"Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it."
-- New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani NEW YORK -- He may have been hanging by a wire high above a stage, made up for a skit to look like the Beast from Broadway's "Beauty and the Beast," but the mayor of New York still had just one thing on his mind: making his city more civil.
"This is the way to beat jaywalking!" Mayor Rudolph Giuliani yelled to the reporters he hovered above.
"Next year I'll do it without these ropes!"
Perhaps only a beast of a man would dare demand that ornery New Yorkers be more polite. It certainly would take someone who believes he can fly to launch a campaign to put himself -- a liberal, Italian-American mayor of New York City -- on the Republican presidential ticket. But this spring, with all the quiet dignity of an air raid siren, Giuliani is doing both.
His idea, it seems, is to capitalize on his hometown's reputation for rudeness. Using the New York Police Department as if it were his own private security service, he has mounted an attack on myriad common offenses so minor that they didn't even qualify for his first-term, "quality of life" campaigns.
Penalties have been increased for littering and noisy car alarms. He is making it more difficult to obtain a taxi license. In midtown Manhattan, Giuliani has had pedestrian barriers put up to prevent jaywalking, a mode of transit as essential to New York commuting as the subway. The Big Apple's finest are under orders from the mayor to ticket anybody who hops the barriers and crosses in the middle of the street. This past week, when angry taxi drivers pulled their cabs off the street for 24 hours, Giuliani responded by suggesting a possible "cab-free" day once a week.
"Every New Yorker," the mayor said on a recent radio show, "must give respect, and get respect."
True to form, though, Giuliani has announced each part of his civility plan in growling, self-righteous speeches, and rather uncivilly accused critics of the crackdown of being "short-sighted," "jerky," "and not really that intelligent."
The net effect of this is a mayor who seems like a raging schoolmaster, cursing at his students for cursing. (Speaking of education, Giuliani recently announced that he wants public schools to add civics classes and require all boys to wear blue blazers and ties.)
"Rudy's Civil War," the Daily News has dubbed the be-civil-or-else effort. The Times called the civility campaign "a quixotic attempt to promote suburban quiescence in the known universe's vortex of urban hubbub." (No need to consult Webster's. That's a put-down).
But Giuliani's staffers concede they care little about dismissive local reaction to his plan. The boss' real goal is to appeal to the rest of the country, an America that finds New York OK as a setting for its favorite sitcoms but wouldn't dare live there.
"The message is that he is taming the city that can't be tamed, New York, and in the year 2000, he is the man to bring order to Washington," says Fred Siegel, an author and professor at New York's Cooper Union college. "What he's been doing for the past six months is positioning himself to run for national office."
Ticketing voters for crossing the street isn't the most common way to win votes, but Giuliani can get away with it. He won a landslide re-election last year, the city's Democratic Party is locked in constant infighting, and New York's decline in violent -- crime has made him a national figure -- one with obvious ambitions.
This spring, he set up campaign committees to allow him to raise money for either a presidential or a Senate run, and made speeches in Buffalo, Michigan and Arizona. While coy about his plans ("I'm not testing any waters right now," he told Michigan Republicans), the trips have earned him the "Mayor Wins Control Over Wild Metropolis" coverage he seeks.
Says Siegel: "The mayor feels like Gulliver amidst the Lilliputians. He bestrides the New York landscape like a colossus."
Hyperbole, perhaps, but the words of this colossus, a former federal prosecutor, have themselves never been so grandiose.
Earlier this spring, after declaring a zero-tolerance day that resulted in hundreds of summonses to anyone who drove over 30 mph in the city, Giuliani began talking about turning New York into a "New Eden." At a crime forum in March, the mayor declared: "Freedom is about authority." In another speech, Giuliani delivered a somewhat condescending lecture on Greek philosophy to a group of elected officials.
"Does everybody remember Plato? Plato developed the notion of the ideal," he said. "You never reached it. But in striving to get there, you kept making improvements in society. The ideal republic, the ideal state of honesty, the ideal state of integrity, the ideal state of cleanliness or safety."
The mayor's higher profile has emboldened him. Citing the need to maintain "civil order," Giuliani last month banned two Democrats from announcing their campaigns on the steps of City Hall -- a political tradition for generations. A few days later, when Vice President Al Gore came to New York to present a "Re-inventing Government" award to police, Giuliani refused to let Gore present the award, then switched nameplates at a conference table, so he -- not the vice president -- would be sitting at the center.
Inevitably, such behavior has led to charges of hypocrisy. A TV crew staked out City Hall and caught a top Giuliani aide jaywalking. A Daily News columnist followed the mayor's car and clocked it going 50 mph in a 30 mph zone.
Polls show that while New Yorkers respect the job the mayor has done, they do not like him personally. So he has worked to soften his image. His aides have made much of his hobby of taking photographs, 23 of which have gone on display at a Greenwich Village gallery. Giuliani is also the author of a forthcoming children's book, "What Will You Be?"
"When I was a boy, I liked to dream big," the mayor writes. "But who would have thought being mayor would be my gig?"
In some corners of New York, the mayor's civility campaign does enjoy support. At Gray's Papaya, a fast-food place at the intersection of 72nd Street and Broadway, two huge signs hang in the windows. "WE ARE POLITE NEW YORKERS," they say. Underneath the bigger placards are smaller signs: "Bravo, Mr. Mayor!! We support your fight for a NICER NEW YORK. TOUJOURS LA POLITESSE!"
It figures that the restaurant's owner, Nicholas A.B. Gray, is British-born and is well-known in the neighborhood for insisting on European-style decorum.
Gray says he put up the signs "in part to encourage civility, and in part to be tongue-in-cheek." Most people just laugh at the storefront, he says, or gently pat Mr. Frank, a cardboard cut-out hot-dog mascot who is propped by the door. Mr. Frank now wears a button that says "Polite New Yorker."
"I've sent the mayor some pictures of the store a few weeks back, and I'm a little surprised we haven't heard anything from him yet," says Gray. "It would be nice of him to send a note."
Pub Date: 5/19/98