The more you know about politics, and the more you know about Rudy Giuliani, the harder it is to understand how he's even managed to stay in the race, let alone remain the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. By all rights, Rudy Giuliani ought to be the easiest candidate in history to defeat, and should have gone down in flames months ago. Many of his problems are so well known they hardly enough need to be rehashed. Can there possibly anybody who's going to show up at the early caucuses or vote in the early primaries who doesn't know that he's cheated on both of his ex-wives, and brutally humiliated both of them, and that he abused tax-payer money to give expensive favors to his mistresses/future wives? Even if you don't care about that, anybody doing political math knows that every Rudy Giuliani shows up in public with his 3rd wife, people are going to look at the two of them together, instinctively do the math on their ages, be reminded all over again of the story, and gag on the thought of her being First Lady of the US.
His close ties to Mafia-connected corrupt ex police chief Bernie Kerik, and his attempts to make this mobster a top ranking US government official, are equally well known. Less well known to the general public, but well known to anybody who follows the news enough to be a likely caucus-goer or primary voter, are his even shadier business dealings, including recent material confirming Rudy Giuliani's personal business association with a known accomplice of the 9/11 hijackers. (See Wayne Barrett, "Rudy's Ties to a Terror Sheikh," Village Voice, 11/27/07.) And fewer people know just how shady his business dealings with his even closer friend, Roger Ailes of Fox News, have been, but trust me, if he gets nominated, they'll find out over and over again in excruciating detail. He's running on his record as the mayor of America's largest city, but even at the time he was considered a lousy mayor by most of his constituents, and even if he were the best mayor in the world, since when have Americans ever considered a mere mayor to be a potential national election figure?
One of the things that smart people, many of them much smarter than me, have relentlessly mocked Giulani for is for running as "Saint Rudy of 9/11." As Joe Biden put it best, "Rudy Giuliani, there's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and '9/11.'" But an awful lot of the 9/11 disaster's worst features were explicitly his fault! Many people died on 9/11 who wouldn't have died if Rudy Giuliani had made smarter decisions both before 9/11 and during the disaster. Communications between emergency phone service, police, the transit authority cops inside the building, and fire officials broke down, remember? Why? Because even knowing another al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center was possible, that's where Rudy put the command center, and even knowing from that there had already been deaths in other fires due to the fact that the city's emergency radios didn't work, it was Rudy who decided not to upgrade them to ones that would in order to save money. Nor, despite repeated warnings from his own people that even ordinary emergencies were something the city handled badly, let alone another terrorist attack, did he ever consent to even one inter-agency practice drill. As a result, firefighters were still rushing into the building, and those inside the building still heading up rather than down, when people outside the building already knew (and couldn't warn them) that the building was about to fall on them. All Rudy Giuliani's fault.
None of this is particularly obscure, mysterious, or hard to find out. And even if it were, the Republican politicians, donors, and party officials who are touting Rudy Giuliani have to know that, if he's their nominee, all of this is going to show up in well-funded smear ads for a full year. So as I said, anybody who knows anything about politics is visibly scratching their head and asking (in effect), over and over again for several months now, "how in the heck is he getting away with this?"
I think maybe I know.
Why would I know, when they don't? Because years ago, I read a book I've hyped occasionally, Xavier Maniguet's Survival: How to Prevail in Hostile Environments. There is an actual science of studying disasters, there are decades of top-quality research, both practical and statistical, into what influences who lives and who dies when things go horribly wrong. Reading Maniguet taught me that one of the things that disaster experts have learned is that one of the top two or three most important determinants of group survival is "clear chain of command." Outside of a disaster, having many voices is a good thing, it keeps the group from making mistakes that are obvious to only one or two people. During a disaster, though, decisions have to be made quickly; if multiple people are yelling orders, with equally valid expectations of being obeyed, any disaster can be made worse.
