Calmness at the Helm

Mask of "Rudolph" Giuliani in Barney's store window

Huge mask of "Rudolph, the Right-On Reindeer" (Giuliani) in Barney's store window December, 2001

By Carter B. Horsley

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, may well be best remembered as the first important American politician to admit he was not infallible, a very important ratcheting down of the mythic status of leaders especially in an era of mass communications.

Honesty and reasonableness, however, are not the only hallmarks of a good politician.

We look to politicians for leadership even though not all will be called upon to demonstrate it.

Indeed, in the laissez-faire culture of America at the end of the 20th Century daring enterprise polling and catering to the "center" were the rule of the day even as the complexities of modern society and the pace of change continue to accelerate.

Even though governments have been trimming their bureaucracies for some time, the mechanisms of government are still huge enough for the ships of state to continue to move ahead regardless of direction from the top, to a great extent, although of course from time to time there are significant policy upheavals.

The terrifying and tragic events of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, however, brought to the fore the critical need for competent political leadership.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the patriotic resiliency of the nation and New York City shone brightly and memorably.

The City Review generally is non-partisan and avoids political endorsements as its principal interests are specific issues rather than personalities nor political dogma or party allegiance. The terrorist attacks, of course, were events out of the ordinary with very far-reaching repercussions, many of which are still to be felt and dealt with, so The City Review feels compelled to comment on the issue of leadership.

It can, and should, be said, that President Bush and Mayor Giuliani exhibited extraordinary leadership in this crisis.

Their leadership was all the more remarkable because it was rather unexpected. Their prior public persona gave little hint that they could summon up such a tremendous reservoir of sensitivity and sobriety, intelligence and intuition. President Bush was widely regarded as a likable "light-weight," at least intellectually, and Mayor Giuliani's reputation was that of a rather arrogant, censorious, albeit efficient, autocrat.

The former seemed beholden to a considerable extent to conservative elements within the Republican Party and the latter never strayed far from his law-and-order roots as a former District Attorney. Such ties, of course, do not imply a narrowness of vision, but certainly intimate the focus of their visions and priorities. Both are Republicans in good standing, supporters of minimal government, traditional "American" values, the rule of law and a strong economy.

In his public remarks after the attacks, President Bush, who had often seemed barely unable to suppress "Gee, I'm the President" giggles in some of his early speeches, was brilliant. His demeanor was firm but patient, caring but cautious, moving but mature, and genuinely sincere. As he had promised in his campaign rhetoric, he was compassionate. His first main speech after the attacks was sensational and while it may have lacked the great phrases of a FDR and the oratorical genius of a JFK it was masterful and the nation, the world and New York City immediately looked upon him with new respect and not a little surprise. His response was very reasoned and not knee-jerk vindictiveness. While some people had been apprehensive about his foreign policy capabilities, it was immediately clear from his comments and those of his top associates such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Richard Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeldt that this Bush Administration was very intelligent, sophisticated and experienced.

The crisis was about as bad as it could be and President Bush was about as wonderful as anyone could have imagined. He was calm and determined, and conveyed well the nation's outrage while resassuring it of the resolve to not only maintain stability, but also to seek out justice, and rebuild.

The dimensions of the terrorists' initial attacks and the subsequent anthrax scares unsettled the country to a degree without parallel since the Civil War, surpassing in its graphic immediacy even the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. The shockwaves of the attacks not only resulted in the deaths of more than 5,000 Americans, but also unhinged an already fragile economy and radically altered many of the routines of American life. (The death toll from the terrorist attacks subsequently was reduced to about 3,000.)

Any weakness on the part of President Bush under such circumstances would have seriously exacerbated these awesome problems, but his strength under fire significantly helped to contain what really can only be described as understandable panic.

He did what he had to do, of course, but with great grace and sufficient authority to inspire very great confidence in his leadership.

His actions came after those of Mayor Giuliani whose response to the crisis was fabulous. Mayor Giuliani was tireless and incredibly active, galzanizing New York City in support of the families of the missing, the heroic rescue-workers and the city's frazzled, anxious, stunned, shocked, perplexed and very worried citizens.

His was a comforting, reassurance presence. He became Big Daddy, not in the cantankerous Tennessee Williams sense, but in the noble tradition of gentle father figures, the Jimmy Stewart of "It's a Wonderful Life." His rhetoric was not as eloquent as Winston Churchill's, but his actions were. It came as no great surprise that Time Magazine named him its "Man of the Year" in December, 2001.

Both the President and the mayor had to manage the great stress of millions of people while also mobilizing enormous efforts to deal with the devastating situations. They both did so, admirably, without hesitation, and, impressively, without major mistakes, although the mayor made a misstep in suggesting he remain in office for a while after his term was to end in January, which bought him some criticism but did not take away from the almost universal acclaim he gained for his remarkable, steady and constant leadership.

It is one thing to have stratagems and plans and visions and quite another to call upon, and find, inner "guts" in desperate times. The President and the mayor exhibited the virtues we all hope we have but really do not know under extreme pressure.

The country and the city are extremely fortunate that its leaders rose to the horrific occasion.

Both men demonstrated the best "American" character and carefully led the country away from wildness and towards the exceeding difficult tasks of coping with very real and very ugly problems.

Both men fathomed the nobility of the American "way," and harnessed the horses of honor that reaffirmed the nation's basic principles of freedom and respect.

They were not alone, of course. The rescue-workers at the World Trade Center inspired the nation with their selfless dedication to their tasks and many stars of the entertainment firmament proudly donated their talents and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair was exceptionally supportive in bolstering confidence in the supremacy of the notion of freedom and the community of mankind.

These have been civic lessons no one wants to learn in such hard fashion.

The experience has been cathartic. Patriotism has been unfurled in this country as never before, not in a chauvinistic and selfish way but in a manner that has uplifted the souls of just about everyone. Who has not seen the images of the collapsing towers and the posters of the missing and not shed a tear? Who has not been moved by the great outpouring of commiseration, community and compassion? Who is not thankful that the President and the mayor were fortunately, and very responsively and responsibly, at their helms?

The troubles have not gone away. There are likely to be more. The shocks continue, but the nation and the city have survived the terrible onslaught with the highest distinction and from it the best "spirit" of this land of hope has been rekindled.

The scars of all this stress shall not vanish soon, but neither shall the resonance of good character and common sense manifested by the President and the Mayor. (One should note, in fairness, that New York Governor Pataki also was a fine role model in the crisis, following the lead of Mayor Giuliani in reassuring omnipresence.) These leaders did not shy away from ugly truths, or indulge in melodramatic rhetoric, but instead plunged into the problems and were forthright in their assessments of them.

In an age of global 24/7 communications, such are the rules by which they must engage themselves.

Violence, sadly, is not a new phenomenon in America, but the events of September 11, 2001 certainly upped the ante to intolerable dimensions. While recent school shootings and the continued proliferation of violence in American culture have been very disturbing, they were, by and large, taken in stride and minimized. The September 11, 2001 acts, however, have struck deeper chords and seemed to rekindled more humanitarianism. The country's acceptance of New York City into the American community has been heartening, as has the outpouring of civic activism by New Yorkers inspired in large part by the examples of Mayor Giuliani and President Bush.

Problems are more important than promises. In making every effort to deal with the problems, President Bush and Mayor Giuliani's actions held out the promise of better tomorrows, of "another day."

Individuals do make a difference.

See The City Review article on the September 11, 2001 attacks


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