The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life, by Fred Siegel, San Francisco: Encounter, 342 pages, $26.95

To grasp the importance of Rudolph Giuliani's two-term administration as mayor of New York, you have to remember what a mess the city was under Giuliani's predecessor. Mayor David Dinkins led a city where garbage went uncollected for three years, where a still-unknown number of children died of cholera, where two in every three residences were destroyed by arson in any given year, where the average woman was sexually assaulted at least three times every day (the rate for men was slightly higher).

With an infant mortality rate slightly above 100 percent and an adult unemployment rate even higher than that, the Big Apple had been reduced to a one-crop economy, making the city a virtual subsidiary of the United Fruit Company. In New York's crime-plagued subterranean labyrinths, entire subway trains routinely vanished without a trace, with all passengers aboard.

The handful of New Yorkers who had not been killed outright by street gangs were left to suffer from untreated AIDS, with the result that by 1991 the city's population had dropped to zero, the tumbleweeds blowing down Broadway adding little cheer to the Omega Man nightmare-scape that had once been America's proudest and most bustling city.

If this description seems overblown, if you have vague recollections of a Big Apple boom in the Ed Koch years (embodied in reality by soaring stock prices and property values, and in mass culture by sunny films like The Secret of My Success) and a Wall Street boom that seems humble now but dominated the news during the Dinkins era, you must read Fred Siegel's The Prince of the City. Among the horrors facing New Yorkers in the pre-Giuliani era, Siegel cites "a new wave of tuberculosis" on the subways, "often carried by deinstitutionalized mental patients whose right not to take their medicine had been secured by [civil liberties] attorneys."

This was a real phenomenon, actually, and the few of us who survived the Dinkins administration vividly recall the return-of-TB story that dominated the tabloids for a week or so and was subsequently forgotten. Siegel revisits this story but declines to say how Mayor Giuliani solved it.

Why does Siegel, a historian at Cooper Union and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, paint this Boschean vision of pre-Rudy New York? Giuliani's story hardly needs the buildup. There is little serious disagreement that during his administration vast areas of city life, from civil order to taxes to trash collection, improved remarkably. And Siegel, who served Giuliani as a campaign adviser (a connection he fails to disclose) and as an intellectual mentor through his editorship of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal (a connection to which he vaguely alludes), would seem to be the ideal writer for the job.

So why is his breezy and comprehensive history, the first book-length treatment of the Giuliani administration, so unpersuasive? The book aims to show Giuliani as "a Renaissance Prince who revived his republic with more than a touch of Machiavelli's 'corrupt wisdom.' " But through the scrim of Siegel's special pleading, settling of old scores, and undercooked character development, as well as (sorry for the pedantry) numerous typos, unattributed quotations, and grandiose but thinly supported claims, Prince Rudy starts to look like an empty suit.

Part of the problem may be the book's hybrid conception. It aims first to be a paean to a mayor Siegel believes has not received enough credit; although Giuliani became a beloved national figure in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Siegel remembers and (rightly, in my opinion) resents the controversies and plummeting popularity that dimmed his second term. But Prince of the City is also a continuation of the theme Siegel traced in his previous book The Future Once Happened Here: the failure of the liberal ideal in urban governance. The two themes work against each other: If New York, the "ungovernable" city, needed to be "saved...from its own, apparently intractable, political pathologies," then we're observing a lesson in classical leadership. On the other hand, if New York's recovery was part of a national trend toward privatization, economic growth, and plummeting crime rates, then Giuliani matters mainly as an implementer of conventional wisdom. (If nothing else, the book offers a striking reminder of how vastly attitudes toward and expectations of government have changed in the last 15 years.) Rather than uniting these antitheses, Siegel ends up cheating both sides of the argument.

One thing is clear: There's plenty of credit to be taken for New York's 1990s recovery. According to FBI statistics, the crime rate in New York dropped from nearly eight incidents per 100 residents in 1994 (Giuliani's first year in office) to fewer than three in 2001 (his last), with murder rates declining to pre-1970 levels. The city's population grew 9.4 percent between 1990 and 2000, and during the same period the city added 440,000 private-sector jobs while shrinking public payrolls (and tax rates).

