Oprah and Rudy Giuliani
No matter how many times you've seen Ground Zero on TV, nothing prepares you to witness the devastation in real life. Standing on top of the Gateway Plaza building with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, I looked down on a picture of horror that will stay with me forever. Fires simmering in the crevices of the rubble of the World Trade Center. The shell of a nearby day-care center where teachers had swept up toddlers and rushed them to safety. Workers retrieving the bodies of those still buried in the vast graveyard. All at once, as I looked on and wept, something seemed to rise from the ruins and hit me in my gut; it was as if I could feel the spirits of all those entombed below.

Giuliani had, of course, spent countless hours at Ground Zero, often going twice a day. On the morning of September 11, after he received a call that a plane had struck the first tower of the World Trade Center, he rushed to the scene in his Suburban. Minutes later he was trapped in a nearby building, narrowly escaping as the other tower collapsed. In the days and weeks following the attack, his composure, his grace under pressure, and his efforts to offer hope and help to the thousands in mourning earned him the name "America's mayor."

Not that he has been without detractors. During his eight years in office (ending on December 31, 2001), Giuliani, 57, had to hang tight through the gale-force winds that often come with New York politics. From the beginning, he was criticized both for his policies and for what some saw as his cantankerous, tough-guy approach to leadership—a perception in contrast to the regular-guy, joker image he has among his close friends and associates. The mayor's private life—his estrangement from wife Donna Hanover, with whom he has two children, Andrew, 15, and Caroline, 12; his battle with prostate cancer; and his new relationship with Judith Nathan—became very public. But even his critics found one truth to be undeniable: On September 11 he rose immediately to the challenge of bringing solid leadership to the city. When Giuliani is on TV, one journalist wrote, you can see in his eyes that New Yorkers are his family.

Indeed they are. He was born in Brooklyn, the only child of Harold and Helen Giuliani. In high school he started an opera club and dreamed of becoming a doctor or a priest. But at Manhattan College his interests turned to law and politics, and in 1968 he graduated magna cum laude from New York University Law School. In 1981 he was named associate attorney general in Washington, D.C., and in 1983 became U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he gained a reputation for fighting organized crime and corruption. In 1989 he lost the mayoral election, but four years later he ran again and won.

I first met Rudy Giuliani on September 23 at A Prayer for America, the memorial service held at Yankee Stadium. Several weeks later he took me from Ground Zero to city hall and to the office from which he has handled everything from blackouts to West Nile virus. A sign on his desk read RUDOLPH W. GIULIANI, YANKEE-FAN-IN-CHIEF; his socks were embroidered with the American flag. During our time together, we talked about how September 11 changed him, why he doesn't fear death, and what it will take for our country to heal.

Start reading Oprah's interview with Rudy Giuliani

Note: This interview appeared in the January 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.