One afternoon in 1957, a 13-year-old Rudy Giuliani switched on his family’s TV and watched a lawyer pick a fight. Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, had been called before the U.S. Senate’s Labor Rackets Committee to answer charges of corruption, extortion, and stealing from the pension funds of union members. He settled in his chair to face Robert F. Kennedy, the special committee lawyer, only 32 years old and a brutal interrogator.
“The Teamster case meant a lot to me,” Giuliani writes in Leadership, the popular memoir he published in 2002. “Hearing Bobby Kennedy’s withering confrontation with Jimmy Hoffa left a mark on me, at an impressionable time of life.”
It’s no wonder why: Hoffa scoffed at the hearings, calling his inquisitor “Bob” and dodging his questions. Kennedy gave as good as he got, darkly dramatizing the threat Hoffa posed to Americans, warning that “the life of every person in the United States is in the hands of Hoffa and his Teamsters.” Hoffa outsmarted Kennedy: No one could prove the union boss’s ties to organized crime, and he walked. But he had made a powerful enemy. When Kennedy’s brother handed him the Department of Justice in 1961, Hoffa was investigated and watched like a hawk. A decade after the Senate hearings, he was convicted, finally, of mail fraud and bribing a juror.
A lesser politician would have walked away wounded from the hearings. Not Kennedy. The white-knuckled Hoffa confrontations added to Kennedy’s fame from his counsel work with Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s committees. He wrote a memoir, The Enemy Within, about the case. His reputation was bolstered for his 1961 nomination to become his brother’s attorney general. Young Rudy Giuliani watched the Kennedys rise to the top of American politics, and it stirred something in him. As an undergraduate at Manhattan College he worked on Bobby Kennedy’s carpetbagging 1964 campaign for the U.S. Senate. Back on campus, he told a girlfriend that “Rudolph William Louis Giuliani the Third” would be the first Italian-American Catholic president of the United States.
Bobby Kennedy made an inspiring political role model, his big-hearted liberal philosophy shaping Giuliani’s first forays into politics. In the Quadrangle, the Manhattan College newspaper that young Giuliani had taken over with two friends, he published columns lambasting the GOP and praising the Democrats. While Giuliani’s future mentor (and future employer) Ronald Reagan was stumping for Barry Goldwater, the college kid used his “Ars Politica” column to lampoon the 1964 Republican candidate as an “incompetent, confused, and idiotic man.” The problem with Goldwater, for Giuliani, was that his view of government was coldhearted, standoffish. “The Republicans,” he wrote, “must find men who will adequately address themselves to the problems of discrimination, of poverty, of education, of public housing and the many more problems that Senator Goldwater and company throw aside in the name of small laissez-faire government.”
Giuliani took a “lonely, arduous, and even painful” path from liberalism, he writes in Leadership. The liberals of the 1970s were too weak on communism, he avers. Only after he got to work in Gerald Ford’s administration did he realize that Republicans didn’t get their kicks by setting paupers on fire: “The image I had of Republicans, as morally inferior to Democrats, came from being a prejudiced New Yorker.”
But as much as liberals grew to loathe him as mayor of New York City, Giuliani never fully abandoned his liberalism. His theory of urban governance was written by neoconservatives—as the joke goes, liberals who had been mugged by reality. Their policies recognized the failure of the Great Society but saw a role for City Hall in making the city livable and its citizens better-behaved. Mayor Giuliani alternately thrilled and thwarted libertarians. He cut taxes and sold off public services, but he also sued the gun industry for “deliberately” producing too many guns, “flooding” New York with weapons, and not making their products safe enough. (During the battles over the 1994 Crime Bill he called the National Rifle Association (NRA) “extremists.”) The statistics clearly show that he cut crime throughout the ’90s, but he arguably allowed cops to get sloppier and more aggressive, tripling the size of a Street Crimes Unit that would be disbanded under a cloud of scandal. He crossed swords with the New York Civil Liberties Union more than two dozen times over issues as petty as why the Yankees could have a victory rally on the steps of City Hall but political activists couldn’t take over those steps for a protest.
