George Orwell once cited Napoleon saying that had he died at the gates of Moscow, he would’ve been remembered as the greatest conqueror who ever lived. This inspired a game I play from time to time: occasionally I wonder what other figures would be more feted had their career ended at a certain point. For example, if Churchill had died before the general election of 1945, he would’ve died as the hero who defeated Hitler and saved the world from barbarism and genocide, rather than as the man who was rejected despite this great achievement and whose eventual return to power in 1951 was marked by its mediocrity.
I was reminded of Orwell’s remark as I read Andrew Kirtzman’s new biography of Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani’s leadership on September 11, 2001 made him, for a short time, the world’s most famous and celebrated man. Leaders paid homage to him and the people loved him. But now, 21 years later, the defining image of Giuliani is no longer of the fearless, upright leader of New York but of a shrieking, tubby, half-senile crony of Donald Trump, desperately trying to keep his patron in power after he lost a free and fair election.
Just consider Giuliani in the last month or so before the 2020 U.S. presidential election. This man, who’d traveled the world after 9/11 to receive countless honors, was now best known for getting Trump impeached for pressuring a foreign power to muckrake on a political opponent. And then, he is fooled in October 2020 into trying to fuck the 15-year-old daughter of Borat—on camera. A humiliating fall from the light.
What happened to Giuliani? This is the question Kirtzman sets out to answer. How did this man become Trump’s bigoted, conspiracy-mongering bootlicker? How did the man who proclaimed his commitment to democracy and the rule of law in the wake of an evil assault by religious fascists end up exhorting a crowd of bigots and idiots to seek “trial by combat” against those who sought to certify a free election on January 6, 2021?
This framing is slightly misleading. Napoleon and Churchill were hardly perfect before they became embodiments of glory, and Giuliani had long been a vile man as well as a great one. Nothing and nobody are ever completely pure: good and bad co-exist in everyone. Napoleon killed needlessly and Churchill was an imperialist. Giuliani, as Kirtzman reminds us, was a slavish follower of Ronald Reagan’s racist policies long before he became the hero of 9/11 and Trump’s enabler.
In the 1980s, as assistant U.S. attorney, he cozied up to the murderous Duvalier regime in Haiti and “injected alarming racial stereotypes into the debate” over Haitian refugees. Kirtzman: “’If you let the men into the women’s camps, they go around raping them,’ he insisted, making no such allegations against the Cubans whom the administration embraced. Giuliani had once marveled that becoming a prosecutor allowed him to do ‘only what’s right,’ but chose career success over protecting the lives of thousands of terrified refugees.”
The Cuban refugees were persecuted by the Communist enemy, and were welcome in Reagan’s America, whereas those fleeing the murderous dictator of Haiti were fleeing a friend of the administration, and weren’t worth bothering with. (In this horrid little tale, incidentally, is laid bare the hypocrisy of American Cold War policy.)
Even worse, the actions (or, rather, inactions) of Giuliani as Mayor of New York City almost certainly cost lives on 9/11. One example: Giuliani failed to resolve longstanding issues with the Fire Department’s radio communications, which proved fatal to many men when they failed to receive evacuation orders as the towers burned and collapsed.
After 9/11, Giuliani set up a consulting firm which, among other things, went on to advise friends of the genocidal Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and the daughter of the Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori. He also led the successful charge to get the Mujahedin-e Khalq taken off the U.S. State Department’s terrorism watch list. Kirtzman quotes Daniel Benjamin, then the U.S. counterterrorism chief: “‘America’s Mayor’ has presented himself as a centurion in the fight against ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ Yet he appears to feel that gorging at the table of Islamo-Marxist terrorists who have murdered Americans is in no way unseemly.”
Giuliani was always a bastard. This isn’t to detract from his genuine heroism on 9/11: he was brave and inspiring on that day. But why did Giuliani the cruel, foolish bastard win out over Giuliani the great hero? Why did the former king of New York demean himself by ending up the whore of a man who once beseeched him for tax breaks and permits? It’s tempting to provide some kind of sub-Freudian explanation. Remember Giuliani’s 2000 experiment into the world of drag? It involved Giuliani, gussied up as ‘Rudia’, being unenthusiastically motorboated by the future president. “Oh, you dirty boy!” cried out the manly seductress, perhaps protesting just a tad too much. All just for a skit, of course.
But speculation aside, Kirtzman offers two more convincing (or at least more tangible) reasons for Giuliani’s descent. First, Giuliani was obsessed with being important. No longer New York City’s mayor, he ran to be the Republican candidate for president in 2008—and failed miserably. After this loss, he embraced booze and went into a deep depression, telling New York in 2009 that this loss “was the beginning of becoming irrelevant.” And so, when an opportunity presented itself to become a liegeman of his old friend and now presidential nominee Trump, he grasped it. (That his financial security depended on government connections also undoubtedly played a part.)
Second, thanks to his conservative Catholic schooling, he was a self-righteous fanatic, who believed that whatever he did was morally right. This may have been a plus when it came to his fight against the mafia in the 1980s, but over time it led to him justifying the most appalling acts to himself, including his theocratic campaign as Mayor to shut down a blasphemous art exhibition in New York. Becoming a fundamentalist in the service of a semi-fascist seeking to remain in power despite being democratically rejected was in line with these psychological traits.
So, we return to the question: what if Giuliani had died shortly after 9/11? What if he was felled after inhaling toxic smoke as he and his team rushed around New York coordinating the response to the attacks? Or, less dramatically, what if he’d just quietly retired after that day? He would’ve ended as a hero, albeit one deserving of harsh criticism. He was never truly good; as Mayor, his condescending responses to the police murders of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond would’ve condemned him. But his life and career would’ve finished on the highest of notes and we would, thankfully, never have heard from him again.
We would’ve been spared the grotesquery of Giuliani standing outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping squawking incoherently about a stolen election. We’d never had to endure the sight of him, hair dye dripping down his puffy face, humiliating himself as the decrepit toady of a dangerous, lying fool.
If you want to understand this strange, awful man, Andrew Kirtzman’s well-written and exhaustive biography is worthwhile. It’s not an uplifting read. What I’ve noted above is barely the half of it. The depravity and brilliance of Giuliani’s sordid and astonishing life and career is Godfather stuff. And now? Rudy Giuliani is nobody. Trump has abandoned him, and he’s facing bankruptcy and criminal charges. Things have gotten so bad that he was reduced to appearing on The Masked Singer earlier this year, claiming that it wasn’t for the check but to show his new-born granddaughter “that you should try everything.” Let’s hope his pathetic descent into obscurity is the final act of his sad saga.