The Media's Mayor

Mythologizing Guiliani and 9/11


By Steve Rendall
June 2007

And Giuliani walks on. He walks from his bunker, up Barclay Street and went on television. Went on and announced his heroism and then came back every hour or so until he became a star, a great figure, a national hero, the mayor who saved New York. Most of this comes from these dazed Pekingese of the Press. . . . Giuliani was a hero with these news people.—Columnist Jimmy Breslin (Newsday, 3/7/04)

On September 11, 2001, with George W. Bush in hiding for much of the day, mainstream journalists were desperately looking for a man on horseback. For many, that man would be New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter began his September 24, 2001 column:

At 9:05 p.m. last Wednesday, Rudy Giuliani finally broke. Exactly 36 hours after he first rushed to the World Trade Center, the mayor’s neo-Churchillian reputation was already secure. He had just escaped injury or death in The Attack, calmly led a terrifying retreat uptown, then inhabited the role of wartime leader with a fine mixture of brisk compassion and gritty command presence.

Alter dubbed Giuliani “the new Mayor of America,” which soon morphed to “America’s Mayor,” a moniker used by journalists as if it were a matter of public acclamation rather than a symptom of press corps hero worship. Time (12/31/01– 1/7/02), crediting Giuliani with teaching Americans how to cope with tragedy, awarded him an even higher honorary office:

For leading that lesson, for having more faith in us than we had in ourselves, for being brave when required and rude where appropriate and tender without being trite, for not sleeping and not quitting and not shrinking from the pain all around him, Rudy Giuliani, Mayor of the World, is Time’s 2001 Person of the Year.

Newsweek and Time set an adoring theme for coverage that would be echoed by many mainstream outlets over the next six years, pushing Giuliani to a lead in national presidential polls.

More recently, Alter (3/12/07) seemed to have second thoughts about his earlier devotion, explaining that perhaps he’d fallen “too hard” for Giuliani. Even as he made the admission, though, he reverted to fawning language, remembering Giuliani’s countenance at firefighter funerals: “Up close, his compassion and calm command were every bit as impressive as advertised.”

Whatever misgivings the Newsweek columnist may have developed about his own Giuliani worship, the same can’t be said about many other journalists.

Time’s latest profile of the prospective candidate, “Why Is Rudy Smiling?” (3/21/07), called him “‘America’s mayor,’ the rock of 9/11, crime fighter and tax cutter,” adding that “New York City’s worst catastrophe was Giuliani’s finest hour.”

Time’s David Von Drehle did worry that the prospective candidate’s views on gun control, gay rights and abortion might wander too far from the conservative GOP mainstream, and fretted over Giuliani’s personal life: “What makes his bid for the White House so tricky is . . . the blue-state mores in the red-state party”—a reference to Giuliani’s fickle marital history, although divorce rates generally run higher in Republican-leaning states.

But, the profile concluded, Giuliani’s prospects still looked good, because the “rule book” that says “a pro-choice former New York City mayor married to wife No. 3 cannot possibly win the Republican presidential nomination . . . has been stuffed into a shredder this year.”

Blast from the past
Newsweek’s latest cover story on Giuliani, “Master of Disaster” (3/12/07), included some unflattering material about Giuliani’s private life and family, but when it came to the candidate’s public record as mayor, the story read like something from a time capsule, with language echoing Time’s “Person of the Year” story more than five years earlier:

On 9/11, with the president hidden from view, “America’s Mayor” steeled the country by speaking the terrible truth: “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear.” Now, with the war in Iraq in chaos and Al-Qaeda still unvanquished, he is pitching himself to Republican primary voters as the man destined to steady the party and the nation in a time of trial. . . . But when the vast majority of Americans look back on 9/11, they will, for the ages, think of Giuliani walking through ash and soot. He was honest, sad and strong; he was heroic. Alone that night, before going to bed, he read Churchill’s May 1940 speech to the House of Commons: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

Elsewhere in the magazine, senior editor Howard Fineman reinforced the mantra, calling Giuliani “a man with near-total name ID, a 9/11 hero’s aura—and, most valuable in these post-Katrina days, a reputation for administrative competence.”

Newsweek on Giuliani read as if almost nothing had changed, as if the intervening years had yielded no new information that might alter the image of Giuliani as the unmitigated hero of September 11.

But much had changed. Several official reports and two enterprising investigative reporters had uncovered facts that squarely challenged Giuliani’s reputation for “administrative competence.”

What’s more, Newsweek was well aware when it published its “Master of Disaster” paean that Giuliani was nothing of the sort, but chose not to tell its readers.

Cutting room floor
In 2006, Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett and CBS’s Dan Collins coauthored Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11, an investigative tour de force that raised grave questions about Giuliani and September 11. According to Barrett, in preparation for the “Master of Disaster” profile, Newsweek reporters interviewed him for an hour-and-a-half about Giuliani.

However, Barrett told Extra!, “None of the material about the Giuliani administration’s disastrous performance on 9/11 made it into the story; they only quoted me about Giuliani’s father.” Summarizing the points he’d covered with Newsweek reporters, Barrett told Extra!, “Giuliani almost certainly made the 9/11 tragedy worse.”

