By Joe Conason
Rarely does the endorsement of a presidential candidate make any national impression, especially when offered by a retired local politician. Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean may well disprove that maxim, however, not so much because he chose John McCain the other day but because he rejected Rudolph Giuliani.
In the ordinary course of events, an ex-governor from a neighboring state simply would have lined up behind the former New York mayor—a fellow pro-choice moderate Northeastern Republican—just as Kean’s ambitious son and namesake did when he became the Giuliani campaign’s honorary state chairman. But the circumstances of the Kean endorsement involve extraordinary events, beginning with al-Qaida’s devastating attacks in September 2001.
Explaining his decision, Kean could not have been clearer: “I am proud to announce my support of John McCain’s candidacy for president of the United States. I do so for several reasons. First and foremost, John McCain understands the nature of the terrorist threats that continue to confront us all.”
That is precisely the kind of statement Giuliani repeats so tirelessly on his own behalf. Yet despite his media coronation as “America’s mayor” in the aftermath of the attacks, his boasts are highly vulnerable to dispute. Few Republicans possess as much credibility as Kean, who served as co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, in taking the measure of Giuliani’s outsized claims. Kean’s choice is telling—and should redirect our attention to the assessment of “America’s mayor” in his commission’s final report.
According to Giuliani, he prepared the city government against terrorist assaults by creating a special Office of Emergency Management under his direct authority and by drilling constantly to coordinate the first-responder agencies—including the uncooperative police and fire departments.
“I assumed from the time I came into office that New York City would be the subject of a terrorist attack,” he told Time magazine in the weeks after Sept. 11. At the time, almost nobody was willing to question the constant burnishing of his credentials.
Years later, the 9/11 Commission’s report described in deadpan style exactly how Giuliani’s efforts had fallen short. While its authors carefully state that they were “mindful of the unfair perspective afforded by hindsight,” their judgments sting.
Noting that the Office of Emergency Management had been inside 7 World Trade Center, one of the buildings that fell, the report says, “Some questioned locating it both so close to a previous terrorist target (the World Trade Center was struck by al-Qaida in 1993) and on the 23rd floor of a building,” thus inaccessible if an emergency shut down power to the elevators. Furthermore, it says, “There was no backup site.”
The same section goes on to describe Giuliani’s attempt in July 2001 to resolve the “potential conflict among responding agencies,” such as the police and fire departments, in a major emergency. Designating an “incident commander” agency for specific emergencies and naming the Office of Emergency Management as the “interagency coordinator,” he evidently believed that would be sufficient. It wasn’t.
On Sept. 11, the police and fire departments were not prepared to “comprehensively coordinate their efforts in responding to a major incident.” The Office of Emergency Management “had not overcome this problem,” says the report, concluding that the city’s “response operations lacked the kind of integrated communications and unified command contemplated in the [mayor’s] directive.”
To understand why Giuliani’s leadership failed, it is necessary to read the thorough evaluation by journalists Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins in their landmark book, “Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11,” published last year.
Consider the book’s description of Richie Sheirer, the former firefighter put in charge of the Office of Emergency Management. He had “spent most of his career as a fire alarm dispatcher and a leader of one of the few unions to endorse Giuliani’s 1993 [mayoral] candidacy, the dispatcher’s union. Like many of the men closest to Giuliani, Sheirer’s unspectacular career had suddenly turned meteoric when he attached himself to the mayor’s coattails.”
He bore few qualifications for his job beyond his loyalty to the mayor, and his lackluster performance on the fateful day was emblematic of the city’s dysfunction.
That sorry vignette reveals almost as much about Giuliani as the amazing tale of Bernard Kerik, the indicted former police commissioner whom he nearly promoted to the top of the Department of Homeland Security.
The former mayor’s lapses in judgment probably cost lives. And nobody knows the unflattering realities behind the Giuliani front better than Tom Kean.
Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.
© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.