- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2001

For sheer exposure, a mayor of New York occupies a spot exceeded only by the presidency. Even in normal times, the man running America's first city seems perpetually on public display.

There was the lovable scamp of long ago, Jimmy Walker. And Fiorello LaGuardia, endearing himself to thousands of children when he read the Sunday comics aloud on radio during a newspaper shutdown. The youthful John Lindsay came close to being Richard Nixon's vice president before turning Democrat. Bachelor Ed Koch dated a Miss America.

A year or so ago, the present mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, was being hailed a hero. This pleasant ex-prosecutor had lifted a sometimes ugly metropolis from the edge of chaos to well, respectability. Crime was down, welfare in hand. New Yorkers were being civil again to one another, often to tourists as well.

It seemed then that Mr. Giuliani, a successful Republican in a sea of Democratic voters, could have had whatever office he asked for. But suddenly the glare of publicity showed another side of the guy. Having jilted the lady who was his wife and the mother of his children, Mr. Giuliani flaunted a mistress. And when a judge ruled he could not cosset both women in a mayoral mansion maintained on public funds, Mr. Giuliani further defied convention by moving into an apartment occupied by two homosexual friends.

Quite a stretch, all this, even for a city that never sleeps. Had he not been near the end of his term, the mayor might have been thought lucky to escape recall.

But Sept. 11 turned everything around. That's when New York City became the emotional centerpiece of a nation's anger against terrorism. His round-the-clock attention to duty, showcased on multiple TV channels, made Rudy Giuliani suddenly the man of the hour.

By happenstance and not a scriptwriter's imagination, a primary election for replacing the mayor fell on the very day of the flaming assault against New York's World Trade towers. Viewed at that moment alongside a transformed Rudy Giuliani, candidates on the ballot all looked weak as water.

But polling places were shut down shortly after the early morning tragedy. Held instead on the second Tuesday thereafter, New York's primary drew only a trickle of voters. People's minds were still elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a curious but wholly understandable idea took hold. Shouldn't a proven performer Mr. Rudy Giuliani be kept on the job? How unfortunate would it seem, amid the most grievous crisis in a great city's history, to lose the man with a demonstrated capacity for dealing with its aftermath?

Talk of continuing Mr. Giuliani's service spread quickly on television channels which, for a fortnight or longer, dispensed with their regular programming to concentrate on the national threat. Clearly, this mayor would be needed for a long time to come, pundits agreed. Overlooking the man's past indiscretions, the staid Wall Street Journal editorialized that Mr. Giuliani must remain at the helm.

It is no rap on the mayor to note he said nothing to discourage such talk. Mr. Giuliani never has been one to hide his light.

Only trouble was and is something called term limits. On the crest of a strange anti-government sentiment nurtured in the Reagan years and on into the 1990s, countless states and local jurisdictions enacted laws limiting the duration of service for public officials the good ones along with the klunks.

Even New Yorkers, who think themselves sophisticates, were not immune to the populist surge of term limits. Twice the Big Apple electorate first in 1993, again in 1996 passed initiatives limiting their mayor and other officers to only two terms.

When proposed, let the record show, these measures enjoyed warm support of that same Wall Street Journal and (gulp) Mr. Giuliani himself.

Most of the world grieves over the death and destruction visited upon New York by terrorists. Yet for the loss of an official who has proved himself ideal for this moment and for a recovery effort that lies ahead, the people have only themselves to blame. No use lamenting that the law cuts short his services. These same folk twice approved the restriction they now deplore a self-imposed gag against the democratic right to elect whom they please, when they please.

If offered another chance on term limits, would New York vote the same way now?

Something the rest of us term-limiting populists might think about, too.


Lionel Van Deerlin, a former member of Congress, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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