9/11. 15 Years Later

This is part three of a five-part series reflecting on the 15th anniversary of 9/11

Being labeled the “Mayor of the World” doesn’t just happen. That type of honor is earned, and the earning does not come easily. When a crisis ensues and leadership is needed, it is not the ill-prepared or the weak of heart that is called upon—it is the one who will boldly and thoughtfully enact the principles that have guided them for years as they take on the burden of leadership. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Rudy Guiliani was about to witness the election of his replacement. Having served the maximum two terms as Mayor of New York, he was preparing to transition from public service to private consulting. Little did he know that his normally busy and structured day was about to be shattered by the largest and most deadly terror attack in modern times.

When Rudy Guiliani became mayor, New York City was considered one of the most dangerous places to visit, one of the highest taxed places to live and work, and a modern-day welfare haven. Through a series of bold and brilliant actions, Mayor Guiliani had worked to transform the city into a beautiful, safe, and productive melting pot. One of the actions most attributed to the mayor was the introduction of James Wilson and George Kelling’s Broken Window Theory into community policing. While aggressive panhandlers weren’t credited with committing the greatest of crimes, their actions were an immediate and threatening affront to tourists in this tourism-driven city. Unable to find a way to stop these nuisances, Guiliani leaned upon his experience as a federal prosecutor to direct the NYPD to begin ticketing the panhandlers for (of all things) jaywalking. Once ticketed, a criminal history check could be run on the violators, and it was discovered than many had outstanding warrants for violent crimes. Almost immediately, this blight on the city was eliminated. By the end of his term, New York City had a crime reduction of nearly 5000 felonies per week.

On the morning of 9/11, the threat wasn’t a panhandler with a squeegee, but terrorists with planes. A phone call to a member of his security detail sent the Mayor racing towards the World Trade Center. Once there, the scene was far more devastating than had been expected. As he watched individuals hold hands and jump out of windows on the upper floors, Guiliani knew that he was being called to lead in a situation that he had never experienced before. After commandeering an office just north of the Towers, the Mayor and other city leadership found themselves trapped by the fallen debris of the Tower 2. They eventually made their way back onto the street and began walking north to escape the impending collapse of the Tower 1. While walking, Mayor Guiliani held a press conference with local media to comfort his constituents and direct them to safety. Once safely out of the debris field, Guiliani was forced to lead and organize this massive city while continually being notified of the deaths of close friends in both the NYPD and FDNY. Sometime around midnight, the Mayor made the last of his five trips that day to Ground Zero to view the devastation, and then he traveled to a friend’s apartment to try to rest briefly. In his book, Leadership, Guiliani shares that he collapsed onto his bed and read excerpts from Roy Jenkin’s biography of Winston Churchill for inspiration. Then he states, “I fell asleep at around 4:30. I woke less than an hour later and waited for the sun to come up; I wasn’t sure it would. When first I saw it rise I was relieved. Now it was our turn to fight back.”

With that determination, Mayor Rudy Guiliani spent the next several weeks deploying his highly-organized leadership team to address the challenges of this new reality while carrying out the business of the people. One particular challenge brought high praise to the outgoing Mayor. As part of the effort to garner international support for the impending military response, Guiliani hosted a number of foreign leaders as they toured the devastation of Ground Zero. He notes that many of them were moved to tears or visibly struck by the horror of the attack, but one Saudi prince displayed a different response. When Prince Alwaleed presented a $10Million check to the Twin Tower’s Fund and toured the site, Guiliani states that he thought he caught a glimpse of a smirk on the face of both the prince and members of his entourage. Dismissing it as possibly a cultural difference, the Mayor was disturbed to learn that the Prince had later released a statement saying, “…the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.” Infuriated that the Prince would imply that the murder of thousands of civilians was in some way caused by our foreign policy, the Mayor quickly returned the $10 Million check to the prince and issued a statement explaining why—much to the approval of families of those killed in the attacks.

In spite of his bold stance and policies, Mayor Guiliani is perhaps best loved for his non-governmental actions in the days following 9/11. Invoking the adage learned from his father, “Weddings discretionary; Funerals mandatory,” Mayor Guiliani had never missed the funeral of a city worker killed in the line of duty—be it a garbage man or a first responder. However, faced with the possibility of hundreds of funerals over the next few weeks (ranging from 6-20 a day), Guiliani still attended many, and insisted that those in leadership spread out to attend the others. His compassion was also noted when he stepped away from his duties on September 16, 2001 to attend the wedding of Gail Corumba. Her brother Michael (a firefighter) had died fighting a fire just 2 weeks earlier, and her grandfather and father had died within the prior year—leaving her with no one to walk her down the aisle. Determined to carry on with her wedding in spite of the tragedy just days earlier, Gail Corumba didn’t have to walk that aisle alone. Mayor Guiliani donned a tux in the basement of that church and then stepped forward to escort her to the altar. In his book, Mayor Guiliani stated, “Yes, there had been a tremendous amount of sadness in her life over the past year. But that’s what life is, she told me—there are moments of great joy and moments of great sorrow, and you mustn’t let the sorrow wash away the joy. In a way, the wedding was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate what I’d been telling the city all week. Life must go on. At that wedding, the message got through—several fire trucks and hundreds of people from the community lined the streets.”

While he is the first to admit his imperfections, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani became America’s Mayor by masterfully combining his organizational and authoritative skills with a warmth and compassion that made it possible for the people of New York City—indeed the people of the United States—to press on and experience joy in the wake of terrible tragedy. For that service, Mr. Mayor, America is grateful.

Never Forget.

(Leadership by Rudolph Guiliani is available through Talk Miramax Publishers)

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