In Siegel's view, anybody who tries to put these numbers into a larger context is a "Rudy hater." Having worked and lived in the Big Apple under both Giuliani and Dinkins, I will not dispute that the difference between the two, in style, authority, and sense of leadership, was as striking as the difference between Reggie Jackson and fellow Yankee Steve "Bye Bye" Balboni. Still, it's worth noting that rates for both violent crime and crime overall in New York City peaked in 1990 and began declining thereafter--that is, during the last three of Dinkins' four years. The Big Apple's economic growth in the 1990s, while rapid by Big Apple standards, didn't outpace the national average until 1998--largely on the strength of a tech boom that belatedly hit the city; New York's economy had recessed by early 2001. Almost all of the population boom noted above took place before Giuliani came into office, and so on. The real fruits of Giuliani's leadership can be seen not in these indicators but in his aggressive reform of government bureaucracies.

Like Bill Clinton, a figure with whom he is both implicitly and explicitly linked throughout the book, Mayor Rudy was well schooled in Third Way governmental approaches, the amalgam of ideas (including welfare reform, privatization, competition to provide government services, and "broken-windows" policing) embodied in texts like City Journal and David Osborne and Ted Gaebler's book Reinventing Government. New Yorkers and '90s nostalgists alike will enjoy Siegel's reminiscences of how these ideas came into play, and particularly of how Giuliani's New York (or "Gotham," as Siegel insists on calling it) was arguably the nation's most thorough and intensive proving ground for new ideas in city services, welfare reform, and, above all, policing. In fact, it's not Hizzoner but New York Police Commissioner William Bratton who emerges as the book's real hero, with a combination of broken-windows enforcement and data mining that set the standard for nationwide police work.

Unfortunately, though the Third Way embodies many conservative ideals, Siegel is no conservative. He's a liberal who has been mugged by reality--a familiar New York breed as irritating as the subway car torch singer, the entry-level Ivy Leaguer kiss-ass, and the panhandler with falling trousers. In the minds of mugged liberals, everybody else is also a liberal and thus susceptible to the kind of arguments that move the disenchanted left. Siegel subjects us to reminiscences about the left-liberal salad days of FDR and Fiorella LaGuardia that would shame the New York TV schmaltzmaster Joe "Memory Lane" Franklin; elsewhere he assumes that we'll give weight to the disillusionment of lower-middle-class Canarsie residents because those folks are "heirs to the socialist tradition of the Jewish needle trades." It will come as no surprise that the book's most frequently cited political thinker is the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), the dour patient zero of mugged liberalism.

More seriously, mugged liberals carry a striking amount of racial baggage. A clear sense of dread attends every discussion of minority behavior, and there is an outsized fixation on black political demagogues, who are inevitably described as "thugs," "pimps," and "shakedown artists." (Siegel works in all three labels by page 40.) Now it is undeniable that folks like disbarred attorney C. Vernon Mason and sometime presidential hopeful Al Sharpton have helped turn New York politics into a madhouse and should be barred from good society for their roles in the Tawana Brawley hoax and (in Sharpton's case) the protests that preceded the deadly 1995 shooting and arson at Freddy's Fashion Mart. But Siegel conflates the rhetoric of race and the rhetoric of crime to a Freudian degree; at one point, elections in which both candidates are black are referred to as "black-on-black elections."

This particular passion has the ironic effect of weakening Siegel's argument where it matters most: in defending Giuliani against the baseless charges of racism and cruelty that Sharpton and his ilk never stopped throwing at him. Giuliani's actions in office disproportionately benefited the city's minority areas (he was unique, as Siegel points out, in not ignoring crime rates in largely nonwhite neighborhoods), and during his administration the city moved so far beyond its history of divisive racial posturing that even the police shooting of unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo failed to break the public order in any serious way--though it did help send the mayor's career into a limbo from which only the 9/11 attacks could rescue it. (Siegel obscenely tries to tag Diallo--who worked as a street vendor--as just another petty crook and speculates that he may have brought on the incident by making the "nervous motion" of reaching for his wallet.) On racial issues, Rudy Giuliani has a clear conscience; reading Siegel, you would never know that.

Nor would you get a very thorough sense of how Giuliani achieved his many victories over entrenched city bureaucracies. For an author aiming to demonstrate Machiavellian thought in action, Siegel is surprisingly uninterested in the mechanics of how a leader bends others to his will. The book is at its best when giving nuts-and-bolts descriptions of how the mayor negotiated important reforms--meeting budget goals, for example, by cutting deferred-raise and job-attrition deals with the unions and maximizing one-time savings opportunities. But on complicated issues such as the merger of the transit police with the NYPD and the revitalization of the City University system, we're left to assume Giuliani's greatness alone made the thing happen. It's as if a historian of the Battle of Gettysburg were to describe the battlefield and the opposing armies, detail the background of the antagonists, and then conclude, "At this point Gen. Meade, through stout courage and iron determination, won the battle."

