Oprah and Rudy Giuliani
The now legendary mayor talks about his call to courage, getting emotional, boyhood words-to-live-by from his father, and his own inspirational calm after the storm.
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.

Oprah: I was in no way prepared for what I just saw at Ground Zero—and I can't imagine that you've been there every day.

Rudy: Sometimes when I go, the construction workers say, "Look how much debris we've cleared away." But in all its different forms, it has been horrid. When I look at the exposed walls and the vastness of it all and I remember what was there before, I still can't believe that this happened in the modern world, in America—in New York City.

Oprah: And then you see the workers pulling the firefighters' bodies out. Haven't you been to most of the firefighters' funerals?

Rudy: I've been to more funerals than I can count. I realize that if I go, it helps most of the families. So I've tried to stretch myself to go to as many as I can—the fire commissioner and I try to split them. We both feel horrible that we can't go to all of them and let the families know how important their father, husband, child was to the city. No matter how many times you say the total number of lives lost, for each family it's an individual dramatic, horrible loss. There are the four children who lost their father, the wife who no longer has her husband, and the parents who have to live with the nightmare of their child being dead.

Oprah: Many are lauding your compassion, composure, and courage during this crisis. Does your interior self reflect what we see on the exterior?

Rudy: Most of the time, yes—but sometimes it doesn't. There are moments when you just want to break down and cry, but you say, I can't do it right now, I've got to do it later. I remember at times feeling so exhausted that I didn't know if I could walk into another funeral home. But most of the families are so remarkably strong and wonderful that they lift me up.

Oprah: When was the first time you did break down and cry?

Rudy: The first night I went home. I also maybe cried a little during the day, after I found out that Father [Mychal] Judge [New York City Fire Department chaplain] and Pete Ganci [FDNY chief], who I'd just seen, were lost. Then I found out that [political commentator] Barbara Olson, the wife of my very good friend Ted [the U.S. solicitor general], had been on one of the planes. I've known Ted for 19 years—and he and Barbara had been sitting right here in my office a couple of weeks before the attacks. They were an enormously happy couple. When I called Ted on the phone, I just cried. Then when I went home and turned on the TV, I saw shots of the buildings coming down. I just sat there and cried. I said to myself, "Thank God no one is around." You feel like you can't do that—cry—because you're supposed to be in charge. But I remember telling myself at one point that I would give myself room to cry, because crying is a sign of strength. I wasn't sure that was right, but that's what I told myself. It was such a terrible day, but I had to stay focused on how to get through it: "Does the city have air cover? Are we being protected by the air force? Where will the other attacks be?"

Oprah: So you expected more attacks?

Rudy: Absolutely. I had no reason to assume there would only be two planes. Why not three or four or five?

Oprah: That's true. I know you say you've cried—but have you really grieved?

Rudy: No, I haven't had the time yet. But being needed by people has helped me. And I know that no matter how much I've lost, these families have lost more. I think about my fire commissioner, who lost three quarters of his best friends.

Oprah: Can you take in all that loss, or are there different levels of letting it in?

Rudy: You can't. You just have to let whatever feelings you have come out and do the best you can to process it all. Every once in a while I remind myself and the people around me that we're in completely uncharted territory.

Oprah: You can't fake having great character during times like this.

Rudy: No one can spin his or her way through this—you will spin into insanity. You have to react to it, feel it, and be honest.

Oprah: Are you the leader you imagined yourself to be in this crisis?

Rudy: No, because I never imagined having to deal with this. But I've found myself relying on lessons my parents taught me years ago. My father used to say to me, "If you're in a crisis and everyone is getting very emotional, you've got to become calmer. That's the only way to get yourself through it." [On September 11] I remember saying to myself, I have to be very, very calm—because sometimes I can be very excitable. I am Italian, after all! You should see me at a baseball game—I go nuts when the umpire makes a bad call.

Oprah: What is your first thought when crisis hits?

Rudy: To communicate—to get on television and radio and talk to people. To give them practical ways to get through this. In fact, [when I got caught in the nearby building] I'd been trying to tell people to come down the stairways and to tell them how to evacuate.

Oprah: From day one, we heard you say we should get back to normal, but a few weeks later the FBI sent out a warning of an imminent terrorist attack. What's the balance between encouraging people to move on with their lives and telling them the whole truth about their safety?

Rudy: Here's how I look at it: You face a risk by being alive in general. Maybe this comes from having been at Ground Zero. If the building fell one way, you could be dead, and if it fell another way, you're alive. We don't have real control over death. You could die of a heart attack, a building could fall on you, you could be in an accident, you could have a fatal disease. So how should you conduct your life? You just go ahead and live, taking reasonable precautions—like handling the mail more carefully.

Oprah: Were you ever afraid during the attack?

Rudy: I wasn't, but when I look back on it, I realize I should have been. That day, a reporter asked me, "Is it true that you narrowly escaped death?" I said, "No, that's exaggerating." When I got home that night and I saw how the building came down, I said, "Yeah, I did."

Oprah: Since the attack, have you felt anxiety that the other shoe is about to drop?

Rudy: I don't have that fear any more than I had it the day before this happened. The risks in life are pretty much what they have always been.

Oprah: Do you feel that way because you've already gone through the experience of having cancer?

Rudy: Maybe. I don't know that I would have dealt with this as well if I hadn't had to confront my own mortality. If you have a disease you can cure, thank God. And if you don't, there's nothing you can do about it. You have to conduct your life, take reasonable precautions, and not shut yourself down.

