Rudy Giuliani Was Never ‘America’s Mayor’

On Monday, Rudy Giuliani was indicted in Georgia for his role in what prosecutors called a conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in that state.

The district attorney for Fulton County, Fani Willis, charged Giuliani with 13 counts related to election tampering, including “solicitation of violation of oath by public officer” and “conspiracy to commit forgery in the first degree.” The indictment names 18 other defendants, including former president Donald Trump, who have each been charged under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (or RICO) Act. The irony, of course, is that Giuliani made his name as a U.S. attorney using the federal RICO Act to undermine and dismantle the mob.

It is not hard to find commentators asking a simple question about the events of the last few years: What happened to Rudy Giuliani? How did “America’s mayor” — the man who rocketed to national fame after the Sept. 11 attacks — come to disgrace and debase himself in defense of Donald Trump? Why would Giuliani, the archetypal tough-on-crime and law-and-order politician, embrace a lawless effort to “stop the steal?”

It’s an understandable question, but it starts from a mistaken premise. It assumes there’s something different about Giuliani — that there was, at some point, a decisive break in Giuliani’s personality or political beliefs that placed him on his current trajectory. But there wasn’t. The line from “America’s mayor” to indicted co-conspirator is a straight one. The answer to What happened to Rudy Giuliani? is Nothing happened. He is the same man he’s always been.

The easiest way to establish this is just to look at one of the formative moments of Giuliani’s political career. On Sept. 16, 1992, thousands of off-duty police officers crowded in front of New York’s City Hall to protest against Mayor David Dinkins. “The cops held up several of the most crude drawings of Dinkins, black, performing perverted sex acts,” Jimmy Breslin, the Newsday columnist, who was present at the riot, wrote. “ ‘Now you got a n****r right inside City Hall,’ one officer reportedly said,” Breslin continued. “ ‘How do you like that? A n****r mayor.’ ” Other officers chanted slogans like “Dinkins gotta go!” and “The mayor’s on crack!”

The cops were there to oppose a bill that would have removed the police from the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight body that handled allegations of police misconduct, and, crucially, would have made it independent of the police department itself. Faced with the prospect of potentially greater civilian accountability, New York City police officers took their anger to the streets.

Tensions were already high in the city — earlier in the summer, an officer had killed Jose Garcia, a young undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic, leading to protests and rioting — and fanning the flames on this particular day was none other than Rudy Giuliani, who had lost to Dinkins in the 1989 New York mayoral election.

Giuliani, the author Andrew Kirtzman recounts in “Giuliani: The Rise and Tragic Fall of America’s Mayor,” “walked to the flatbed truck outside the perimeter of the building, where thousands were gathered, and hopped up to the makeshift stage. After a handful of other politicians delivered their speeches, Giuliani took the mic and the crowd roared. Shedding his suit jacket and rolling up the sleeves of his white button shirt, he ripped into Dinkins.”

“The mayor doesn’t know why the morale of the New York City Police Department is so low,” he said, jabbing his finger in the air. “He blames it on me, he blames it on you. The reason the morale of the Police Department of the City of New York is so low is one reason and one reason alone: David Dinkins!”

Giuliani never acknowledged or condemned the racism of the police riot. And why would he? His performance galvanized supporters and almost certainly contributed to his narrow victory over Dinkins in his rematch with the incumbent mayor in 1993.

What does any of this have to do with the Rudy Giuliani of 2023? Well, if we think of Giuliani as the personification of American resilience in the face of terrorism, then his turn against democracy and the rule of law is bewildering and inexplicable. But if we think of Giuliani as the scowling demagogue who stoked the flames of chauvinism and racial hatred against New York’s first Black mayor for his own gain, then there’s little other than his carefully crafted image in the press that separates the Giuliani of ’92 from the Giuliani of ’23

And that’s the point. Even at the moment of his greatest political triumph, Giuliani was a fraught and divisive figure. It was the press that labeled him “America’s mayor.” That the epithet continued to stick through the subsequent decade, in the face of scandal and political failure, is only a testament to the persistence of myth in American political coverage, because it is only after internalizing the myth of Giuliani that anyone could be shocked by his steadfast allegiance to Trump.

With clear eyes, it is easy to see that the two men are of a type. They share the same demagogic instincts, the same boundless resentment, the same authoritarian manner — it is not for nothing that Giuliani reportedly tried to get the 2001 mayoral election canceled so he could stay in office beyond the limit on his term — and the same willingness to indulge in racism and use it for their own political purposes.

If there is a question to ask in the wake of Giuliani’s indictment, it isn’t What happened to Rudy?, but rather, why was it so hard for so many people to see the truth of who, and what, he always was?

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Back to top button