Finding an Authentic Voice

Posted: May 07, 2007 12:01 AM
Finding an Authentic Voice

When I visit New York I always sip my morning coffee before a window giving onto a view of the skyline that once included the Twin Towers. The ghostly presence of those two buildings no longer there continues to haunt the city. Everyone here knows someone who was touched by 9/11. No matter the politics, one public name still calls up the city's pride. Rudy Giuliani stood tall on that terrible day and the days that followed, and remains the commanding presence. It's the commanding presence that gives him his shot at the White House.

He's a big man with flaws, the old-fashioned pol who earned his bones the way cops and firemen do, men who do their best when it's tough to be the best, who do right when heroic duty calls. Sometimes they flunk the smaller tests of domesticity. John McCain returned from six years of hell in Vietnam with that kind of stature, a hero who spurned a chance to leave because he wouldn't abandon his fellow prisoners. He seemed to have gone a little stale for a while, but he's now regaining stature with forceful argument in support of the aims of an unpopular but necessary war -- supporting aims, not necessarily means.

Both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are men who respond from the gut with an authenticity in their voices that makes them sound bigger than their vulnerabilities. Both have behaved with less than sterling consistency in their private lives, but, sadly, we've been inured to the slovenly private lives of public men, and maybe these times require attention to survival at the expense of dignity and decorum. The crucial test for a president is the test of whether the nation's interests can be preserved and protected.

Authenticity of voice was once prized above all in presidential politics. But that was before either of the Bushes, and either of the Clintons, took center stage. We've had to trust the Bushes, No. 41 and No. 43, in spite of their voices. It's always been more important to watch their actions than to hear them explain why they did what they did -- a lack of "the vision thing," as No. 41 famously put it. The Clintons present a different kind of problem. He's glib and she's canned, and neither has had to deal with anything really, really big.

You can't walk the sidewalks of New York without thinking of what Rudy said and did when it counted. It's a cliche that he wasn't much of a mayor on Sept. 10, but became bigger than life a day later. That's neither fair nor accurate. He was ridiculed for attention to early quality of life issues, but he got rid of the squeegee men who intimidated every driver who was stopped at a red light and he eliminated the graffiti and the trash that had made Gotham a garbage can. He cut crime. He knew the importance of taking pride in the neighborhood and in the city, and restored joy in the life of New York. He was a natural street fighter, and he made life miserable for the thugs who had made life miserable for everybody else.

Hillary, on the other hand, parachuted into New York from Washington. She grew up in a comfortable suburb in the Midwest and spent her young adulthood as the governor's wife in Arkansas. Rudy grew up in Brooklyn, grounded in strong ethnic roots, and couldn't change the way he talks if he wanted to. Neither can Hillary, either, despite her laughable attempts to sound Southern when she campaigns in black churches. (She didn't listen carefully in Arkansas.)

There's an optimism in New York these days to match the promise of a new spring, a legacy of the way Rudy Giuliani changed the way New Yorkers think about their city. Visitors still stream to Ground Zero to watch in awe as monster machines work on a new Freedom Tower. Three huge pieces of sculpture by Frank Stella have been lifted to place on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and welded into swooping architectural shapes, juxtaposed against the New York skyline. One piece is called "memantra," prayer or incantation in Balinese. Stella celebrates man's ability to build rather than destroy. In the museum downstairs, an exhibit of Greek and Roman art demonstrates how classical beauty can emerge from civil order.

I returned to my window downtown at the end of the day to look again at the empty space where the Twin Towers once soared above the streets. A bird was sitting on a nest, protecting her two eggs, an investment in the future. Hope springs eternal.