Giuliani: a bold flair early
In the winter of 1981, with President Reagan freshly moved in to the White House, the nation’s newly appointed attorney general summoned a young man from Manhattan to interview for a hugely important job, the No. 3 slot in the Justice Department.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former assistant prosecutor who had taken on organized crime in New York, was only 36 and had only recently become a Republican. But he was bursting with energy and ideas.
Kenneth W. Starr sat quietly on a couch as Giuliani made his pitch to Atty. Gen. William French Smith and his team, telling them that Justice should be more proactive, more eager to knock the heads off of crooks. He kept talking about “vigor, vigor, vigor.”
“He was mashing on the accelerator,” said Starr, then a counselor to Smith. “They were wowed.”
Years before he would become the swaggering, crime-busting U.S. attorney in Manhattan, before he would serve two terms as mayor and help lead New York through its darkest day, Giuliani already was demonstrating a florid sense of self, a high degree of self-confidence and a daring to pull the levers of bureaucratic power.
When police chiefs, including Los Angeles’ Daryl F. Gates, challenged Giuliani’s plan to make the Drug Enforcement Agency part of the FBI, he fought back. When civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, criticized the government’s treatment of a wave of Haitian refugees, he aggressively defended the administration’s policies.
Giuliani often appeared hungry for the spotlight, at times flying off at subordinates if he did not get the publicity he relished. He sometimes would brush past department guidelines, using the power of his office, in one instance, to help friends obtain a co-op apartment in Manhattan.
The associate attorney general slot has historically been filled by an anonymous government servant toiling with little public notice. But Giuliani made much more of the position: By solidifying his early leadership style, it set him on a course on which, today, he is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
The energy and brashness that Smith saw in Giuliani was quickly put to use, both inside and outside the department.
His two years at Justice were marked by two major challenges: the Reagan administration’s pledge to fight an alarming increase in illegal drug activity, and its efforts to house, feed and clothe thousands of Haitians fleeing to U.S. shores. In typical Giuliani fashion, he tackled both head-on. Both brought mixed results.
Even before he formally started his job, Giuliani put the world on notice that he was eager to go after the nation’s drug problem -- as well as the administration’s political opponents.
“Heroin, cocaine and related kinds of drugs are the biggest single problem,” he declared at a news conference the day before he took office in May 1981. “I don’t think that in the Carter administration the issue of narcotics enforcement was a priority. It was something they were not concerned about.”
He picked up that theme again in August 1982. When former Vice President Walter F. Mondale complained about the rise in crime, Giuliani unloaded. In a Washington Post opinion article, he defended the Reagan record and derided Mondale’s comments as “another typical politician’s contribution.”
Giuliani’s article drew high praise from Edwin M. Meese III, Reagan’s top White House counselor. “Let the liberal carpers know that they can’t raise their heads without getting them shot off,” a delighted Meese told him.
Inside Justice, Giuliani proposed folding the Drug Enforcement Administration into the FBI and making the DEA administrator answerable to the FBI director. Because drugs traditionally spawned violent crime, he reasoned, it made sense to combine the two agencies’ expertise to combat the increasingly sophisticated world of illegal narcotics.
FBI officials embraced his plan, but the proposal triggered protests from DEA agents and police chiefs around the country. Local agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department depended on the DEA for assistance in fighting drugs, then-Police Chief Gates said, and he warned that “any disruption in the DEA’s mission” could jeopardize that cooperation.
Giuliani brushed the concerns aside and went ahead with the reorganization.
But Giuliani’s vision did not survive -- and it did not stop the drug problem. The mid-1980s saw an explosion of crack cocaine and gang warfare. And the joint DEA-FBI operations lasted only a few years, before the two agencies went back to their separate crime-fighting duties.
Managers of the two agencies “never really had their hearts in it,” said Stan Morris, who worked alongside Giuliani as the department’s associate deputy attorney general. “Their cultures are so different,” Morris said. “You could get them in bed, but they weren’t going to sleep together for a long time.”
At the same time, Morris and others credit Giuliani for quickly taking stock of the growing drug menace and taking a bold step to combat it.
The Haitian issue was more complex. During the Carter years, thousands of Haitians took to the sea in desperate attempts to reach the United States. As their legal status was sorted out, the administration began setting up camps around the nation, most notably in South Florida.
