“A new expression has entered the Westminster lexicon: dog-whistle politics. It means putting out a message that, like a high-pitched dog-whistle, is only fully audible to those at whom it is directly aimed. The intention is to make potential supporters sit up and take notice while avoiding offending those to whom the message will not appeal.” – “The Economist,” March 2005
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, I brought a delegation of mayors to meet with the city’s then-mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. The delegation’s goal was to help restore confidence in the still-traumatized city and help rebuild what had been so inhumanly destroyed. At the time, I was mayor of New Orleans and President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and Giuliani – widely acknowledged and praised for his leadership after the attacks – catapulted onto the national stage to become “America’s Mayor.”
How times have changed.
During a private New York fundraising dinner for Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker last week, Giuliani popped onto the national stage yet again – not for the qualities he displayed as “America’s Mayor,” but for the unfounded accusation that President Obama does not love America.
“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani said in response to a question about the president’s foreign policy and counter-terrorism strategies. He added, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”
Speaking in front of a 2016 Republican presidential contender and a mixed crowd of conservatives and business executives, Giuliani – who failed to win the 2008 GOP presidential nomination – attacked the patriotism of our nation’s president, a man whose grandfather served in World War II, whose grand-uncle helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald and who was the chief executive behind the operation to kill 9/11’s mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. Questioning the president's patriotism isn't just inappropriate; it demonstrates a complete lack of respect. It begs the question that as Giuliani continues to seek a prominent role on the national political stage, will he choose to rehearse only in the Theater of the Absurd?
Giuliani’s response was neither an honest critique of the president’s foreign policy, nor was it a considered analysis of our nation’s ongoing discussion on how to combat terrorism.
It was, however, a veiled attack on the character of our president. It was a better-left-buried relic from 2008 when candidates – including Giuliani – purposely appealed to a particular strain of the GOP base who viewed Obama, the Harvard-educated Black man raised by his white family in Hawaii, as “the other” and “not like us.” It was a rehearsal of the kind of divisive rhetoric that has no place in the 2016 race for the White House.
I am the first to assert that honest critiques of any president, administration and its policies are critical in a functioning democracy. But in this case, there is nothing constructive or relevant in maligning a man because of the way he was raised. Further, Giuliani has yet to explain how the president’s upbringing jeopardizes the national security of our nation. How can personal attacks ever have a constructive place in our conversations about degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL or creating jobs or energy independence?
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “It is sad to see when somebody who has attained a certain level of public stature and even admiration tarnishes that legacy so thoroughly.”
Without hesitation, I can say that the Giuliani I met with that mayors’ delegation in the smoldering aftermath of the terror attacks – a bridge-builder, a reconciler and a healer – was not the Giuliani I heard last week. It is quite unfortunate that his reappearance on the national stage recasts and squanders that legacy for a new one that limits him to catering to groups animated by the rhetoric of division at best, and veiled hatemongering at worst.
If I agreed with anything in Giuliani’s statement, it is that, yes, it was a horrible thing to say on many levels. I would add, in a word of advice to the former mayor of New York, that whenever you feel compelled to preface a comment with “I know this is a horrible thing to say,” it is likely a comment better left unsaid.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.