What happened to Rudy Giuliani? The question seems to come up often, and when it’s raised I sometimes think back to the man I met back in June 1983—lean and ambitious and with a mischievous smile. He was the new U.S. attorney in Manhattan, and I was the courthouse reporter for the Associated Press. I liked what I saw. He was bursting with energy and enthusiasm; he leaned forward as if he were a runner about to begin a race, ready to make news.
I was especially impressed by his insider-trading prosecutions. Before Giuliani, judges treated the offense as barely criminal, handing down minimal sentences. But Giuliani made the case that it was just another form of cheating and should be punished that way. Similarly, he labored mightily to change the city’s corrupt political culture. He became a sort of “Shell Answer Man” (for those who recall the TV commercial) on matters of ethics in government, sought out constantly for his opinion.
In time, I looked to report on his limitations: his inclination to exaggerate and hog credit for himself; his low regard for civil liberties; his vitriolic attacks on critics, even federal judges. I noticed how his self-serving, high-profile style squandered the credibility of the nation’s most prestigious prosecutorial office in the eyes of the no-nonsense judges of the Southern District of New York.
But never would anyone have predicted that he’d end up where he is now: suspended from the practice of law for ethics violations and the subject of many investigations. How could a man who seemed to have a strong sense of right and wrong become the chief enabler of the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump was cheated out of victory in the 2020 presidential election?
Political journalist Andrew Kirtzman has written an engaging and very well-reported book aimed at answering that question. He provides what I believe is the most thorough account to date of how Giuliani and Trump developed their relationship, including details that will be valuable to historians. Kirtzman reports in one of the book’s scoops that Giuliani’s close friend Maria Ryan sought a “general pardon” for him from Trump shortly after the January 6 attack. He provides the most complete picture yet of the downward spiral in Giuliani’s personal life, showing how it is entwined with his professional downfall. There is also a terrific account of Giuliani at his apex, his stirring leadership on September 11, 2001. On that day, Kirtzman had rushed down to the World Trade Center after jets struck the Twin Towers, then somehow found the mayor in the midst of the chaos and tagged along at his invitation.
As a political reporter for the politics-intensive cable-news station New York 1, Kirtzman chronicled Giuliani’s 1994–2001 mayoralty closely. He published a biography of Giuliani in 2000, Rudy Giuliani: Emperor of the City, that was quite stinging, but generously credited the mayor with being “a leader whose accomplishments rank among the most dramatic in urban history.”
So: What happened to Rudy Giuliani?
“His descent was the result of a series of moral compromises made over the years as the temptations of power and money grew. There were any number of opportunities to do the right thing when he did the opposite,” Kirtzman writes in the book’s introduction. “By the time he reached an advanced age all those compromises left him an empty vessel, filled with a desire for power and little more. Alcohol, and a toxic marriage, were exacerbating factors, though not the cause.”
The paradox of Giuliani, he writes, “was that he viewed all of his actions through the lens of morality, even when they were morally questionable.” In Giuliani’s worldview, leaders had a responsibility “to enforce a moral order…. The language of morality would govern his words, his politics, his personal life. His belief in the infallibility of his views rendered him impervious to criticism and self-doubt, which would prove to be his greatest asset and his eventual undoing.”
Commonweal readers may recognize Giuliani’s pre–Vatican II Catholic education in this; Giuliani studied under Christian Brothers at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn and at Manhattan College, and for a time considered the priesthood. Kirtzman doesn’t go deeply into the role religion plays in Giuliani’s life, dealing instead with his moral streak.