Timothy M. Gay
Two weeks before the gruesome 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, a New York City fireman named Michael Gorumba perished while fighting a three-alarm blaze on Staten Island. What made Gorumba’s sacrifice doubly heartbreaking was that he was scheduled to walk his younger sister down the aisle at her September 16 wedding in Brooklyn. Their father had passed away a year earlier.
When New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani heard about the family’s tragedy, he vowed to take Michael’s place – and he made good on his promise, despite the catastrophic events surrounding 9/11. Throughout the ordeal, Giuliani’s grace under pressure was nothing short of inspirational.
Americans who had been grieving nonstop since the twin towers collapsed wept all over again on Diane Gorumba’s wedding day. The calamity of 9/11 transformed Rudy Giuliani into America’s Mayor, an almost-Churchillian figure who seemed to embody the keep-calm-and-carry-on grit that the country needed in the wake of the terror attacks. He commanded near-universal respect and affection.
TIME Magazine, with a cover showing Giuliani pictured against New York’s now-diminished skyline, named him its Person of the Year, lauding him as a “Tower of Strength.”
Less than two decades later, the Tower of Strength has become a hovel of sleaze.
The only near-universal thing that Giuliani commands these days is contempt, unless you count the soiled cash he rakes in from “representing” petrostate oligarchs and their shadowy henchmen. His global machinations as Donald Trump’s enabler and sycophant are now being investigated by the very U.S. Attorney’s office he once headed.
Giuliani’s television appearances, like his boss’s, have become so erratic and incoherent that we’ve all turned into armchair psychiatrists, debating the personality disorders from which the pair might suffer. Schizoid? Probably. Narcissism? To be sure. But is it “pathological” or “malignant”?
Rudy the Healer has become Rudy the Hater, Rudy the Slime Dog, Rudy the Basket Case.
Has American political history ever seen such a lethal and precipitous fall from grace?
The short answer is “probably not.” But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been spectacular flameouts – triggered, perhaps, by mental instability – from once-respected figures who ended up humiliating themselves and the country.
Our Hall of Shame begins with Aaron Burr. A Revolutionary War hero while barely out of his teens, an early U.S. Senator from New York State, and Thomas Jefferson’s first-term vice president, Burr not only killed his political and business rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel but – in a fit of toxic megalomania (sound familiar?) – raised a band of mercenaries, slithered west to the Louisiana Territories, and schemed with Mexico to forge his own little republic. He was tried for treason but never convicted.
Millard Fillmore, who became president when Zachary Taylor died in 1850, had served as a New York State assemblyman and a member of the U.S. House before accepting a spot on the Whigs’ national ticket in 1848. President Fillmore’s heavy-handed enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act exacerbated north-south tensions in the early 1850s and contributed to the dissolution of the Whig Party.
In 1856, Fillmore ran for president as the standardbearer of the Know-Nothings, a political movement whose anti-immigrant bigotry presaged Trump’s “Make America Great Again” ruse. They got their curious moniker from instructions wrought by their leaders. If asked about their ties to nativist groups, party members were told to volunteer that they “knew nothing.” For Fillmore and many of his compatriots, such a claim wasn’t a stretch.
Perhaps the saddest descent into paranoia and messianic delusion was Theodore Roosevelt’s. A trust-busting progressive as president, Roosevelt grew increasingly embittered in his years out of office, convincing himself that he – and he alone – could save the nation from plutocrats on the one hand and radicals on the other. When President William Howard Taft, his Republican successor, proved too cozy to big business for TR’s tastes, he turned on him in 1912, creating his own third party, the Bull Moosers, which effectively handed the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
As the 1910s wore on, TR’s behavior became weirdly belligerent; feeling superfluous and fighting off depression, he began attacking figures on both sides of the political spectrum. After war broke out in Europe, he turned jingoistic, demanding that the U.S. enter the fight. When Congress finally declared war in 1917, TR was desperate to reprise his days dodging bullets as a vainglorious Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War. President Wilson, recognizing that the trenches along the Western Front weren’t exactly Cuba’s San Juan Hill, was justified in refusing TR’s plea to lead an all-volunteer unit into senseless combat. Roosevelt’s public rage turned to grief when his youngest son Quentin, an Army Air Service pilot, was killed in a dogfight over France. Dying a battlefield death was supposed to be TR’s fate – not his son’s. Devastated, TR succumbed a year and a half later to natural causes, having never quite recovered the adulation of the American people.
Vainglory, bigotry, narcissism, paranoia: they’re all now signature Rudy Giuliani trademarks – and sadly, trademarks of a Trump White House desperate to distance itself from him. The Gorumba family of Brooklyn deserves better. So does the rest of America.
About the Author: Timothy M. Gay, the author of four books and a senior consultant at LEVICK, is a Pulitzer-nominated writer and historian.