By Ciro Scotti The catastrophe that befell New York on Sept. 11 was biblical on several levels. Its sheer enormity and swiftness had the feeling of Noah's flood or a sudden plague of locusts. The zealots behind the bloodletting found some of their motives in the mindless tribal warfare that has roiled the Middle East since before Abraham came out of Ur. And in the midst of the chaos and the horror, an unlikely Moses emerged to lead the people who had chosen New York to safety.
Now, Mayor Rudy Giuliani is scrambling to hang on to power so he can restore his beloved metropolis to the renewed grandeur it was enjoying before a gang of self-righteous killers brought it to its knees. Or at the least, he wants to see that job smoothly handed to a successor.
To accomplish that, the mayor has proposed extending his term by three months or even challenging the term-limit laws, twice approved by the voters, that are drawing a curtain on his eight-year reign. Both plans would require legislative action and seem politically and legally unlikely at best. But since the World Trade Center tragedy, who wants to underestimate Rudy?
ORDER FROM CHAOS. It has been written in this space well before the events of Sept. 11 that history will record Rudolph W. Giuliani as the greatest mayor the City of New York has ever had. Certainly, that never was and never will be a universal view.
But what's incontestable is this: Handed an urban crisis by his dapper, well-meaning, and excruciatingly inept predecessor, David Dinkins, Giuliani remade the city. Where there was rampant crime and cringing fear, he brought lawfulness and a measure of security not felt for decades. A town to be avoided on international itineraries became so packed with foreign tourists that a worker in a midtown office could leave his building late at night and not hear a word of English spoken for blocks. Businesses that were thinking about fleeing were strongarmed by the mayor into staying put. An education system that served unions and low-level pols was shaken to its corroded core. And order was restored where there had been none.
In the process, the hard-charging mayor didn't just step on toes: He seemed to relish grinding them into the pavement. His cold, get-over-it, my-way-or-the-highway approach got things done but was hardly endearing. A legion of critics charged that while he made life dramatically better for his showcase, Manhattan, other boroughs went begging.
NIGHTSTICK CULTURE. And Rudy had other troubles. Whatever rapport Giuliani had with the African-American community deteriorated after a series of explosive incidents involving the New York Police Dept. that many blamed on a nightstick culture emanating from City Hall. It was widely reported that Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant tortured in a police station, for a time claimed that the cop who assaulted him had told him it was "Giuliani time." The story was later discredited, but it was a commentary on the state of the mayor's relations with blacks that those were not inconceivable words.
Hizzoner also became embroiled in an ugly and public divorce from TV newswoman and actress Donna Hanover. That battle, waged daily in the tabloids, and a case of prostate cancer last year forced Giuliani to drop out of his campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Lately, Rudy's personal life had the storyline of an implausible TV sitcom. On many nights, the mayor, who feuded with his wife over occupancy of his official residence, Gracie Mansion, wound up bunking with old friends -- a gay car dealer from Queens and his musician partner. In fact, Giuliani's bizarre last days in office threatened to obscure his enormous contribution to the life of the city.
BRIDGED DIVIDES. But that was before Sept. 11. That was before New Yorkers saw their dust-covered mayor leading aides and others away from the rain of rubble falling on lower Manhattan. That was before Rudy turned into a battlefield general, marshaling all available resources in the minutes, hours, and days after the attack. That was before he summoned some inner strength to reassure a scared and sickened city. That was before he put politics aside and bridged divides with old enemies in the name of New York. That was before he grieved with the widows of firemen and cops over what was and what will never be.
Now, faced with the monumental task of rebuilding and restoring confidence in the city just as he's about to be ushered out of City Hall, Giuliani doesn't want to let go. The Sept. 25 Democratic and Republican primaries, originally scheduled for Sept. 11, produced three winners: Democrats Fernando Ferrer and Mark Green, who will face each other in a runoff, and Republican Mike Bloomberg. Green and Bloomberg have agreed to the three-month extension proposed by Giuliani. Ferrer has refused.
That sets the stage for Giuliani to attempt to overturn the law and run for a third term on the Conservative Party line. Inherent in that scenario is the possibility that New Yorkers' newfound affection and respect will evaporate if they suspect Rudy is using the tragedy as cover for a power grab.
EXTENDED CLEANUP. The truth, though, is that New York needs Giuliani now more than ever -- and not just for a few extra months. The latest estimates suggest that the cleanup of Ground Zero will take a year, and tough decisions will need to be made every day by a strong executive fluent in the ways of the city.
Green, the city's Public Advocate, and Ferrer, the Bronx Borough president, don't have the commanding presence to lead a troop of Boy Scouts on a 10-block hike in search of a lost kitty. Green, a former Naderite and speechwriter for Gary Hart, is about as touchy-feely as you can get in New York without getting punched. Ferrer has been endorsed by rabble-rouser and Giuliani foe Al Sharpton, who The New York Times quoted as saying: "We would have come together if Bozo was the mayor." And Ferrer has played the race card by appealing to the "other New York." Or at least, that was his schtick before Sept. 11. Lastly, Wall Street billionaire Bloomberg, however well intentioned, is entirely untested in public office.
If the people of New York want Rudy to stay, they need to shake off their shock and mount a mass demonstration that sends a message to the state legislature in Albany: Pass an emergency measure that allows term limits to be suspended in the case of catastrophic circumstances -- or face the wrath of voters.
If such an effort were successful, New York would get a better Mayor Giuliani than they ever had. Chastened by the tragedy, he would be more empathic, more inclusive, and doubly effective as he struggles to make New York New York again. Four more years, Rudy. Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BW Online