Rudy for President

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DIANE BONDAREFF/AP

Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani during a news conference

Hard on the heels of last Tuesday’s unthinkable disaster, another unfathomable occurance, of admittedly lesser magnitude: Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the man whose politics divided New Yorkers for years, has united his beloved city in the wake of a tragedy. During his seven-plus-year tenure at the helm of America’s largest and most visible city, Giuliani has endured his share of debacles, including an ill-fated attempt to block "objectionable" art from local museums, widespread charges of police brutality and the very public demise of his marriage to Donna Hanover. And many New Yorkers criticized him for his abrasive manner and obsession with "quality of life" laws (which stripped city residents of long-held rights to jaywalk and visit adult bookstores).

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All that seems forgotten now, in the grim aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Gone is the controversial figure whose mere presence often elicited protest. Until now, his term as mayor has been defined by a largely successful combination of confrontation, argument and brute political force — and now, suddenly, Giuliani is praised for his humanity and his command over tragic circumstances.

These days, New Yorkers brim with pride and ill-concealed emotion when Giuliani appears on television. His appeals to his constituents — and to the visitors who have come to help this once-isolated island — have stopped all of us in our tracks, his impromptu eulogies capturing our deepest-held sadness. Tragedy has forced a combative man into untested territory: Giuliani, clad in FDNY gear, has become a sort of spiritual advisor to a city reeling in shock, his gentleness a stark contrast to the bad news he is forced to deliver daily.

It’s grace like this that has prompted many New Yorkers, preparing to vote in a mayoral primary before last Tuesday’s terrible events, to yearn for the end of term limits. Many, including some who are not his constituents, have called for an emergency extension to the mayor’s final term. "There is no more eloquent testimony to the mindlessness of term limits than the performance of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani during this time of crisis," one Maryland resident wrote to the New York Times. "We mistake change for improvement, and New York City will be the poorer because of our unwillingness to let the voters decide when a leader should depart."

Even City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a fierce Giuliani critic (and a Democrat running for Rudy's job), said earlier this week, "If it was up to me, I'd keep everything in place. I think in times of crisis, the best thing to do is not make dramatic changes."

When a reporter raises the possibility of another term at a press conference, Giuliani ducks his head and flashes a brief and most uncharacteristically shy smile before gently dismissing the idea. This is not the time, he says, for that discussion. Later, during an appearance on "Larry King Live," the mayor waxed equivocal. "It really hasn't been a thing that's been on my mind until yesterday when it was presented to me. And I think we should get a little further out from the event to see where we are."

If the mayor is less than eager to dissect his career plans, others are more than happy to discuss Giuliani’s political future. Even if Giuliani does not dig in his heels for an extension this year, speculation is mounting that the mayor will step aside for four years, then re-emerge to run again in 2005.

Others wonder whether Rudy might have his eye on higher office. Tragedy is, after all, one of the best platforms for campaigns. And Giuliani’s performance this past week, many agree, has cast him in a most flattering role: Outstanding in his heartfelt eloquence, winning praise for skills no one ever suspected he might have, let alone reveal.