The year was 1999, and the topic was ferrets. It was hardly the utmost public-policy issue. Nor was it much discussed around the water cooler.
But City Hall had just banned residents from owning them as domestic pets, deeming them feral, unhygienic and menacing to children because of their sharp teeth.
Naturally, this being New York, the ferret-rights community was livid. And one advocate, “David from Queens,” took his umbrage straight to the weekly radio call-in show of the man who signed the bill.
Rudolph W. Giuliani’s explosion was unforgettable, an oddly defining, four-minute diatribe that 20 years later still provides insight into his fire-breathing style, bulldog character and slightly twisted sense of humor:
“There is something quite deranged about you!” the mayor said. “This excessive concern for little weasels is a sickness. You should go consult a psychologist or psychiatrist ...You’re devoting your life to weasels! You need somebody to help you! Something has gone wrong with you.”
I had a front-row seat to this spectacle because I was the Daily News City Hall Bureau Chief from 1997 through 1999, and even at that time, the same incredulous questions were raised that have been amplified with such urgency today:
Has something gone wrong with Rudy? Has he become perhaps a little bit unhinged? And like the poor ferret enthusiast, does he need to see a shrink himself?
Back then, we were not the “enemies of the people” who deployed the big lie and the naked hoax to perpetrate “fake news.”
But the reporters in Room 9, the City Hall press room, if considered to be “off-agenda,” would still suffer his lash, and I recall feeling humbled and stung when he mocked a question I asked, I don’t even remember what it was, as “completely idiotic” and “quite embarrassing, frankly, to both you and the Daily News.”
Colleagues were similarly eviscerated, intimidated, and if the intent was to make us reframe or modulate a future question, well, guess what? It worked.
The bullying, ill temper and fist-clenching were not pleasant to behold. But let’s give credit where due. They enabled Giuliani to bend the city to his will, in turn fueling his unquestioned success in clamping down on crime, porn shops, squeegee pests, scofflaws, public urination, subway graffiti, fare-beating, aggressive panhandling and open-air drug dealing, to name a few.
Thus, this urban scold and scourge of the liberal elite was able to usher in a booming, feel-good, low-crime, high-employment city.
Ninth Symphony Interruptus
He was a most uncivil mayor: “RUDY’S ONE RUDE DUDE,” splashed the Page 1 headline in The News in 1995 after aides bounced then-PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat out of Lincoln Center during a Beethoven concert marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
Yet in his own way, he was also seeking to restore civility.
In fact, a deputy mayor in 1998 leaked me details of a planned quality-of-life crackdown, dubbed the “Civility Patrol,” and I still cringe when I read my account of his scheme to get tough on the “impolite, the uncivil, the rude, the crude, the profane, even the inconsiderate.”
Needless to say, it didn’t work. New Yorkers, after all, like their 107th mayor, feel we have an historic and inalienable right to be churlish.
Flash forward two decades. A consensus has emerged that “America’s Mayor” has become one of America’s rudest and crudest, an archetype of the uncivil and the foulmouthed as he takes on the “deep state,” the “crooked press corps” and even right-wing bugaboo George Soros.
Now Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, roving ambassador to TV land and the architect of his Ukrainian entanglement, Giuliani’s trash-talking in recent days has become positively brobdingnagian.
The Idiot, the Moron and the Hero
In one instance, he told CNN host Chris Cuomo he was a “sellout, totally blinded by prejudice” and “very bad for America.”
As for a Democratic adversary on a Fox News show, Giuliani bellowed, “Shut up, moron! Shut up, shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about. You have no idea what you’re talking about, idiot!”
Meanwhile, shouting into the phone, he declared to a reporter for The Atlantic, “It is impossible that the whistle-blower is a hero and I am not. And I will be the hero! These morons – when this is over, I will be the hero.”
So add it all up, and the questions boil down to this: Has he devolved into a pugilistic parody of self? And how much has he really changed?
There is a huge commonality between Rudy the mayor and Rudy the Trump World intimate – right down to the spectacular dissolution of two of his marriages in the public glare.
In 2000, as he battled prostate cancer and mulled abandoning his U.S. Senate bid against Hilary Clinton, he announced in Bryant Park that he was seeking a separation from Donna Hanover, wife No. 2. The only problem: He hadn’t bothered to tell this to Hanover yet.
Then in 2018, his marriage to Judith Nathan, wife No. 3, for whom he left Hanover, also imploded. She alleged he was having an affair and buying expensive cigars and fountain pens with marital assets. Expect operatics at a January trial where Nathan is expected to elaborate on a cryptic remark, “For a variety of reasons I know as a spouse and a nurse, he has become a different man.”
"Almost a Greek Tragedy"
As for the hyper-nastiness that Giuliani has patented in the Trump era, that, too, is hardly new.
In 1999, ex-Mayor Ed Koch, one of his predecessors, penned a book, “Giuliani: Nasty Man,” in which he attacked his “mean-spiritedness,” accused him of “trying to disembowel people,” and said he “might have picked the wings off a fly as a child.”
Koch’s conclusion: “I see this as almost a Greek tragedy ... His nastiness is causing his self-destruction.”
So what has changed the most may simply lie in the order of magnitude. Rudy was always brash, vitriolic, riled up and a little bit off the rails. But the level of hysteria, venomousness, even the semi-crazed registering of disgust and emotionality, may have gone over the top.
And today’s Rudy remains light years away from Time Magazine’s 2001 Man of the Year, the Rudy it called “America’s Mayor,” the inspiring leader who guided the city in the aftermath of 9/11, boosting its spirit and healing its wounds and making it believe in itself all over again.
That was the ennobling Rudy, the mayor who broke the mold, who ached with us, who told us the causalities “will be more than any of us can bear,” who fostered unity in a divisive city, who even turned down a $10 million check from a Saudi prince.
And that is the Rudy – “Winston Churchill in a Yankees cap,” the Washington Post called him – who appears lost to us forever.
“Shut up, moron! Shut up, shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about. You have no idea what you’re talking about, idiot!” Rudy Giuliani, to a Democratic critic on Fox News on Sept. 24