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Authoritarian Temptation

Can we trust the the presidency to a mayor like Giuliani?

One of the most under-discussed aspects of Rudy Giuliani’s quest for the presidency is how politically shrewd he is. Giuliani was elected mayor of one of the great bastions of American liberalism despite being a former Reagan DOJ official and Republican prosecutor renowned for his merciless, at times humiliating, treatment of criminal defendants. And after four years of living under his rule, New Yorkers re-elected Giuliani in a landslide victory against an icon of traditional Big Apple liberalism, Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger.

Giuliani never disguised himself. While his moderate stances on social issues distinguished him from the Jerry Falwell wing of the 1993 Republican Party, he never pretended to be anything other than what he was. He was not a popular mayor because he softened his prosecutorial zeal or concealed his fixation with imposing order or renounced his faith in centralized power vested in a single, strong, even unchallengeable leader.

Quite the contrary. But New Yorkers, including hordes of traditional Democrats and even Manhattan liberals, were grateful for Giuliani’s rule and overwhelmingly re-elected him, precisely because he so aggressively wielded government power. At least for the first several years of his tenure, even the Left cheered as he defended and encouraged his police department’s excesses, casually disregarded long-standing limits on mayoral power, crushed seemingly immovable bureaucracies, took control away from the most sacrosanct municipal fiefdoms, and forced the city’s powerful unions and political factions into submission.

But the very characteristics that made Giuliani (for his first term) such a popular and effective mayor render him spectacularly unfit to be president. In many senses, the city that Giuliani inherited in 1993, languishing in chaos and craving order, is the antithesis of the United States of 2008, plagued by previously unthinkable abuses of executive power.

New York City in the mid-1990s presented an authoritarian mayor with the ultimate challenge: impose order on a city that was widely assumed to be ungovernable. But America in 2008 presents an authoritarian president with the ultimate fantasy: the ability to wield more power than any other human being in the world, with the fewest real limits in modern American history.

As constrained as a mayor’s power typically is, Giuliani never ceased pushing those limits. In a 2001 retrospective on the mayor’s tenure, the New York Times concluded, “the suppression of dissent or of anything that irked the mayor, became a familiar theme.” Giuliani’s idiosyncratic—one could say Orwellian—understanding of “freedom,” expressed during a 1994 speech, reveals just how literally authoritarian his worldview is:

What we don’t see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.

By the nature of the office, even the most excessively secretive, grudge-harboring authoritarian in charge of a municipality can only do so much damage. But the dangers posed by allowing such an individual to rule the most powerful nation on earth are boundless. And those general risks are greatly enhanced after eight long years of unprecedented expansions of government power and systematic erosions of virtually every check on executive authority.

A President Giuliani would inherit an office bestowed with such dark powers as indefinite detention, interrogation methods widely considered to be torture, vast warrantless surveillance authority, and an impenetrable wall of secrecy secured by multiple executive and judicial instruments. Set all of that next to a submissive and impotent Congress and an equally supine media—to say nothing of the prospect of another terrorist attack to exacerbate every one of those factors—and it is hard to imagine a more toxic combination than Rudy Giuliani and the Oval Office.

Our political landscape has now tilted so heavily in favor of unchecked presidential prerogatives that even a lame duck, wildly unpopular, and universally discredited George W. Bush is rarely denied what he wants. With this framework now bolted in place, a newly elected, shrewd, and inherently aggressive Giuliani, whose certainty about his own rightness is matched only by his contempt for those who disagree, could easily run roughshod over any attempts to constrain his actions.

The Sept. 11 transformation of Giuliani into the swaggering, beloved “America’s Mayor” has erased from the collective memory just how severely his bullying ways had overstayed their welcome in New York. Giuliani was widely disliked by 1999, when his approval ratings dropped to a Bush-like 37 percent. At the root of New Yorkers’ discontent with Giuliani was his complete intolerance for any limits on his own power and contempt for dissent from his decisions. Giuliani claimed the mantle of The Decider long before George W. Bush crowned himself.

