He strode to the stage with all his loose, geeky charisma intact, looking like a cross between a rock star and an accountant.
"Like most Americans, I love competition," said Rudy Giuliani on the night his campaign for president ran out of steam.
Not many men can pull off the look but, then, is there anyone else on the American stage quite like Rudy?
"But there must always be a larger purpose -- justice for an individual, hope for a city, a better future for our country," he said, summing up in neat rhetorical slices the different parts of his public career: prosecutor, mayor, presidential candidate.
"Elections are about a lot more than just candidates ... If you believe in a cause, it goes on and you continue to fight for it," he said.
Rudy's late-night concession speech after a disappointing, distant third-place finish was more of a eulogy for his campaign.
After a year of a front-running in the polls, backed (at first) by enthusiastic crowds and campaign cash, what exactly happened?
There were the scandals, of course, which may not have been news to New Yorkers, but still tasted bad to the rest of the country. We prefer our law-and-order types a little less on the postmodern side, please.
But I think Rudy made a more fundamental error for a leader: He believed his own press clippings.
He was America's Mayor, with a powerful lead in early national polls -- the only guy who could get the GOP to play deep in blue territory: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire.
The first big chink in his shining armor was the strategic decision to withdraw from a serious fight for votes in New Hampshire. He tried to play this as a bold new strategy for a bold new era. And we could understand his decision to skip Iowa. But why is it America's Mayor couldn't compete in the Granite State? Things went rapidly downhill from there. For a man who loves competition, he avoided just too many chances to compete. The aura of invincibility was gone. He became one of the pack.
But Rudy's most fundamental error was to believe he was the equivalent of an incumbent, and then to do the disastrous thing of positioning his campaign around his record.
Don't get me wrong -- it's a fabulous record. Rudy Giuliani will come home to a New York that is now the most glamorous city in America, and largely because of what Rudy Giuliani did as mayor. "He's the only politician who's ever done anything for me," a close friend and fellow survivor of the 1980s put it.
Those of us who lived through the grime, the garbage, the squeegee guys and the fear of the pre-Rudy era in New York have every reason to be profoundly grateful for Rudy's record -- but why should the good folks of New Hampshire, or Michigan or Florida be expected to care? What has he ever done for them? Rudy's whole campaign was based on the theme of "leadership," but because of his decision to run as a quasi-incumbent, he ended up oddly backward-sounding, returning repeatedly to his great triumphs such as welfare reform and crime.
The voters have moved on.
And so Rudy goes home, but with this consolation: He goes home to the glittering city on a hill he personally helped rebuild.
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