response. Police and fire radios operated on different frequencies, a problem administration officials had known about since the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The Police and Fire Departments established separate command posts. When police helicopters noticed that the north tower showed signs of buckling, they notified police commanders, who ordered an evacuation. But evidence strongly suggests that many firefighters never heard these orders from the police, or from their own commanders.

A controlling hand
Mr. Giuliani defended establishing separate command posts. But it is modern practice to establish a unified command. The 9/11 Commission left open the possibility that these problems could have had a “catastrophic effect” that day.

“The preparation for another attack on the World Trade Center was almost zero,” said Mr. Kerrey, the 9/11 commissioner.

That said, the mayor’s harshest critics concede that by the morning of Sept. 11, the die had been cast. No leader could hope to impose order on fractious departments and remedy radio incompatibility after airliners had hit two of the tallest office buildings in America.

“Think about it: By 10:28 a.m., an hour and change, two buildings were down,” said Mr. Dunne, the former commissioner, who is an admirer of Mr. Giuliani. “Who thought those towers would ever fall? We were moving 180 miles per hour.”

Dr. Michael Cohen rode across the East River to advise a mayor he had never met and did not care for politically. It was Sept. 12, and the stench of death lingered in the autumnal air.

The schools chancellor had suggested that Dr. Cohen, a psychologist who works with the schools, might advise the mayor at the Police Academy.

Mr. Giuliani, who had slept two hours the night before, shook hands and sat down. For half an hour the mayor and this psychologist talked the A B C’s of leadership for a city in shock. Speak with an authoritative voice and never promise more safety than you can deliver, Dr. Cohen advised.

Voice your anger, but direct it at the real enemy.

“Honesty becomes a gigantic issue,” Dr. Cohen recalled telling the mayor. “You say, ‘We’re safe’ — well, how do we know that? Make clear the steps to safety.”

Mr. Giuliani asked questions, and acted. “I was blown away by his performance,” Dr. Cohen said.

Wrestling with timing
In the weeks after the attacks, the mayor wrestled with challenges: How fast to push the recovery; when to move from ‘rescue’ to ‘recovery’; how to address grieving families.

One day Mr. Giuliani was agitated. He had to talk with the widows of uniformed workers about the handling of the remains of their loved ones.

Dr. Cohen spoke of recognizing their anger, but the mayor cut him off. He got it. As the widows filed in, the mayor walked over and said: “I understand why you are so angry; I share that.”

On funerals, Mr. Giuliani needed no counsel. He sometimes attended five funerals a day. None of the dead went to their graves unattended by a top official, and always the mayor finished by asking mourners to give the departed a standing ovation.

Mr. Giuliani ruled with a controlling hand. In troubled times, he wrote, people need to see a leader “who is stronger than they are, but human.”

“I saw firsthand his extraordinary competence and calm,” recalled Mark Green, the city’s public advocate and a frequent foe. “The mayor asked questions, ordered it in his mind and spoke in a way that conveyed strength and confidence.”

There was garbage pickup on Sept. 12. City payroll checks went out on Sept. 13. On the sixth day, the stock exchange opened. Security was omnipresent.

But control came with a quid pro quo. Mr. Giuliani demanded that the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which helped enforce respirator use at the Pentagon cleanup, serve only in an advisory capacity. Mr. Giuliani rarely wore a mask at ground zero. And his officials, while aware of the health hazards, rarely forced cleanup workers to wear masks or respirators.

Christie Whitman, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time, has said that city officials “didn’t want this image of a city falling apart.”

The burden of 9/11 was also deeply personal for Mr. Giuliani. The mayor lost close friends. He identified bodies at the morgue, not least Terry Hatton, a fire captain married to a mayoral secretary, Beth Petrone.

Some saw a man wounded. The mayor suffered shooting tension pains in his back and shoulders. “I never counseled him, but I became aware that he suffered unbelievable personal losses,” Dr. Cohen said.

Mr. Giuliani’s anger, too, burned deep. He asked President Bush to let him execute Osama bin Laden, he wrote in his book. On his last day in office, he walked ground zero and recognized a familiar fury.

“I felt tremendous anger,” he wrote, “as raw and intense as when I first saw the smoldering pile.”

Irreplaceable dreams
Even as the fires burned at ground zero, Democrats and Republicans campaigned in a mayoral election. In late September Mr. Giuliani summoned Mr. Green, who was running in the Democratic primary, to his command post.

Mr. Giuliani, as Mr. Green recalled, was blunt: I want to remain in office three more months. I have a great team, I can lobby Washington. I’m being reasonable, he cautioned; my supporters want me to run for a new term.

Oh yes, he added, I need your answer tonight.

Mr. Green was taken aback. Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, was hours away. His closest advisers, many of whom were Jewish, would not pick up the phone.

“He made it clear he would invest his Churchillian popularity in hitting whomever did not go along with him,” Mr. Green said in an interview.

That many wanted the mayor to stay on is undeniable. But American electoral democracy rarely pauses. Abraham Lincoln held elections in 1864. Franklin D. Roosevelt stood for re-election as World War II raged.

“It was a very dangerous idea,” said Mr. Schwarz, the former corporation counsel. “The knight on the white horse is always indispensable in his own mind.”

Five days after the attacks, anonymous leaflets urged Mr. Giuliani to run. The governor had postponed the Sept. 11 primary. But when a mayoral aide inquired about pushing back other election dates, Mr. Pataki refused.

It 'wasn't about ego'
A few advisers cautioned the mayor against draining his vast reservoir of good will. The mayor spoke at first against the idea of serving beyond his term. But many in his tightly held circle at City Hall urged him on, as did talk show hosts. World leaders lionized him; he would soon be knighted. You are needed to put the city back on its feet, advisers said.

“This wasn’t about ego; it was about recovery,” said Joseph J. Lhota, a former deputy mayor, referring to Mr. Giuliani’s effort to stay on. “It just lasted four days, maybe a week.”

In fact, the mayor’s campaign lasted nearly a month. Mr. Giuliani warmed to the task, jabbing at potential rivals as disaster neophytes. He wrote of a charity fund-raiser in October: “I got a kick out of Adam Sandler” who “managed to rhyme ‘Giuliani’ with ‘why must you be gone-ee?’ ”

Mr. Giuliani tried to persuade the candidates, Mr. Green and Fernando Ferrer of the Democrats and Michael R. Bloomberg, the Republican, to support a term extension.

Mr. Green gave in, to his regret. Mr. Bloomberg acceded; Mr. Ferrer refused.

“In retrospect, I was wrong,” Mr. Green said.

Calls poured into the office of the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, from Mr. Giuliani and from rabbis and priests. Mr. Silver was on the phone when a secretary signaled a new caller.

It was Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, calling to lobby for Mr. Giuliani. But Mr. Silver declared the matter dead. And it was.

The siren song of irreplaceability faded. Two months later Mr. Giuliani walked down the steps of City Hall to the wail of bagpipes. Lucrative speaking engagements lay ahead. Asked to draw the measure of a complicated new world, the mayor could as easily have been talking about himself.

“We’re not in a different world,” he told Time magazine when he was selected Person of the Year that December. “It’s the same world as before, except now we understand it better.”

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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