New York City

A tale of two mayors

In retrospect, Dinkins looks better and Giuliani looks worse than when they left office.

David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani at the Mayoral debate in November 1989.

David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani at the Mayoral debate in November 1989. Sergio Flores/AP/Shutterstock

In the award-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton,” there is a haunting song performed by a few of the Founding Fathers: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

I was thinking of that song as I read the numerous glowing tributes and obituaries of David Dinkins, New York City’s first Black mayor, who died at the age of 93 last week. 

That same week, we saw the alternate reality coverage of Rudy Giuliani’s shameless legal antics trying to overturn a fair Democratic election. Giuliani’s repeated gaffes – first scheduling a press conference at the wrong “Four Seasons” in Philadelphia and then his sweaty, hair-dye-dripping sequel less than two weeks later – made him the butt of countless late-night TV comedy routines and social media memes for days on end.

The stark contrast between these two men – who bitterly opposed each other twice for the top office in New York and whose post-mayoralty arcs couldn’t have been more divergent – is a lesson in why the first draft of history isn’t always entirely accurate.

During Dinkins’ tenure in office, he was often vilified in the press for the chaos in New York in the early 1990s. Most, but not all, of this bad press was unfair in retrospect, especially judging by the many accolades he received in all the city newspapers and on social media last week. 

In his brief four-year tenure, Dinkins accomplished a lot – his policies accelerated the creation of affordable housing, the number of homeless people in the city was reduced dramatically, he initiated effective mental health programs for the poor, he helped revive blighted neighborhoods, such as the Bradhurst section of Harlem, and he expanded after-school programs in poor neighborhoods.

What gets very little credit, because of the narrative around his successor, Giuliani, was his push to hire more police through a new state tax, the “Safe Streets, Safe Cities” program. That initiative really started the impressive decrease of murders and violent crime in the city. 

New York Times columnist Michael Powell, who covered City Hall through the Dinkins and Giuliani years, summed this up very nicely last week. As he notes, Dinkins’ tenure was certainly a mixed bag: increases in affordable housing and mental health programs were overshadowed by the riots in Crown Heights and a boycott of a Korean-American greengrocer, which was mishandled by City Hall during those volatile years.

Dinkins had a courtly manner and a gentle style that some critics distorted as lackadaisical and out of touch. These New Yorkers missed the in-your-face former Mayor Ed Koch, who was anything but courtly.

After four drama-filled years in the early 1990s, Dinkins was narrowly defeated by Giuliani, a pugnacious prosecutor who had riled up police against then-Mayor Dinkins and was a harsh critic of the man who barely beat him in 1989.

Giuliani, as we all know, went on to eight years of roller-coaster governing. In his first term, in the wake of Dinkins’ increased police force program, Giuliani wisely hired a smart NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who, along with his deputy Jack Maple, revolutionized policing with the now-widely hailed Compstat program. Crime and murders continued their precipitous drop from Dinkins’ last year. But Giuliani got all the credit.

Giuliani doubled down on his “tough guy” approach to governing: “squeegee men” were expunged from the streets, and the use of stop-and-frisk by police increased. Dinkins had worked on turning Times Square around, bringing Disney to 42nd St., but Giuliani oversaw the area’s full rehabilitation and got the credit for that, too. Depending on what side of the political spectrum you’re on now, Giuliani either “fixed” a broken city or to those on the far left, he started the harsh programs that led to unequal justice in minority neighborhoods.

But most New Yorkers would agree that Giuliani’s overreach in his second term led to a precipitous drop in his popularity. In reference to his authoritarian impulses, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jimmy Breslin called Giuliani “a short man in search of a balcony.” By 2001, he was on his way out of office with low approval ratings, having bowed out of the 2000 U.S. Senate race to avoid a humiliating defeat to Hillary Clinton. 

But it was the horrific events of 9/11 that revived Giuliani’s stature as a leader for a while. His calm, empathic, soothing leadership in the ensuing days and weeks earned him Time magazine’s person of the year, with the fawning headline “Mayor of the World.” Less remarked on then was Giuliani’s mistake in moving the emergency command center into the World Trade Center after the first bombing there in 1993.

In Dinkins’ post-mayoralty he became a professor at Columbia and settled into being a mentor and wise man on the political scene. Like his tenure before his mayoralty, he didn’t seek fame and fortune. He and his longtime wife Joyce spent the next quarter-century together trying to be helpful where they could, but not seeking the limelight.

Since leaving office in 2002, Giuliani has had a tumultuous career and personal life that would embarrass him, were he not – like his most infamous client – seemingly incapable of feeling shame. He has been a consultant for dictators and strongmen around the world and ran a failed race for the GOP nomination for president in 2008 (amassing just one delegate after being an early-front runner). He had an extremely messy divorce from third wife Judith Giuliani in 2019, and his daughter Caroline from his second marriage has defied him publicly in ways only Kellyanne Conway might understand.

But it’s his last chapter as the tragic-comical attack dog of the outgoing president that has left Giuliani’s reputation in tatters. During the 2016 campaign, Giuliani was willing to go on the Sunday television shows and defend Trump after the “Access Hollywood” “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape surfaced just weeks before the election. 

After being snubbed for secretary of state or any other official role in the Trump administration, likely because his confirmation hearings would generate embarrassing revelations about everything from his corrupt cronies to his highly paid advocacy for foreign autocracies, Giuliani still remained blindly loyal to a president who in 2020 couldn’t come close to carrying a single borough other than Staten Island. 

In the last few weeks, after President Donald Trump’s resounding defeat by more than 6 million votes, Giuliani has displayed his most pathetic performance to date: appearing repeatedly at ad hoc press conferences professing crazy conspiracy theories of fraud that are not rooted in reality or facts. Giuliani, a lawyer who clearly hasn’t been in court for many, many years, has watched his client rack up defeat after defeat.

So here we are – a week after Dinkins’ death and the tributes and outpouring of love continues to flow. 

In another galaxy, far, far away, his nemesis and successor, Giuliani, continues to bray at the moon.

A tale of two mayors, indeed. 

With reporting by Kimberly Gonzalez