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Grand Illusion

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Rudy Giuliani is slipping, if not quite sliding away. In early polls he led Hillary Clinton and every Democrat and was pulling away from the Republican pack, having benefited much from John McCain's gracious decision to set himself on fire.

Back then the smart money--and it's a wonder they still call it that-- fretted that Hillary was 'unelectable'. Today she beats Rudy in every poll. Among Republicans he's again in a dead heat, this time with B-list TV celebrity Fred Thompson.

A poll's a sometime thing; as in college sports, it's rare in politics to debut at number one and stay there all season. But there's a darker cloud on Rudy's horizon than just some poll-- his record.

Our politics is such that we know more about Rudy's personal foibles than his performance in office: He's on his third marriage. He cut his second wife loose in a press conference. His children favor other candidates. Every other day it seems he blurts out something strange.

Rudy claimed he spent more time at Ground Zero than the rescue workers, prompting Salon's Alex Koppelman to tally up: 29 hours in 90 days, far less than the workers and, half the time he spent coming and going to Yankee games.

He told London reporters he was one of the "four or five most famous Americans in the world." It's a good thing he wasn't in Paris; he might have said he was Napoleon.

As mayor, Rudy was always popping off. When the mother of a Latino shot by police while lying on the ground called into his radio show, he talked over her, misstating key facts and blaming the victim's death on his upbringing.

Rudy hopes we'll accept his nutty truculence as the price you pay for a guy who can handle the terrorists. After 8 years of Bush's chronic distemper voters may go for the nice guy or gal, in which case he's toast. He needs an electorate fixated on terrorism so he can sell himself as sheriff.

The worst thing that could befall Rudy would be if every voter went out and bought a copy of Grand Illusion by veteran New York journalists Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins. The book is a meticulous deconstruction of Rudy's performance on his signature issue before, during and after 9/11.

Grand Illusion exposes Rudy's alleged core competency regarding terrorism as a fraud. It also mercilessly depicts the cronyism, poor judgment and cash and carry politics that were the hallmarks of his years as mayor. The book is no partisan screed, its authors being content to let the facts make their case. Some examples:

On 9/11, the heads of his police and fire departments were Bernie Kerik and Tom Von Essen. Kerik had been Rudy's driver; Von Essen a friendly union official. Between them they'd taken entry level management exams three times and failed each one.

The Office of Emergency Management was headed by another Rudy loyalist, Richard Sheirer. Sheirer spent most of his career as a fire alarm dispatcher. Along came Rudy. He was soon a senior manager in the fire department and ultimately top dog at OEM.

Rudy and his three musketeers spent 9/11 walking north from Ground Zero, searching for a command center. Over the objections of the city's public safety professionals, and prodded by Republican influence peddlers, they had put the city's emergency command center at the Twin Towers, a site deemed one of the likeliest targets of terrorist attack.

So on 9/11, Rudy and company had nowhere to go. Worse, they had no one to talk to. It had taken them two terms to select a new communication system to replace the city's 1960s vintage two-way radios. When they finally did, it was in a no bid contract with a politically wired supplier who sold them untested equipment.

The equipment never worked. On 9/11, all the firefighters had were radios the city had called "obsolete" and "totally inadequate" 11 years earlier. Rudy would later tell spellbound audiences that fireman in the towers ignored orders to evacuate. In fact they never received them.

Barrett and Collins found not one instance of Giuliani, Kerik, Von Essen or Sheirer issuing orders to anyone that day. But as Bush flew about the country, Rudy walked in plain sight and spoke defiantly. On those words and pictures his campaign rests.

Amazing as it may be, Barrett and Collins show that prior to 9/11 Rudy's interest in terrorism was virtually nil. It makes sense. How else do you end up facing catastrophe with no command structure, no command center and no communications system?

Rudy conflates terrorism with domestic crime, using his image on crime to burnish his image on terrorism. But the former is mostly smoke and mirrors. In New York City crime began to fall under Giuliani's predecessor David Dinkins. All over America crime fell throughout the nineties. The biggest drop came in the category regarded as least tractable: serious, violent, urban crime.

Demographics, economics and public policy all played a part. At a national level, Bill Clinton banned assault weapons, put 100,000 cops on the streets and used RICO laws to put away urban gang leaders. Rudy contributed, but his specialties were inflaming racial divisions after public emergencies and, of course, taking credit.

After 9/11 Rudy made a fortune billing corporations and government for "security consulting." His new company was little more than a turkey farm for Sheirer, Kerik and other hacks from his city hall days. Apart from some lobbying and PR strategy, what they sold was the chance to be identified with Rudy Giuliani, America's mayor, hero of 9/11.

Republicans desperately need new wedge issues to perpetuate their strategy of divide and conquer. Gay bashing is turning off younger voters. They've won as much of the abortion fight as they can afford to. Stem cells and creationism make them look like idiots.

In the nick of time they discover "Islamo-fascism" and just the candidate to sell it. It's a stark message: our safety lies not in vigilance or reason or rule of law or diplomacy or conservation but rather in an armed struggle so endless as to make the cold war seem like a matinée. Forget about corruption or lost liberties; they've made us an offer we can't refuse.

Hollow tough talk, ignorant ideologues, incompetence, cronyism, poorly equipped men and women putting their lives on the line-- sound like any president you know? Here's hoping Rudy falls early. It's too painful to imagine one grand illusion following another.