Give Giuliani Three More Months

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I love Rudy. In this I'm not alone. He walks around the city as godlike as a mortal can be. The families of the fallen cling to him. Workers pulling grim double shifts at ground zero get a second wind when he visits. At opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, he gets an ovation Pavarotti would envy. He brings David Letterman to tears and a Saturday Night Live audience to life, telling people it's O.K. to laugh again.

So let's forgive Rudy Giuliani for thinking he should be Mayor for Life. But let's also think twice before crowning him. By last Monday, Giuliani had made up his mind that the city couldn't get by without him. He decided to persuade the state legislature to overturn term limits, and to seek a third term on the Conservative Party ballot. Friends, especially his companion Judith Nathan, had convinced him that voters were so grateful they wouldn't mind messing with the electoral laws. But just before his press conference that day, other voices intruded. His friend John McCain warned that the effort to change the rules would diminish Giuliani, make him just another politician. It would revive memories, McCain predicted, of all those "past mistakes, earned and unearned."

Who would want to go back to the days of Giuliani's other wars — against street vendors, schools chancellors, art exhibits, political opponents and anyone else who disagreed with him, including his estranged wife Donna Hanover? Giuliani took McCain's advice to heart — until last Tuesday's primary, when he got 15% of the vote, all from write-in ballots, which are more trouble to fill out than Palm Beach butterflies. On Wednesday, Giuliani summoned the three leading mayoral candidates to his makeshift office at the emergency operations center at Pier 92. There, surrounded by talismans — a picture of Churchill walking through London during the Blitz, a dust-caked mask from his near death experience in the shadow of the crumbling Twin Towers, and a large Tupperware container of Wheaties — Giuliani shook the candidates down: either agree to give him three extra months in office, he said, or he'd run against them, and win. Well, one thing is for sure: if Rudy is finding time for power politics, things must be getting back to normal. The two Democrats facing an Oct. 11 runoff were split on what to do. Mark Green, the public advocate, said yes (it might help him attract conservative votes). Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president, said no (it might help him solidify the anti-Giuliani vote). And Michael Bloomberg, the Republican businessman whose campaign pitch is to keep the city running the way Giuliani has, also agreed.

Giuliani could well win. But the law says he can't run. And the law has always been bigger than any one man, no matter how devastating the crisis. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln recognized that an election should not be a casualty of war, arguing, "If the rebellion could force us to forgo or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us."

The terrorists ruined lower Manhattan, where a mass grave still smolders, but they haven't conquered New York City. Giuliani, of all people, should see that wanting to restore the city means having its election go on as planned. Term limits are undemocratic and thwart the will of the people, but democracy requires that people get rid of limits in due course, not in a move by the state legislature for the benefit of one man.

You have to wonder if Giuliani would be such a perfect wartime mayor if he hadn't had his own brush with death. No one would wish all those dark nights of sickness on anyone. But in a man who had often seemed indifferent if not callous to the feelings of others, prostate cancer brought out a gentler side that New Yorkers had rarely seen. As he dropped out of the 2000 Senate race, Rudy acknowledged how suddenly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of life he'd become. A soulful awareness of the fragility of life and an inexhaustible supply of can-do optimism has been indispensable in getting the city back on its feet without diminishing the horror of its loss. Giuliani can go from empathetic Rudy wrapping a sorrowful widow in his hunched shoulders to traffic warden in a New York minute, barring single-occupancy cars from downtown bridges and tunnels into Manhattan during rush hour. On a typical day last week, he found simple words to console the two children of Inspector Anthony Infante at St. Teresa's in the morning, then managed the ego of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as he took advantage of Giuliani's media entourage to nominate himself negotiator in chief. In the evening, Giuliani called on a stricken crowd at Temple Emanu-El to stand and applaud Neil Levin, the head of the Port Authority, who died helping his employees escape. Reverting to tireless cheerleader, he ended his day at Yankee Stadium watching Roger Clemens pitch against Tampa Bay.

To trail in Rudy Giuliani's wake is to feel like the Red Cross ladies handing out aspirin and apples in the temporary commissary outside his office: I wanted to hug him. But that's not the same as handing him an extra four years. As for an extra three months, I wonder if holding the city together at a time when it could have fallen apart doesn't merit the extended time, not as a gift to him but as a gift to us.