When Reagan took office, Giuliani was handed the problem of caring for the refugees as the courts struggled with their fates. Many were held without due process, and it fell to Giuliani to defend their treatment in the face of activists such as Jackson, who decried the long detentions and demanded they be set free or that conditions be vastly improved.
It also became Giuliani’s job to argue the administration’s position that many of the Haitians were not political refugees fleeing government repression -- a status that would help ease their legal entry into the United States -- but instead were economic refugees running from poverty, which would give them little standing to argue for permanent U.S. residency.
Giuliani took an extraordinary step: He went to Haiti and met personally with dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Giuliani extracted a promise from Duvalier that the refugees would not be prosecuted if they were returned to the Haiti. Critics called Giuliani naive for trying to negotiate with a dictator.
In a private memo to the U.S. State Department, Giuliani said he was shocked by the dire poverty he saw in Haiti. He urged more U.S. economic aid to the nation, seeing it as “a cost-effective alternative” that might persuade more Haitians to stay home.
It eventually fell to the legal system to decide which refugees were sent home, which were detained further and which were allowed to live freely in the United States.
While at the Justice Department, Giuliani’s workday would often drag late into the Washington evening, and he often slogged home to his Capitol Hill apartment with an armload of paperwork.
He buried his father and proposed to the woman who became his second wife. His hair began to thin, and he combed it over at a downward slant. He was young to be in such a high position, yet clearly trying to look even younger.
He seemed to carefully nurture his public persona. When convicted spy Christopher Boyce of Los Angeles was caught after a prison break, Giuliani became enraged that the marshals had not informed him so that he could announce it on TV.
“I am very disturbed,” he complained in a letter to William E. Hall, the top marshal in Washington.
A red-faced Hall quickly apologized. “I will do my utmost to see that this does not happen again,” he told Giuliani.
Another time, when he was highlighted in a book about the nation’s top new leaders, but also cited for his hot temper, he grabbed the phone and chewed out the authors.
And yet, there was a humbler version of Rudy Giuliani.
“Such a tragedy reminds us of the need to have faith in our God,” he wrote the families of four FBI agents killed when their bureau plane crashed in Ohio. “For whatever comfort it is worth, I will remember you in my prayers.”
Those who worked with him at the Justice Department presumed he would live out his days as a government bureaucrat. Starr, now dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law, said Giuliani “never talked about” a future in politics, “never showed he was thinking those things.”
Giuliani started out as an assistant federal prosecutor in Manhattan in the 1970s, then served briefly as an associate deputy attorney general under President Ford. His boss was Deputy Atty. Gen. Harold R. “Ace” Tyler, who had mentored him in New York.
When Ford lost to Carter, Tyler and Giuliani returned to New York and private practice.
Four years later, Reagan took the presidency from Carter, and Giuliani wanted to go back to Washington and a top job at Justice.
Some, including Starr, credit Tyler for Giuliani’s selection as associate attorney general. “Rudy was not known. But Ace opened the door,” Starr said.
Once in the job, Giuliani sometimes seemed to bring problems on himself.
He met privately with a defense lawyer for McDonnell Douglas Corp., even though the company was under criminal investigation on suspicion of paying off Pakistani officials to push through an airplane deal.
The department determined there was “no indication that Mr. Giuliani violated any law, order or standard of conduct,” after Giuliani asserted that he was unaware the company was under indictment.
He also freely used official department letterhead to pitch job recommendations for friends, including 92 letters for the husband of one of his aides.
Giuliani reveled in the job, telling friends how “exciting” he found it. Yet when the U.S. attorney post in Manhattan came open, he pounced.
He quickly expressed his interest to Smith, who was puzzled why someone managing the entire apparatus would step down to run a field office.
“But Rudy wanted that vacancy, and he worked it real fast,” said Edward C. Schmults, the deputy attorney general and Giuliani’s boss.
Giuliani resigned one post to assume the other.
As he packed up his office, he took down paintings of two former Manhattan U.S. attorneys who went on to become U.S. attorneys general.
On the presidential campaign trail today, Giuliani is aiming higher.
Get Group Therapy
Life is stressful. Our weekly mental wellness newsletter can help.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.