Who's Sorry Now?

  • Last week Hillary Clinton was a better mayor of New York City than the man who holds the job. Commenting on the most recent killing of an unarmed man, Patrick Dorismond, by an undercover narcotics cop, Clinton told a congregation at the Bethel A.M.E. Church, "I do not believe that bad relations with the police is a necessary cost of doing the business of keeping our cities safe." She went on to criticize Mayor Rudy Giuliani directly: "If he is leading the rush to judgment in New York, how can we trust him to exercise good judgment in Washington?"

    Winning the Senate race in New York may not come from Clinton or Giuliani doing well but from one of them doing badly. By that measure, Giuliani's reaction to the latest police killing, the fourth of an unarmed black man in 13 months, gave Clinton her best campaign week yet. Giuliani typically springs to the cops' defense. But this time he wouldn't even express sympathy to the victim's mother, because it "might imply that the shooting was unjustified." He had no compunctions about implying that the shooting was justified. Dorismond was "no altar boy," Giuliani reported, as if all non-altar boys are subject to summary execution on the sidewalks of New York. The slain security guard had behaved in a way that was "very aggressive toward the police," he added, though there was no proof that Dorismond did anything except perhaps annoy the plainclothes narcotics cop by rebuffing his attempt to buy marijuana. Giuliani also asserted that Dorismond had spent a "good deal of his adult life punching people," a reference to a domestic complaint filed by Dorismond's girlfriend, which resulted in no charge against him. Though Giuliani released Dorismond's adult and juvenile records (the latter are supposed to remain sealed), they revealed that he had never been convicted of anything more serious than disorderly conduct. At the same time, Giuliani praised Anthony Vasquez, the officer who shot Dorismond, as a "very, very distinguished undercover officer," leaving out information suggesting that he was no altar boy himself; he once shot a neighbor's dog and pulled out his revolver during a personal altercation at a bar.

    As his weeklong campaign against Dorismond aroused criticism rather than quieted it, Giuliani stopped holding his daily press briefings at city hall and refused to meet with the black community, saying the killing of Dorismond, a Haitian, had "nothing to do with race." By Thursday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson had chimed in, claiming that the New York City mayor is "not only mean; he is becoming mental... His reaction to the killing of unarmed people is irresponsible." Giuliani said he expected such carping from "the political pile-on team captained by Al Sharpton for Hillary Clinton."

    But what he may not have expected was criticism from his own ranks. Long Island Republican Congressman Peter King, the son of a cop who will eventually endorse Giuliani, said, "Rudy is a great wartime mayor. But once he got rid of murderers and squeegee men, he kept going--jaywalkers, vendors; he couldn't stop himself. Obviously, the cop made a mistake here, but the mayor can't acknowledge it." Former Giuliani aide and Republican National Committee chairman Rich Bond worried out loud that Giuliani's strong defense in this particular case could turn what has been a huge positive for the mayor--his record on crime--into a negative.

    Why can't Giuliani just say he's sorry? He surely doesn't need to shore up his law-and-order credentials, and by defending virtually every cop no matter how hideous the episode, he does no favor for the 99% of cops who don't shoot first and ask questions later. Giuliani does know how to behave better. When Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was sodomized by a police officer with the handle of a toilet plunger in 1997, Giuliani expressed shock at the brutality and called for a task force to review police-community issues. But that was in the midst of his re-election campaign, and since then his reaction to charges of police brutality has grown more strident. The irony is that police killings of civilians are down dramatically from what they were during the administration of his Democratic predecessor, David Dinkins. But Dinkins would go around with a long, sorrowful face that deflected blame, while Giuliani lashes out and invites it. Fred Siegel, a history professor at Cooper Union, says Giuliani needs a strong person who could stand up to him and say, "You're right, police killings are at a record low. But shut up--and express sympathy."

    Does Hillary finally have an opening in her race to overtake Giuliani? Her challenge now is to resist her own impulse to become self-righteous, to let Giuliani be his own worst enemy and hope that more of those voters who think Rudy has saved the city will start being worried that he's too intemperate for a collegial body like the Senate. So far, the campaign has been an uphill struggle for her. For months she "listened" to New Yorkers as if she were Margaret Mead collecting stories from the natives in Samoa, and blundered every time she opened her mouth, from claiming too many sports-team allegiances to praising Mrs. Arafat, who had just dissed the U.S. The most recent Quinnipiac College poll, conducted in late February, shows her running behind Giuliani, 48% to 41% statewide. With the mayor leading upstate and Clinton ahead in New York City, the key battleground may be in the suburbs. Giuliani holds a commanding 59%-to-31% lead there, but his popularity among suburbanites--happy he has made the city safe for a Saturday-night visit--could erode if he becomes too strident. Says King: "Even the moderate suburban housewife who gives him the benefit of the doubt, because they want to visit a safe city, is beginning to get squeamish."

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