Since becoming a candidate for president Giuliani has lurched to the right, sometimes for better but mostly for worse. On the bright side, he has mollified the NRA by promising not to push for new gun laws and supporting a federal appeals court reversal of the Washington, D.C., handgun ban. Less impressively, the man who used to say undocumented immigrants were good for New York—“they are here, and they’re going to remain here”—now talks about “ending illegal immigration” and building cement walls and “technological fences” on the Mexican border. And he has dialed back the socially liberal side of his persona too, playing down the support for same-sex civil unions he expressed in the 1990s.
Some observers say this is the best deal a major presidential candidate has offered libertarians in decades. The Atlantic Monthly’s Ross Douthat, a conservative, theorizes that Giuliani “may invite Americans with libertarian inclinations to accept an expansive interpretation of executive power and a dim view of civil liberties in exchange for lower dividend tax rates and the right to abortion.” (Giuliani’s campaign declined to make him available to reason for an interview.)
Some of Giuliani’s positions are libertarian, but the man himself is not. He has never looked over his shoulder and declared that Goldwater was right. Goldwater thought he was elected to repeal laws, not pass them. Giuliani, generally, likes to expand the boundaries of the state. He has no interest in rolling back the government to where it was before the Great Society, let alone the New Deal.
“We believe in giving freedom to people,” Giuliani said in a March speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee. “The Republican Party makes its greatest contribution when it’s giving more freedom to people.” Giuliani does not, however, view freedom as the absence of state control. “Freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want,” he said in a 1994 speech two months after becoming mayor. “Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority.”
As the presidential primary heated up in September, Giuliani remained the GOP’s front-runner, to the general amazement of pundits. Only Fred Thompson, the actor and former senator from Tennessee, challenges his supremacy in national polls. Giuliani had long argued that the civil libertarians and traditional conservatives who criticize him are out of their league, second-guessing the decisions he made in “saving” New York. But his record goes back further than that. A more complete picture of Giuliani’s career and of his evolving philosophy shows a man who considers the crusading Kennedy the model for how to use power.
In 1970, fresh from his clerkship with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, Giuliani won appointment as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. The timing was perfect. New York Mayor John Lindsay had just established the Knapp Commission, a blue-ribbon investigation into police corruption, turning the U.S. Attorney’s Office loose on crooked cops and the mafia figures who controlled them. At 26, Giuliani was interviewing police officers who’d sold drugs, killed prostitutes, and otherwise soiled the image of the NYPD. “I had this youthful conviction that all human beings were basically good,” Giuliani recalls in Leadership. “I came to realize that rationality does not necessarily rule and that some people were simply evil.”
The corruption that gripped New York in those years was a sensation, molded by screenwriters into films like Serpico and plundered by prime time television hacks for the decade’s police dramas. Giuliani thrived on the attention. In 1972, during a corruption investigation of Rep. Bertram Podell (D-N.Y.), Giuliani flew to Nicaragua and personally subpoenaed U.S. Ambassador Shelton Turner, who was accused of assisting Podell’s efforts to illegally aid, and profit from, tiny Florida Atlantic Airlines. Giuliani’s rise was slowed a little when Democrats won the White House, but that turned out to be a speed bump: In 1981 Ronald Reagan made him an associate attorney general.
In the Carter years the Justice Department had concentrated on white-collar crimes, leading to a dip in overall prosecution numbers. The White House told Giuliani to analyze and market a possible solution to the slump: a new arrangement between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration that would give the FBI’s director more power to go after drug dealers. He supported it unreservedly and successfully lobbied Congress to approve it. (The first joint drug war operations between the two agencies kicked off in 1984.) The man who’d made liberals swoon with his investigations of police officers was starting to worry them. Giuliani had his first real clash with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over a 1981 crime bill that aimed to abolish parole for federal prisoners, bolster gun control laws, and construct new prisons.