Oprah: Did facing your mortality change the way you live?

Rudy: I think it did. It has given me less fear.

Oprah: A lot of people are really facing their fear of death for the first time.

Rudy: I've had to deal with my father's death and the deaths of others close to me. But I can see why this time is particularly hard for young people who haven't lost anyone. When I was 16, 17, 18, I was absolutely convinced I was immortal. Now all of a sudden lots of these kids are faced with the reality that they're not in control of life.

Oprah: And that they won't live forever.

Rudy: I'm an eternal optimist, so I think going through this is going to make them tougher. They'll be able to face the rest of their lives better—but it's going to take a while to get there, and it won't be true for everyone.

Oprah: How do we get to the point of finding real healing?

Rudy: There's no way to force it. It's not like there's one process by which people feel they've moved beyond this—it might happen faster for some than for others.

Oprah: Overnight, you seemed to become instantly popular as a politician. Did September 11 completely change the trajectory of your life?

Rudy: It did—but I'm not exactly sure how yet.

Oprah: You can't even go into a restaurant without people applauding.

Rudy: That's no different from having them stand and boo! No, really—people do respond to me much more positively now, and I am more open with them. I just hug everybody.

Oprah: How did you handle the times when people were unkind to you?

Rudy: First of all, I don't read a lot of it. I block it out. You have to keep a strong sense of who you really are—and I have a pretty strong sense of myself. It gets me in trouble when I say this, but I don't think of myself as a politician. I've always tried to be honest when communicating with people.

Oprah: Isn't it more fun to be popular?

Rudy: My father taught me an important lesson—though I have to disagree with him just a little bit now. He'd tell me, "It doesn't matter if you love me, but I want you to respect me. And if you respect me, then ultimately, you'll love me." As mayor, I used to always feel the important thing is that people respect me, not love me—but it is really much nicer when they love you, too. I'm going to try to keep it that way.

Oprah: Maybe you don't know what your sudden popularity means because you've always been the same person—it's people's perception that has changed.

Rudy: I think so. After I found out I had cancer, people used to ask me, "Did this change you as a person?" My answer was "Yes and no." You're still the same person, but you gain all sorts of new insights.

Oprah: Are you a better person now than you were on September 10?

Rudy: I hope so. I understand the value of life a lot better.

Oprah: What has your relationship with your former wife, Donna, been like since the tragedy?

Rudy: That hasn't changed very much.

Oprah: And have your two children come through the separation okay?

Rudy: My kids are remarkable. We have a very good relationship—and Donna has a good relationship with them, too.

Oprah: What do you say to your children about the attack?

Rudy: I just had a long conversation with my daughter about it today. I talk to my children the same way I talk to adults. Maybe if they were small children, I'd talk differently.

Oprah: That's right—kids are just people with not as much life experience.

Rudy: I talk to them about who bin Laden is, and we also talk about the people we know who died.

Oprah: Have you managed to maintain a solid relationship with your children in spite of the split?

Rudy: Oh, yes. I've missed only one of Andrew's football games, and that was on the first weekend after September 11.

Oprah: I don't know, Mayor—you might be Superman! You're trying to make it to all the funerals while still carrying on with daily business.

Rudy: No, I'm just very lucky. And my son plays early in the morning.

Oprah: What has it meant for you to have Judith in your life during this time?

Rudy: It has been enormously important. She's been with me through two life-threatening experiences—prostate cancer and this. In some ways, cancer was more difficult to deal with because it was more personal. I didn't have a lot of people to share it with.

Oprah: Was your willingness to make your cancer diagnosis public part of telling the truth for yourself?

Rudy: Yes.

Oprah: And you didn't care what anybody thought.

Rudy: No. The only time I care what people think is when I believe I've been wrong. When I can say I've been too harsh or brushed something off, I will say I'm sorry.

Oprah: Do you wish there were things in your private life that weren't so public—like the separation and divorce?

Rudy: I wish all of that was private, and I wish I could have dealt with cancer privately. So I talk about it only when I absolutely have to. The only time the private parts of someone's life are relevant is when they're affecting public performance. And just because someone is a public person doesn't mean that any part of his or her private life is open to scrutiny. If someone is doing his or her job, you have to have enough empathy to understand that we all have personal problems.

Oprah: Now that you could probably do anything you want, where do you go from here—what's next for you?

Rudy: I hadn't wanted to start thinking about what's next too early, because I still have to be the mayor, and you can become a lame duck. I didn't want lots of speculation about what I was going to do. So I had decided that September and October would be a good time to organize what I was going to do next and then decide in November and December.

Oprah: Do you have any specific aspirations?

Rudy: Oh, yes, I have some ideas. I'm writing a book or two and there are a whole bunch of things I'm thinking about. I just haven't had the time to really sit down and figure it all out.

Oprah: Where do you think you can best serve?

Rudy: I don't know.

Oprah: Would you have wanted to have stayed on as mayor?

Rudy: I thought a longer transition was necessary. I understand how complex this job is. This is an enormously complicated city—we're the fourth-largest government in the country, after the United States, California, and the state of New York. We're a $40 billion operation.

Oprah: Would you say that as mayor, this time of crisis has been your finest hour?

Rudy: I can't evaluate that—someone else has to. But it wasn't my worst. I'm still getting through it, and I think I did my job.

Oprah: I think so, too. Thank you for the experience today and for your time.

Rudy: Thank you, Oprah.


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