Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A New York Yankee In Lester Maddox’s Court: Giuliani In The South

Several years ago my brother Jim, bruised by the treatment he had received at the hands of a Hartford Insurance Company CEO, journeyed to Columbia, South Carolina in search of a job.

Because he had been approaching retirement age, the company decided to toss Jim out of their plane with half a parachute. The Puff Adder CEO, having ruined the company, was trying to save some money, if not his skin, by reclaiming benefits awarded to his workers by earlier more successful CEOs; this involved firing (downsizing) people, usually males of a certain age, company men now close to retirement.

Over the years – Jim is now safely retired and no longer within reach of lying, rapscallions who would not know how to run a lemonade stand, let also a multi-billion dollar business -- my brother writes me from Eden taunting e-mails like this: “Y’all, I see your property taxes are climbing up and up there. Our guys have just submitted a legislative plan to get rid of them.”

And now, Jim tells me, quintessential New Yorker Rudy Giuliani has visited my brother’s adopted state, made some speeches there and emerged from the ordeal unscathed.

Very likely the best piece written on Giuliani so far, “Mayberry Man,” by Peter Boyer in the New Yorker, explores the question “Is what New York never liked about Rudy Giuliani exactly what the heartland loves?”

The short answer to the question is: Yes.

In South Carolina, the land of Benjamin R. (Pitchfork Ben) Tillman, the four-term United States senator who led the movement that disenfranchised black voters in 1895 and instituted Jim Crow, Giuliani is met by a reporter who asks him, “Mayor, you talk about being a straight shooter. Is this position you have on abortion something that’s going to shoot a hole in a key Republican plank?”

Giuliani’s contortionist position on abortion has gotten him in trouble with conservatives both north and south of the Mason Dixon line. By way of answer, Giuliani produces a political parable.

While roaming New York streets searching for votes as a young uncouth politician with Louis Lefkowitz, the longest-serving attorney general in New York history, Giuliani met a New Yorker who was adamantly opposed to a position he had taken on “some position or other.” Giuliani attempted a conversion, “And I spent twenty minutes trying to convince him.” He felt the pressure of Lefkowitz’s arm around his shoulder, gently leading him on. “Hey, kid,” Lefkowitz said, “you’re not gonna get this guy’s vote.”

Boyer remarks, “Giuliani chuckled at his story. The consensus seemed validated—this was a man wholly out of place in the Republican South. ‘He’s toast,’ the Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard told the Associated Press that day.”

Think so, eh?

On his way to Magnolia’s in Charleston, where Giuliani hopes to haul in some cash from capitalists who know how to do well what bumbling CEOs in the North used to do effortlessly, he finds himself caught in traffic, disembarks and begins to walk towards Magnolia’s. He is immediately besieged by passers-by.

Boyer paints the scene: “’Give her a run for her money, Mayor!’ one woman screamed, feeling no need to mention Hillary Clinton by name. A tourist carriage rolled by, and the driver shouted, ‘Hey, Mayor! I’ve got three votes for you right here!’ Giuliani—wearing his signature dark suit, white dress shirt, and tie—signed autographs, posed for pictures, and even knelt on the sidewalk to be photographed with a dog. ‘That’s our next President, right there,’ said Chris Workman, a Myrtle Beach firefighter and former McCain supporter, who had chatted with Giuliani with a dip of snuff bulging from his lip.”

Waiting for Giuliani at Magnolia’s in Charleston is his South Carolina campaign chairman Barry Wynn, whose uncle, Boyer reminds us, “was Lester Maddox, the axe-handle-wielding Atlanta segregationist who became governor of Georgia.”

Wynn is asked what effect the Christian Right will have on Giuliani’s bid for the presidency. “Good question,” Wynn answers, “I’ve already talked to a lot of people I consider very hard-core social conservatives, part of the religious right, who are supporting Rudy Giuliani. I think this idea that someone just blows a whistle and all of a sudden people go heading off in one direction—it doesn’t happen that way. It’s a little bit of a myth that’s created by the press.”

Inconvenient myths don’t survive very long in the New Old South, where – like it or not – things have changed.

What is it that chaw chewing Southerners with the improbable name of “Workman” like about Giuliani?

Couple of things.

Like the New Old South, Giuliani has adjusted his posture over the years. Believe it or not, he was not always comfortable in his own skin. Before he civilized the Big Apple, Giuliani stiffened under the klieg lights; he was wary; his delivery was frozen; he was more like Hillary Clinton than the gay and carefree, chat’em up New Yorker he has now become. Success does strange things to a man, and there is no question that – by Southern standards – Giuliani has been one of the most successful New York mayors since the “Little Flower,” Fiorello Enrico LaGuardia, bloomed in the city. The South would have been enchanted by LaGuardia also.

Think not?

Think again. LaGuardia was born to an Italian lapsed Catholic father and an Italian mother of Jewish linage. He was raised in an Episcopalian household and spend much of his childhood in Prescott, Arizona.

Both LaGuardia and Giuliani were crime busters. LaGuardia particularly loathed gangsters because they brought shame on the Italian community. His first order of business on becoming mayor was to pick up the telephone and order the city’s chief of police to arrest mob boss Lucky Luciano. In a radio address, he told New Yorkers, “Let’s drive the bums out of town.” And, in 1934, sledge hammer in hand, he publicly destroyed thousands of Frank Costello’s slot machines, dumping them off a barge while news photographer’s recorded the event for posterity.

The face Giuliani now presents to the world, the all-important political persona, has deepened under the influence of Elliot Cuker, the magician who was able to summon the real Giuliani from the depths of a persona that had served Giuliani well as a tough-guy prosecutor. It was not a question so much of putting lipstick on the pig, of out rigging Giuliani with a reinvented personality. Most politicians have multiple personas sloshing around in their psyches. Character more often involves a harmonization of parts. Giuliani never had a problem with self direction; there was always a there there. The great danger politicians face is that the various roles they must play occasionally overcome their inner director. Under Cuker’s tutoring, Giuliani’s inner director took control of the play.

So, what does the South like in Giuliani?

He’s a little battered but tough, and a tough world needs tough guys to batter it into shape. “If men were angels, no government would be unnecessary,” said James Madison. But men are not angels, and government is necessary, and Giuliani, when all is said and done, was a good governor in a city from which inner direction had fled. The South and the North and the nation could use a bit of that.
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