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A View North: The mayor offers a new version of his excremental vision

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Now I know why Rudolph Giuliani, when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, wanted to hold on to Joe Doherty, the IRA fugitive, for so long.

A psychological clue to Giuliani’s indefatigable urge to block Doherty’s release at every turn only emerged recently, thanks to the current controversy over the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibition "Sensation." Since September, the mayor has been battling the museum. He has denounced the exhibit because he believes it contains material he has called "perverted" and "anti-Catholic." One of the pieces portrays the Virgin Mother decorated with lumps of elephant dung.

This might seem like a long way from Joe Doherty, but it is not. After all, a politician’s personality can have a profound influence on his politics. Giuliani has been described as tenacious. His behavior toward Doherty was an early example of just how extremely tenacious he could be. Year after year he would not let go of Doherty, making sure he was barred from obtaining bail, filing and refiling the British government’s extradition request and threatening to go on doing so forever.

He has been equally tenacious in relation to the museum. Some might say obsessive. Witness a daily press conference he gave recently as reported in The New York Times.

He called the Virgin Mary painting a "sick demonstration" which was supported by the city’s "alleged intellectual elite," who regard those opposed to the exhibition as "barbarians." According to the report, the mayor then "broke into an impromptu philosophical discussion on the merits of civilization and sanitation." During this discussion, Giuliani said: "Civilization has been about trying to find the right place to put excrement, not on the walls of museums. The advance that we had in our civilization was that we figured out how to deal with human excrement without putting it on walls. So I wonder who are the barbarians, and who aren’t?" (In fact, as the Times points out, there is no excrement on the walls of the exhibition.)

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The mayor argued that to block public funds for people who want to put excrement on walls "is actually quite a civilized position, and an intelligent one," according to the Times report.

This is not the place to pursue the mayor’s rather bizarre theory of civilization and sanitation, which if one took it seriously would mean that between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of modern industrial society, civilization did not exist (effectively disregarding some 1,500 years of art and culture) since the requisite sewage systems were not in place to carry off waste. I will leave that to the historians. It is the link between the mayor’s behavior in relation to the exhibition and his handling of the Doherty case that I wish to make.

In 1993, when Giuliani was a mayoral candidate, he was interviewed by this newspaper. In the interview he tried to distance himself from the Doherty case. He claimed that he was "just doing his job" as U.S. attorney. He told the Echo that "the long delay in the case was very difficult and in many ways unfair."

To those who had followed the case over the years his claims were extraordinary. Mary Pike, one of Doherty’s lawyers, was with the case right up to the Supreme Court, which it reached in 1991, leading to her client’s deportation in February 1992. According to her, Giuliani "pursued Doherty to lengths so extreme as to be utterly unprecedented."

In December 1984, Doherty won his extradition battle in court, which ruled that he could not be extradited, because, in Judge John Sprizzo’s words, "the facts of this case present the assertion of the political offense exception in its most classic form." Giuliani, says Pike, "took affirmative steps to ensure that the case would be delayed." She characterized these actions as being without legal foundation. The courts agreed with her and rebuked the U.S. attorney. But even then Giuliani did not desist. He warned that if the court did not overturn the judge’s decision barring extradition he would be compelled "to continue refiling the request until a favorable decision is obtained, however long that might take."

U.S. District Judge Charles Haight replied: "If this statement was intended to intimidate this Court, it does not." He added that Giuliani’s actions "did not comport with the dignity of the United State Attorney’s office."

Giuliani’s zealousness, however, remained undiminished. The actions he undertook, Pike believes, were carried out at the behest of President Reagan, who was aiming to please his "mentor," Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, it is known, took a personal interest in the Doherty case and had asked to be briefed regularly on the course of the hearings.

Meanwhile, Reagan was trying to persuade the Senate to pass a revised version of the extradition treaty which would dilute the political offense exception clause. (He succeeded in July 1986.)

The U.S. Court of Appeals called Giuliani’s actions "startling" and without precedent.

How much the mayor is motivated by political ambitions and how much by psychological obsessions is a difficult matter to decide, human beings being what they are. In 1993, when he tried to pose as a mere servant of the state who was simply doing his job as U.S. attorney, it was a blatantly cynical attempt to win the Irish-American Catholic vote. Many see the attack on the Brooklyn Museum in a similar light as a political ploy to shore up his Conservative base for his predicted run for the U.S. Senate next year.

Giuliani’s actions reveal a somewhat obsessive trait. In regard to the museum they have been marked by a zealousness similar to that he displayed against Doherty. There is the same refusal to let go, and the same bullying, tactics. There is an almost obsessive reaction to certain aspects of the exhibit (as interpreted by him). He dwells on them, as in the press conference referred to above. The New York Times rather politely termed it "civilization and sanitation."

In a letter to the Echo in September 1993, co-written by Stephen Somerstein, who had also represented Doherty, Pike described Giuliani’s behavior as "bizarre" and "perverse." Some have found his dwelling on the subject of excrement equally bizarre. Freud had a term for it. And it just might help explain why all those years ago Giuliani the U.S. attorney would not let Joe go.

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