Has Giuliani's 'tough talk' gone too far?

Saying there's tension in New York City is a lot like saying there are cars in Detroit. Tension is what makes New York go round. Creative energy, subway sneers, rude cab drivers are all part of the grand mosaic that make New York the magic kingdom of urban angst.

But lately the tense-o-meter has been running a little high even by New York standards. One morning news show last Friday even proclaimed the lead story was "city tension."

The source of all this tension: Mayor and would-be senator Rudy Giuliani.

In a series of statements and nonstatements about the New York City Police, Rudy has done something even more remarkable than make frayed nerves headline news, he has given Hillary Clinton an opening in the Senate race here. The question now is whether he can get it back together in time.

First some history.

The NYPD, which has done a fine job of cleaning up the city the past few years, has developed a nasty habit of shooting and killing unarmed people.

In the best known incident, New Yorker Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times last year when police thought he was reaching for a gun he didn't have. The officers involved were acquitted this February in a trial in Albany.

Just 18 days ago, Patrick Dorismond, also unarmed, was killed during an argument with police who were falsely accusing him of selling marijuana. He was the fourth unarmed black man shot and killed by the NYPD in 13 months.

Critics in both cases blame Rudy's overzealous police force. But it's his own mouth that has hurt him the most. Instead of trying to soothe tensions in the city when the Diallo verdict was announced, Rudy told the media he was proud he lived in a country where justice prevailed, and said little about the mistakes made.

Rudy's actions following the Dorismond murder were even more peculiar. Shortly after the shooting, the mayor made Dorismond's sealed criminal file public information along with toxicology reports from the autopsy, and again avoided any talk of apology. Instead he said that the media ignored the victim's "strong propensity to violence."

This may be true, but as is often the case in politics, it's not what you say, but how you say it. And even for Giuliani, not exactly a master of subtlety, the comments seemed shrill. This is the kind of stuff that leads to "city tension."

Polls show Hillary has gained ground on the mayor since his NYPD "tough talk" and one poll actually shows her ahead.

And last week a new set of voices began to challenge Giuliani's comments: New York City police officers said his words had made their jobs tougher in some communities.

Some New Yorkers think Rudy's actions are all about political strategy. They think the mayor is simply hardening his anti-crime stance to become better known outside the city as a man who stands by the police at all costs. Come November, this thinking goes, the moves will pay off with voters upstate who tend to view the city as a grimy, lawless mess.

This is an interesting thought: Rudy as Machiavelli, manipulating the public even as he is angering them.

As far as I can see, though, there is one major problem with this analysis. Throughout his run as mayor, Rudy has had all the smoothness of a jackhammer in Times Square.

The truth is Rudy takes great pride in being in-your-face and that's the kind of attitude that wins you a lot of points in New York.

There is a real and somewhat justified feeling among New Yorkers that it takes a hard person to run a hard city.

The question before voters now is: How would a hard man like Rudy fit into the Senate, where "tough talk" is usually followed by the phrase "will the senator please yield?"

Up to now, New Yorkers have been willing to give Rudy the benefit of the doubt. He has, after all, done a lot for the city and most people believe he deserves a chance to take his show to the Senate - especially considering the alternative is a carpetbagger from a family most would just as soon forget.

And the mayor in recent days has seemed to acknowledge he went a bit far in his vociferous support of the NYPD. He's softened his talk and stepped back from the edge.

Whatever damage Rudy's done to himself, there is still a lot of time to mend the fences. But if and when the next police problem surfaces, the mayor is going to have to be more of a politician.

Talk about tension.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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