For instance, Barrett told us, Giuliani’s personal insistence that the city’s Emergency Operations Center be located in the World Trade Center’s Building 7 was “a disastrous decision with deadly consequences,” because once the building was damaged (it eventually collapsed), it “left no functioning command center” for emergency agencies to coordinate their work.

This decision was especially puzzling, said Barrett, because the World Trade Center (WTC) had already been the target of a 1993 terrorist attack. This was a key reason why top Giuliani officials, including his police chief and emergency management director, argued, against the mayor’s insistence, not to locate the headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

Ironically, the blunder that left the city without a unified command post and drove Giuliani into the city’s media-populated streets for a good part of the day was a major factor in cementing his image as the take-charge hero of September 11.

Failure of coordination
The loss of a fixed, unified command center was especially crucial, Barrett explained, because of other Giuliani administration failures: One, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), an agency founded by Giuliani in 1996 to deal with crises demanding multi-agency coordination, utterly failed to coordinate fire, police and other emergency agencies on the day of the attacks.

On September 11, according to the 9/11 Commission, Giuliani’s OEM was not able to “overcome” a situation in which the FDNY and NYPD considered themselves “operationally autonomous.” The failure of the administration to bridge differences in the two often contentious departments, said the Commission, meant “the city’s police and fire rescue workers were not fully prepared to coordinate their work when terrorists struck the World Trade Center.”

But when Giuliani testified before the 9/11 Commission, he told the panel:

Part of my job description was to coordinate and supervise emergencies. The agencies that were the primary responders were all agencies that worked for the mayor. We had a format for how we did it, and part of that included my being there, so that I could coordinate and make sure everybody was working together.

The command situation was further compromised by the city administration’s failure to provide the firefighters with radios that worked properly and could communicate with police radios. The inadequate fire department radios were no secret; they had been publicly discussed for years, especially after they failed to perform properly during the 1993 WTC attack, shortly before Giuliani came into office. The 9/11 Commission noted this fact, while Barrett and Collins named names, fingering the Giuliani administration’s negligence of the long-standing security issue.

The faulty radios were so critical in 2001 because information available to police could not be communicated to firefighters. According to Barrett, unnecessary deaths resulted when firefighters were not privy to police warnings, based on information from police helicopters, that the towers were in danger of partial collapse. Unaware, firefighters continued their efforts in the towers instead of immediately evacuating. Similarly uninformed, according to Barrett, 911 emergency telephone operators were telling people in the towers to stay put, well after police warnings of possible collapse had been issued.

A fatal decision
But problems with the command center, the radios and interagency coordination might have been mitigated, said Barrett, but for another faulty Giuliani management decision on the day of the attacks.

With his command center out of commission, Giuliani took to the streets with top police commanders. At one point the mayor’s entourage traveled to a nearby location on West Street, near the Hudson River shore, where fire department brass had set up a temporary command post.

So far, so good: With police and fire department commanders together in one place, interagency communications problems could be managed. If the police and fire department brass had remained together, either on West Street or at another location, the tragedy might have been mitigated because, with police and fire department radios in the same place, the latest information could be relayed between the two departments.

But Giuliani made the fatal decision to go to another location, taking police brass with him and splitting the command centers. This left no way to communicate the latest information to the firefighters, who, making up the majority of the rescuers, would perish in far greater numbers than workers from other emergency agencies.

When Extra! asked why Barrett thought Newsweek and other reporters resisted citing his work, he was quick to say, “It’s not important whether they cite us,” pointing out “there are official reports calling the Giuliani myth into question.”

In addition to the 9/11 Commission report, citing administration failures from the incompetent OEM to the faulty fire department radios to the unwise decision to separate police and fire department commanders, Barrett said, “there are at least two other official reports available to reporters and the public.”

Barrett pointed to the McKinsey Report (2002), commissioned by the New York Fire Department to review the department’s response to the 9/11 attacks, and to a 2005 report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The McKinsey Report was the first official inquiry to criticize Giuliani’s placing the emergency operations center at the troubled site that would become known as Ground Zero, and the failure of police and fire department command coordination.

NIST found that the collapse of WTC 7 likely originated on the building’s fifth floor, where the distribution system for diesel fuel reservoirs was housed. At least one of the fuel reservoirs had been built into WTC 7 to run Giuliani’s emergency command center, over the objections of fire department officials.

The mainstream media ideal
Giuliani’s appeal to mainstream pundits goes beyond media perceptions of him as a September 11 hero. The fact that Giuliani’s stated views tend to run conservative on “national security” and economic issues, and more centrist on so-called social issues like abortion and gay rights, makes him an ideal candidate to a like-minded pundit class (Extra!, 7–8/98).

Is it this bias that makes journalists turn a blind eye to the exemplary work of colleagues at another outlet, or even to ignore official sources, which they often rely on to a fault?

Or is it that after all these years they are just too invested in the myth, and correcting the record would be too embarrassing? Whatever might motivate journalists who know his record and refuse to let voters in on it, Barrett has some words of advice for reporters of good faith, now that Rudolph Giuliani has entered the national stage:

When the 9/11 Commission report came out, journalists, somewhat understandably, focused on what was said about George Bush. Now that Giuliani may be the next Bush, may be the next president of the United States, journalists should look at the reports from the 9/11 Commission, NIST and McKinsey with fresh eyes.