A hero fails the management test
By Jacob Weisberg
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: February 22 2007 02:00 | Last updated: February 22 2007 02:00
As someone who lived through September 11 in New York City, I will always be grateful to Rudy Giuliani. The mayor's quick instincts and judgment that day prevented panic. His calm authority got the city through the worst hours in its history and set it on the path to recovery. This was not a given. President George W. Bush's initial public response to the attacks was shaky, late in coming and far from reassuring.
But the presidential bid Mr Giuliani announced last week is staked on more than that Churchillian moment. It is also based on the notion that he is an effective manager who tamed an out-of-control metropolis and ran it efficiently. Here, the real picture is more clouded. Mr Giuliani was a frustrated and not very popular mayor on September 10 2001. Today, most New Yorkers do regard him as a hero - but also as a self-sabotaging, thin-skinned bully.
The leadership/management dichotomy runs through Mr Giuliani's two terms. When he took office in 1994, New York had become ungovernable and was increasingly unliveable. A bloated public sector soaked up more and more resources to deliver less and less. Like former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Mr Giuliani arrived bearing a message of "enough!". With a rare relish for combat, he took on a long list of civic tormenters, including municipal labour leaders, racial demagogues and uncompromising civil libertarians.
Mr Giuliani rounded up the squeegee men, purged Times Square, defunded the education bureaucrats, broke the back of the city's welfare culture and reduced crime dramatically through reformed policing. His toughness and moralising were the perfect antidotes for what ailed New York, even when he occasionally exceeded his job description. At the United Nations 50th anniversary celebrations, he had Yassir Arafat ejected from a party at Lincoln Center. When people complained, Mr Giuliani regretted not throwing the terrorist out himself.
The change Mr Giuliani brought to urban life was large and sudden. One began strolling around the city at two in the morning without glancing behind. Dinner party conversation ceased to revolve around muggings and burglaries and turned to the latest gentrifying neighbourhood.
In a new book, the noted criminologist Franklin Zimring argues that New York's fall in crime in the 1990s was twice the national average because of "three major changes in the city's police department" - more cops, more aggressive policing and management reforms. If this holds, Zimring writes, "it would be by far the biggest crime prevention achievement in the recorded history of metropolitan policing".
Over time, however, Mr Giuliani's personal limitations became increasingly evident. Instead of taking on new challenges after his re-election in 1997, he dedicated his second term to vanquishing his remaining enemies. Fran Reiter, who served as a deputy mayor under Mr Giuliani, describes him as depressed and directionless after being sworn in for the second time. "He can get mired in the petty stuff," Ms Reiter says. "He doesn't suffer political opponents well and there are times when he doesn't compromise well."
In his second term, Mr Giuliani showed himself to be a classic micro-manager, unable to delegate and unwilling to share the spotlight. He had already driven out William Bratton, his triumphant chief of police, in a battle over credit. Mr Bratton's fate was sealed when he appeared on the cover of Time. Nor could Mr Giuliani abide ridicule. He went to court to try to stop New York Magazine from advertising itself on the sides of buses as "possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for".
Mr Giuliani's weaknesses as a manager have become more evident in the light of his successor. Michael Bloomberg has neither a whim of steel nor a populist bone in his body. Arriving in 2002 at a City Hall that had no e-mail system and no computerised payroll, he quietly cleaned up a mess of no-bid contracts without faulting his predecessor. He and Ray Kelly, his police commissioner, have made continued gains against crime without becoming obsessed with press clippings. Above all, Mr Bloomberg has taken on the big problems Mr Giuliani never faced.
Mr Giuliani never wanted responsibility for the city's troubled schools; Mr Bloomberg has taken charge of them and engineered a massive overhaul. Mr Giuliani lost interest in curtailing the growth of city government and left behind a fiscal catastrophe; Mr Bloomberg took the unpopular step of raising taxes and has created a budget surplus.
Mr Bloomberg's style is less theatrical than Mr Giuliani's, but as a negotiator, he is probably tougher. Last winter, Mr Bloomberg took a paralysing transit strike and sent the union's chief to jail, rather than cave in to demands that the city could not afford. Today, the local economy is booming, construction is ubiquitous and, in spite of 9/11, New York has become a more attractive business destination than ever.
Admittedly, New York politics are duller without the constant racial tension, operatic feuds and mass protests. When the police shoot a black man in error, Mr Bloomberg invites the grandstanding Al Sharpton in to talk, instead of provoking him to demonstrate on the steps of City Hall. Post-Giuliani New York is less like a Spike Lee movie, but would make a superior business school case study.
The writer is editor of Slate.com