Rudy Giuliani and his upbringing

I think that what most disturbs me about Rudolph Giuliani’s  now-controversial remark that he doesn’t believe President Obama “loves America” is his comment on how his upbringing differs from Obama’s.

Giuliani had this to say at a fundraiser Wednesday for Wisconsin Gov. Scottt Walker:

“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

What makes me cringe is that I suspect Giuliani is referring in some measure to his Catholic upbringing. From the time I met him in 1983 as a young AP reporter covering him on the Manhattan federal court beat, I’ve observed how that upbringing was a part of him. 

 

It is something he often has spoken of, and it shaped his approach as New York City mayor in dealing with police, schools, museums that exhibit paintings of the Virgin Mary speckled with elephant dung, and many other areas (except for abortion, on which he reversed field). “The first time I attended a class in which a prayer wasn’t said at the beginning of class was my first day at NYU Law School,” Giuliani said while campaigning for president in 2007.

When Giuliani was a prosecutor, the columnist Murray Kempton likened him to Savonarola, and indeed Giuliani was the scourge of evil in organized crime, on Wall Street and in government. I admired this pursuit of evildoers for a short while, until I began to see the consequences his hardball tactics held for the public at large.

Giuliani’s Catholic upbringing came to the fore in his finest moment, as he responded to the 9/11 attack, and he saw Catholic education as playing an important role in the city’s response. In a speech at Manhattan College marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 he praised the police officers and firefighters who responded, not only for bravery but  “also incredible love, a tremendous demonstration of love that you would stand your ground knowing that you could die because you could save other people. And many of them, not all of them, were taught that love in Catholic education.”

But there is a downside to the 1950s New York Catholic culture in which Giuliani was brought up: suspicion of minorities; triumphalism; support for McCarthyism, with its campaign to demonize opponents as un-American.  (As the controversy wore on, he has resorted to red-baiting the president.)

To be clear, I don’t blame Giuliani’s penchant for the casual smear on hiw religious training, however influential it may have been in his life. It is more a matter of excessive ambition and, in this case, perhaps a fix for a need for media attention. It’s disappointing to see that a man who once held so much promise has become this erratic.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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