By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post
To be clear, Rudy Giuliani was never America’s mayor. That nickname was a bit of media gloss that was spread so thickly and indiscriminately that Giuliani had no trouble dining out on it for years. Many Americans lapped it up, too.
President Trump has been like a steady stream of acid on that veneer. And now Giuliani is a raw, smoldering mess.
His return to federal court as a practicing attorney, for the first time in nearly three decades, would not be the worst of Giuliani’s water-carrying for Trump, but it was, perhaps, the saddest. It was so small and petty. He was in Pennsylvania court Tuesday not to tell a convoluted tale of international intrigue about shadowy figures and powerful people skulking around in Ukraine. His story of malfeasance was closer to home and it was simply mean. Giuliani argued that a vast swathe of perfectly reasonable, good-hearted Americans masterminded a huge scheme that cheated Trump out of reelection. Giuliani couldn’t offer any evidence that this awful plot existed, but nevertheless he was sure it did and it just so happened to be centered in places like Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit, which have substantial populations of Black and brown people.
As a culture, we like to believe that with age comes wisdom. The truth of it may be that age only makes people more obviously what they’ve always been. Freed of the urgent need to prove and define themselves for a future that’s yet to unfold, people can simply be. Giuliani, at 76, has revealed himself to be a man who believes that he can summon truth from falsehoods, bend the law to his will and conjure whatever reality suits him simply by speaking his hopes and dreams aloud.
In court, Giuliani alleged “widespread nationwide voter fraud of which this is a part.” And then he admitted, that, well, there wasn’t fraud in the legal sense, just in the hysterical, made-up Trumpian sense. Throughout the afternoon, Giuliani misspoke, calling Joe Biden “Bush.” He was denigrated by defense counsel. He expressed dismay that Republican counties didn’t let voters fix mail-in ballots but turned his legal wrath on Democratic counties that did.
Giuliani did not sound like an attorney delivering a logical, if biased, argument. He was a pitchman trying to make his case with intonations full of incredulity and outrage. The hearing was not as animated as it could have been because while there was audio from the courtroom, there was no video.
In the flesh, Giuliani has always been a man of dramatic gestures and expressions. Whether on television or, more recently, at Four Seasons Total Landscaping complaining about bad ballots, his eyes widen and narrow to punctuate a sentence. He wears a Yankees World Series ring even though he did not earn it. The diamonds sparkle next to a pinkie ring. A pinkie ring. The mere fact of it is an abomination. Whether accusing voters of bad behavior or arguing that networks don’t call elections, “courts do,” his lips peel back in a toothy sneer.
No, Giuliani was never America’s mayor; a fact that if recognized makes it much easier to contend with the ease with which he has become one of Trump’s boys.
The patriotic label was bestowed on him by the media after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, during which Giuliani was the mayor of New York City. He was known for cracking down on quality-of-life crimes, for treating squeegee men — panhandling windshield washers — as menaces to society.
But for months after 9/11, he kept firm, reassuring and empathetic control of a city that was in an unimaginable crisis; and his sure hand helped to contain the rippling circles of fear and uncertainty that was spreading across the country. Giuliani was tested in ways that few mayors have ever been. He rose to the challenge and for that he was rightfully admired.
His being labeled America’s mayor was more marketing than fact. What did it even mean? It didn’t matter. The country needed heroes and villains. The country needed clarity. The country was needy. And Giuliani was there.
The title stuck and eventually became more than mere harmless hyperbole. It situated Giuliani within the first draft of history as a flawlessly patriotic hero. It put him in the pantheon of those who run toward danger for the good and grace of others, not those who solemnly and thankfully survive it.
The label sold him as someone who rose up and carried an entire country on his back to safety; rather than as simply a man who did not let the circumstances overwhelm him. The label reduced Giuliani to a white knight draped in the American flag.
There was little room in that image for the rest of his story, which included trying to extend his New York mayoral term beyond its limits by delaying the inauguration of his successor, rebranding himself as a security expert lucratively advising a wide range of companies and countries, and running a catastrophically un-self-aware 2008 campaign for president.
And now he’s going after American voters who didn’t vote for his guy.
Giuliani attached himself to Trump as a vehicle for power. All the law-and-order, brute-force business was not foreign to him. The man who believed himself to be America’s mayor also seemed to believe that wherever he went, he would be surrounded by the scent of patriotism and he would duly perfume whatever he touched.
He believed in the power of his own myth. But he didn’t create it.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.