Eugene Volokh is puzzled by pundit bristling at Rudy Giuliani’s “milking [his] 9/11 reputation for crass political gain.” And I guess I agree: If you were perceived as a strong leader during a time of national crisis, certainly there’s no reason not to advance this as a reason you’re qualified for higher office.
But it does get me wondering: What, exactly, about Rudy’s performance is supposed to make us think he’s especially deserving of higher office? I’m not so much interested here in the broader question of whether he’d make a good president, but why this, in particular, seems to be given such incredible weight. Certainly, there are those who’ve been strongly critical of what you might think would be the most salient aspect of that “performance,” that is, the extent to which the Giuliani administration had prepared the city to deal with a terrorist attract and the competence with which the response was actually orchestrated. But I don’t really even need to wade into the merits of those claims, because this actually doesn’t seem to be what people are talking about at all when they refer to his “performance.” Rather, they seem to half mean it in the theatrical sense of the word: the image of a strong, calm leader he projected to the city and the nation.
Now, I was in Manhattan on 9/11, and I vaguely recall some of this, remember thinking he did a good job. I’m sure it would’ve been worse if he’d gone on TV and begun hollering: “We’re all going to DIE! Flee, flee NOW!” But at the end of the day, on the long list of things vying for my brainspace that week, Rudy’s personal gravitas ranked low. Maybe this kind of thing seems more important after six and a half years of a president who seems improbably unacquainted with his ostensible native tongue, and whose face seems perpetually frozen in the expression of a sniggering teenager waiting for you to realize he’s Saran-Wrapped your toilet bowl. But Bush is, as in so many other things, aberrant here. Within the normal range of competence—which is where all the major contenders appear to be—marginal differences in ability to do a passable Robert Young impression just don’t seem especially important—nowhere near important enough, at any rate, to hang an entire campaign on.
It’s perfectly understandable, of course: We know that the vast majority of an executive’s job—the most important part—happens offscreen, but that (naturally) makes it hard to evaluate well. What we all see is not so much the actual leadership, but the president playing leader on teevee in the wake of major tragedies, so we use that at as a proxy.
Or, at any rate, so I hope. The more terrifying possibility is that this kind of therapeutic speechifying is, in itself, a core component of what we want from a president—that grown American men and women need their elected political leaders to make them feel OK about sad or scary events. That would signal a truly depressing level of national infantilization.
Update: Commenter “Reality Man” observes:
The whole reason Giuliani was on TV so much was that his terrorism war room was in the WTC even though people had been telling him for years to put it underground in Brooklyn. If he had been smart and done that, he wouldn’t have been on TV so much and wouldn’t have been annointed hero of 9/11.