In Prospect

Winter 2002

As the curtain drops on Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty, we can’t resist leaping to our feet in applause and calling “Bravo” for perhaps city hall’s best performance ever—greater even than Fiorello LaGuardia’s. The measure of his success is the difference between the New York he inherited, which the newsweeklies had written off as “ungovernable” and “dying,” and the Gotham that became the world’s most vibrant city, the capital of the twentieth century. We are enormously proud to have been considered, as the New York Post generously put it, “the place where Rudy gets his ideas.”

Giuliani’s biggest idea was that human affairs are not governed by vast, impersonal forces but by individual decisions. New York was of course governable—provided you had the will and vision to do the governing. You couldn’t shrug, turn your palms upward, and appeal to some abstraction over which you had no control—the nation’s irresistible suburbanization, say, or the Internet’s inevitable dissolution of the cities—to absolve yourself for failure. Assuming, as Giuliani assumed, that talented, entrepreneurial people would always like to live near one another for the electricity such closeness generates, he took responsibility for creating the conditions in which that could keep happening in the place proverbially paved with gold. And he succeeded.

That demonstration engendered a change in New York’s political culture, whose core belief had long been that vast forces are paramount, and in the face of them individual decisions—and therefore individual responsibility—are as nothing. If one man could turn the whole city around 180 degrees, by force of will, then maybe individual decisions do count. And not just for mayors: by this logic, perhaps criminals were personally responsible for their acts, too, rather than pitiable victims of their environment, driven to evildoing by the “root causes” of poverty and racism—a revolutionary idea in Gotham.

A tough, street-smart prosecutor, Giuliani took office knowing that crime, above all else, was killing the city, having driven 1 million residents, along with thousands of businesses, out of town, sick and tired of the fear and squalor. He knew that to cut crime he didn’t have to end the “root causes”; he simply had to police differently. He reorganized the NYPD, reorienting its mission from solving crime to preventing crime from happening in the first place. He ordered cops to clean up the public disorder that, by convincing wrongdoers that no one was in charge, fostered more serious crime. He instituted an activist policing that stopped and searched suspicious-looking people for guns and drugs, that broke up drug and car-theft rings, and that disrupted the criminal infrastructure of fences and chop shops.

Murder fell by 70 percent on his watch, overall violent crime by more then half—the greatest urban-policy success in living memory. With customers willing to go out on the streets and travelers flocking in, business flourished, as if a great tax had suddenly been lifted—as indeed it had. Poor minority neighborhoods, where crime dropped most dramatically, benefited most of all; there, incomes and property values rose most steeply, once the new policing had restored the first of all civil rights, on which the rest depend: the right to be safe in your home and on the streets.

The message of personal responsibility undergirded all Giuliani’s other successes. He cut the welfare rolls from 1.2 million—one New Yorker in seven—to 469,000, revolutionizing what had once been the U.S. welfare capital with the message that able-bodied citizens should not expect their neighbors to support them indefinitely, when they can get a job and take responsibility for themselves and their families. Here in the nation’s opportunity city, they are not victims of racism or economic injustice. He cut taxes early on, and kept them from rising thereafter, understanding that to attract wealth-creators, the opportunity city needs to let them profit from their success. The city added 430,000 new jobs during his mayoralty—Gotham’s greatest job growth ever.

Giuliani himself is the strongest possible argument for his view that history is made not by ineluctable forces but by men, sometimes even great men. To play the currently fashionable game of “what if” history: suppose for a moment that the planes had hit the towers in 1991 instead of 2001, and that Giuliani’s opponent had been elected mayor in 1993. Can anyone say for sure that today the World Trade Center site might not be a rubbish-strewn tangle of ailanthus trees in a city of 6 million? Thanks to Giuliani’s accomplishments, and his luminous civic courage that heartened a city in crisis, we can face the future with resolute confidence.