The longer he stayed in office, the more drooling Giuliani’s thirst for power seemed to become. Popular first-term efforts to crack down on menacing squeegee men and turnstile-jumpers morphed into senseless, vindictive second-term crusades against hot dog vendors and jaywalkers.

In 1999, Giuliani sought amendments to the City Charter that would have eliminated term limits and allowed him to remain in power indefinitely, just as leftist authoritarian Hugo Chavez recently attempted to achieve with Venezuela‘s Constitution. Giuliani tried again shortly after the 9/11 attack, invoking the crisis to suggest that his term be extended.

Whenever he found a crusade that triggered his sense of righteousness, legal and even constitutional constraints were of little concern to the mayor. He ended up on the losing end of one court battle after the next, arising from his efforts to stifle private expression that he disliked, including endless campaigns against an art exhibit he deemed blasphemous, bus and subway advertisements he considered offensive, and political protests he found annoying. According to Rachel Morris‘s recent article in The Washington Monthly, Giuliani “lost thirty-five First Amendment cases in court.”

New York is governed by a “strong mayor” system in which the City Council has very little power. But throughout his tenure, Giuliani viewed even isolated attempts by the council to “interfere in” his governance to be contemptible nuisances. He frequently waged war with city agencies whose task was to exercise oversight of the mayor’s office, and he initiated numerous battles designed to amend long-standing City Charter provisions with the goal of increasing his own power. He demands absolute loyalty from underlings, and, in return, retains and rewards even the most inept and corrupt loyalists.

Perhaps most disturbing of all when considering his presidential ambitions, Giuliani seemed to take particular delight in intervening in and inflaming the city’s most intense controversies arising out of excessive assertions of state authority. Some of the most turbulent scandals he faced involved the racially charged, highly dubious use of violence by the NYPD. His paramount instinct was to defend the police reflexively, even before any relevant facts were known.

Almost uniformly, Giuliani’s presidential campaign has been measured and highly disciplined, but he has had momentary lapses that expose the authoritarian impulses that New Yorkers know so well. In the midst of the September controversy over the MoveOn.org ad criticizing Gen. David Petraeus, Giuliani opined that the antiwar group “passed a line that we should not allow American political organizations to pass.”

Exactly as one would expect, Giuliani has enthusiastically endorsed virtually every one of the most controversial Bush/Cheney assertions of presidential power. He wants to keep Guantanamo open and mocks concerns over the use of torture, even derisively comparing sleep deprivation to the strain of his own campaign. He not only defends Bush’s warrantless surveillance, but does not recognize the legitimacy of any concerns relating to unchecked government power.

In April, Cato Institute’s president, Ed Crane, asked several candidates if they believed the president should have the authority to arrest U.S. citizens, on U.S. soil, and detain them with no review of any kind. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru reported Giuliani’s response: “The mayor said that he would want to use this authority infrequently.”

In aggressively rejecting that such a power could exist, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “The very core of liberty secured by our Anglo-Saxon system of separated powers has been freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the Executive.” Yet Giuliani’s instinct was to assume that he would automatically possess that tyrannical power.

At a campaign event in New Hampshire a week later, Giuliani suggested that the president would even have what he called “inherent authority” to disregard a Congressional vote to defund the war in Iraq and could continue to prosecute it unilaterally. Not even the most radical of the Bush theorists of presidential omnipotence would endorse such an idea. In a February New York Times op-ed, former Bush DOJ attorney John Yoo acknowledged, “Congress has every power to end the war—if it really wanted to. It has the power of the purse.”

Giuliani, when he was merely in charge of New York’s garbage collection, zoning rules, and a municipal police force, developed a reputation as a power-hungry, dissent-intolerant authoritarian, obsessed with secrecy and expanding his own power. It takes little imagination to apprehend the grave dangers from vesting in such a person virtually unlimited power to control the world’s most powerful military as well as a sprawling, federal bureaucracy.

Glenn Greenwald is a contributor to Salon and author of the forthcoming book Great American Hypocrites: Shattering the Big Myths of Republican Politics.



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