Myths of a 9/11 hero, debunked
The Untold Story of
For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 24, 2006
Rudy Giuliani and 9/11
Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins
HarperCollins: 390 pp., $25.95
FEW reporters who covered New York City government during Rudolph W. Giuliani’s reign would dispute that the mayor saw himself as a powerful leader destined for greatness. But many were shocked when much of the country began to agree.
Giuliani was a lame duck when 2000 drew to a close, a mayor whose political stature was in a tailspin and whose private life was being rocked by illness and scandal. A local tabloid had revealed Giuliani’s long-term affair with a pharmaceutical sales manager, which led to an equally public call for divorce from his apoplectic wife. Meanwhile, prostate cancer had forced him from a tepid U.S. Senate campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
To Giuliani’s political enemies, this delicious farrago had been a long time coming. They relished the comeuppance of a man whose self-assured rhetoric often came off as mean-spirited bullying and who most often reacted angrily to criticism when he wasn’t being dismissive in the extreme. Many New Yorkers thought Giuliani would have had trouble being elected dogcatcher. Talk of a run for president of the United States would have been rich indeed. But as Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins note in “Grand Illusion,” their superb dissection of the reality behind the Giuliani myth-making after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: “What a difference a day made.”
When Islamic fundamentalists crashed two passenger jets into the World Trade Center on that crisp clear morning, causing New York’s signature towers to implode, they not only killed more than 2,700 Americans, they shook the faith of those left living. Solace was in short supply.
The only powerful force at work appeared to be Osama bin Laden, a terrorist mastermind of frightening proportion. America needed a hero, someone to reassure them that everything would be all right. But “the disaster had been so complete that there were remarkably few candidates for the role,” Barrett and Collins explain, adding that President Bush’s performance “was hardly the stuff of legend.” Into this breach stepped the shattered city’s mayor. When Giuliani walked before the cameras that day, stern-faced, calm and “covered in soot, he embodied the resolve of the nation.”
Giuliani’s dramatic showing during this time of crisis and his solemn attendance later at the scores of wakes across the city reignited his political torch. The praise showered on him was deafening. Everyone wanted to shake his hand. The queen of England knighted him. Time named him “person of the year” -- beating Bush and Bin Laden. His boyhood dream of becoming president no longer seems so far-fetched; he is weighing a bid in 2008.
But although Giuliani’s “quick response and personal fearlessness
The city’s problems on Sept. 11 are now well known. Police officers and firefighters hardly communicated. With radios that didn’t operate between departments or work at all in steel high-rises, many firefighters didn’t get the final mayday call to evacuate the North Tower before it fell. Cut off from relevant information, emergency operators continued to tell victims in the tower to stay put even though top fire chiefs had called for a complete evacuation almost immediately after arriving on the scene. The list goes on. But somehow, the mayor has been able to escape much of the blame. Barrett and Collins now hold Giuliani accountable.
The focus of their ire is Giuliani’s claim that, although the magnitude of the attacks was unforeseeable, he had assumed from the moment he came into office in 1994 that terrorists would attack New York City and so he made the city’s emergency response a priority. There has been little in Giuliani’s record to support that claim. But “Grand Illusion” now reveals a record that directly contradicts it.
It is not that Giuliani wouldn’t have had reason to prepare. After all, terrorists had exploded a car bomb underneath one World Trade Center tower in 1993. But Barrett and Collins’ detailed research shows a mayor who utterly failed to grasp the importance of readying the city for another terrorist attack. Lou Anemone, the police department’s chief operating officer during much of Giuliani’s tenure, recalls trying to brief the mayor on a citywide terrorism security plan in 1998. “Rudy glazed over,” he said, adding: “We never had any discussion about security at the World Trade Center. We never even had a drill or exercise there.... There was just a lack of recognition of the problem at City Hall.”
Anemone is not alone in making the assessment that Giuliani’s interests lay elsewhere. Barrett and Collins back up such charges against Giuliani with reams of documents and multiple human sources. This can’t help but slow the reader down. Some of their confirmations and details might have been better left in footnotes. But the wealth of material paints a clear picture of City Hall ineptitude in the face of continuing terrorist threats.
Some of the book’s sources may have an ax to grind. Giuliani dismissed one of them, New York’s current police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, when he became mayor in 1993. And some may have minimized their own failings. Jerome Hauer, Giuliani’s first director of the Office of Emergency Management prior to Sept. 11, is lauded by the authors for attempting to force the city’s notoriously antagonistic police and fire departments to work together. But Hauer also was intimately involved in some of the mayor’s biggest missteps, chief among them locating the city’s emergency command center in the World Trade Center complex.
In “Grand Illusion,” Hauer blames Giuliani for forcing him to build the center near City Hall. But it was Hauer who finally picked the location and then stumped for it. (When I broke the story of the command center plans in a June 13, 1998, article in the New York Times, which Barrett and Collins cite, Hauer expressed no reservations -- on or off the record -- about putting it on the 23rd floor of a building across the street from terrorists’ 1993 target. In fact, Hauer said the site was ideal, that the city needed “a facility that is survivable” and “that is this facility.”) The building housing the command center collapsed along with the twin towers that morning, contributing to many of the problems on the ground.
Luckily, “Grand Illusion” is too well-sourced for such concerns to be a major issue. The book handily punctures a hole in the myth of Giuliani as a praiseworthy terrorism czar who had prepared his city for the tragedy that unfolded. Although there is plenty of blame to go around, Giuliani, as mayor, set the tone of his administration and picked the people who would be counted on to respond appropriately. At both tasks, he failed miserably, the book shows, choosing politics over public safety.
“The facts -- depressing but unavoidable -- were that Giuliani had allowed the city to meet the disaster of September 11 unprepared in a myriad of ways,” write the authors, a statement that rings depressingly true by the end of “Grand Illusion.”
Kit R. Roane, a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, covered New York City law enforcement from 1997 to 1999.