Maniguet's sample illustration of this was the example of a military helicopter from an un-named European nation, on a practice exercise over the Mediterranean, that malfunctioned and crashed into the water. Normally, that's not a big deal. Everybody on board is, or should be, wearing life jackets. There are twice as many inflatable life rafts on board as they need. The helicopter itself is going to take a long time to sink completely, especially if they keep the doors closed while they sort things out. And everybody on board has been trained for this. Unfortunately for this crew, though, the pilot (and highest ranking officer on board) hit his head during the crash, and was knocked deeply unconscious. Again, not a problem normally. But for this exercise, there were two equally high ranking officers immediately below him from different services. Both started barking orders. Neither one's orders could be heard over the other, and neither one would yield. So every single marine and aviator on board started acting on their own, doing what they thought should be done first, without any forethought or coordination. To make a long story short (the whole moment-by-moment recreation is in the book, and the stupidity is horrifying, but you can read it there), the net result was that the helicopter immediately began to sink like a stone, they lost both life rafts instantly, and half of them lost their life jackets in the evacuation. Had rescue craft taken even a few seconds longer to get to them, a quarter or more of them would have died.
Now remember this, about 9/11. The question of when exactly did George Bush figure out that we were under attack turns out to be even more interesting than I knew (see, for example, something I stumbled on while refreshing my memory, Allan Wood and Paul Thompson's "An Interesting Day: President Bush's Movements and Actions on 9/11," Cooperative Research History Commons), the exact moment that everybody knew, that the voters knew, that we were under attack was when the second plane hit the second tower, at 9:02 am Eastern time. The first time the President spoke to anybody other than a few close personal friends who were with him, or to Dick Cheney on the phone, was when he went on the air via a brief recorded message, over four hours later at 1:20 pm Eastern. He didn't speak to the public in any detail about it until eleven and a half hours later, at 8:30 pm Eastern time. And while his defenders have claimed that he gave a couple of important orders during that time, those claims have all been debunked thoroughly. In truth, people who couldn't get through to the President did what those European marines and air crew did during their helicopter crash. They gave their own orders, did what they thought was necessary, and the President ratified it afterwards. It's a lucky thing for us that bin Laden's budget only stretched to four hijacking crews, and that so few of the orders people up and down the chain of command were improvising turned out to be at cross-purposes to each other, or else 9/11 could have been made even worse than it was.
So what exactly did Rudy Giuliani do on 9/11? In actuality, almost nothing of any use. That's less of a criticism than it might seem, to be fair. The whole attack lasted only a couple of hours, he never had any better information about what was really going on than anybody else, any decisions he could have made would have been based on little better than ignorant guess work, his motives were demonstrably not pure (much more interested in preserving the value of Manhattan real estate investments than saving lives or protecting the country), and there weren't a whole lot of decisions for whoever was at the top of the chain of command to make anyway. Three or four, tops. But Rudy Giuliani did do one thing extraordinarily well, and that is visibly assume command. There were any number of people who could have stepped in and asserted control over the situation. The Constitution itself is even a little fuzzy as to who that should have been. What the American people give him credit for, though, is this: in the absence of a clear chain of command, in the absence of precedent, in the absence of clear Constitutional authority, none of those people were doing so. He chose to do so. He did so rashly, he assumed (and then rather scarily tried to keep) an awful lot of authority he wasn't entitled to assert, and he made some bad decisions. But what he still gets substantial credit from the American people for is that he didn't freeze, that he didn't panic, that what he did do was show up on the scene and be in charge, calmly giving (mostly wrong) orders. That's not nothing.
He'd make a rotten president, even worse than he was as a mayor. He's dishonest, he's deeply contemptuous of the Bill of Rights, and he's corrupt to the bone. He was prone to dictatorial urges even when in a nearly powerless office, so the gods only know what he'd do if he actually had any real power to abuse, let alone the terrifyingly unconstitutional amounts of power that have been concentrated in that office during this administration. If he does win, both the primary and the general election, it'll be a squeaker with a shallow mandate, after 10 or 11 months of the ugliest mud-slinging in almost a century, resulting almost certainly in the lowest voter turnout in the history of the American republic. Then he'll have to face an even more Democratic congress, and a public even fewer of whom will have actually voted for him than voted for George Bush, and reporters from all over the world who hate his guts. Being even more thin-skinned and even angrier than even the most famous President for that to date, Richard Nixon, that's likely to drive him to Nixonian levels of insanity on top of his already obvious levels of incompetence and unfitness for the job. Gods, please save this country from Rudy Giuliani.
But a substantial number of the American people, even among those who know all of that, can't help but think that maybe it's just that important that the next time the fit hits the shan, maybe it would be a good thing if somebody was actually in charge for a change. And I can't entirely fault them for that.