A similar lack of curiosity marks Siegel's treatment of Giuliani's personality, and this omission is truly unforgivable. What were the character qualities that allowed Giuliani to succeed where Siegel believes the equally willful and abrasive Ed Koch failed? For that matter, what can we learn from the less attractive aspects of Giuliani's character? Let us lift our noses above the tabloid-ready details of the mayor's personal life--the annulment of his 14-year first marriage on grounds of consanguinity, the spectacular public breakup with Donna Hanover--and focus only on his Shakespearean professional career. The most severe criticism Siegel can muster about Giuliani's bullying takedown of Schools Chancellor Ramon Cortines, or his mystifying dismissal of Commissioner Bratton, or his unhinged war against New York magazine, is that these were uncharacteristic lapses in judgment. To recap: Giuliani fired Bratton because he was getting bigger headlines than the mayor himself and pointlessly made an enemy out of the reform-minded Cortines. He forced the MTA to remove ads for New York wherein the magazine called itself "The Only Good Thing in New York Rudy Hasn't Taken Credit For"--a ribbing so gentle only a nut could fail to see it as a veiled compliment. These are more than just errors in judgment. They are, if not character flaws, then character quirks that should be of great interest to an author of a "political drama."

Maybe this soft-pedaling is evidence that Siegel is hoping for a spot in Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign. (And good luck to both: Koch has had to content himself with a gig writing Harry Knowles-level film reviews for the free weekly Our Town.) But by asserting his case rather than demonstrating it, Siegel misses the chance to pose some difficult questions to his ideological opponents. Giuliani's success, particularly his broad definition of "quality of life" issues and offenses, poses a serious utilitarian challenge to civil libertarians. In describing Giuliani's early campaign against squeegee men and his later efforts against turnstile jumpers, public urinators, and other petty lawbreakers, Siegel notes that a large percentage of these people also had outstanding warrants for much more serious crimes--that in fact a great portion of the city's rapid drop in violent crime rates came from tougher enforcement aimed at these sorts of minor offenses. A similar argument is already shaping up over the NYPD's new bag-searching policy in the subway, whose defenders are almost certainly keeping track of the number of serious criminals (not just potheads) apprehended as a by-product of the searches. Those of us who don't want random police searches to become a constant feature of American life had better be prepared to respond to that challenge.

In recent years, a new wave of crime experts has emerged at John Jay College, the University of Chicago, and other institutions to challenge the supremacy of Bratton-style policing, but even before that it was rash to ignore the multiple factors involved in New York's anti-crime success. It's true that New York's drop in crime rates outpaced the national average, but was Fun City in no way a beneficiary of a nationwide trend that saw violent crimes drop from 51.2 per 1,000 citizens in 1994 to 24.7 in 2001? Were newer and better databases and information technology the real Joe Fridays in the victory against crime? Should we be giving some credit to President Clinton's widely reviled crime bill? Was it all really the economy, stupid (and if so, should we take a new look at those long-discredited liberal theories about the "root causes" of crime)?

How unusual was the New York experience in a decade that saw rebounds by many of America's most troubled cities? San Diego, which eschewed broken-windows theories, saw its violent crime rate plummet as rapidly as New York's in the same time period. Los Angeles, with a constitutionally weaker executive and a civic tradition of bumbling mayors, enjoyed an economic and quality-of-life boom in the '90s. In Oakland, Jerry Brown, derided by Siegel with the tired "Governor Moonbeam" moniker, has not only proved to be an extraordinarily popular white mayor in an overwhelmingly black town but has done so while running as a tough-on-crime bureaucratic reformer. (Siegel might want to check out City Journal, which ran a glowing article on Mayor Brown in 1999.)

But why go all the way to California for proof? During the '90s, right across the river from Siegel's Gotham, Jersey City's Brigadoon-like reappearance as a thriving location made New York's recovery seem pokey by comparison, but don't expect to find any love notes to Mayor Bret Schundler at Borders. Back in New York, Giuliani's nondescript successor, Michael Bloomberg, has broadened the concept of quality-of-life violations to include everything from public smoking to sitting on a milk crate, and as of this writing enjoys higher job approval ratings than Rudy ever achieved.

The glow of Giuliani's inspiring post-9/11 leadership has yet to fade completely, and in that sense Siegel has set himself an easy task. His story of the mayor as a Man of Iron whose mighty will restored the city to glory is one people still want to hear. The question of how much difference any mayor makes, however, remains open. Perhaps the much-maligned Dave Dinkins deserves the last word, spoken at his 1993 concession speech: "Elections come and go, candidates come and go, mayors come and go, but the life of the city must endure."