DUBUQUE, Iowa, Nov. 8, 2007— -- It's an odd situation for a man who made his name busting criminals. In Iowa today, Rudy Giuliani was repeatedly asked about the indictment of one of his proteges, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik.
Kerik faces charges in a case brought by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York involving allegations of public corruption and a company suspected of ties to organized crime.
In a press conference today in Dubuque, Iowa, Giuliani told reporters, "I have made a mistake, I made a mistake in not clearing him effectively enough."
That this has emerged on the campaign trail for the GOP front-runner is no small irony, because Giuliani first made a public name for himself as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, one who aggressively -- and successfully -- prosecuted major cases involving public corruption and the mob.
And while Giuliani's six years as U.S. attorney in the 1980s were not without controversy, they are generally well-regarded. In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Giuliani said he doesn't worry that the Kerik indictment will sully that reputation.
"I think that people are capable of looking at all of that and saying we have to judge that in the overall context of everything that I did," he said. "And the balance is very much in favor of 'I must have been making the right decisions if the city of New York turned around.'"
Giuliani even defended Kerik's performance as police commissioner.
"You know, people are complex," he said. "But the fact is that the results for the city of New York were excellent results."
When asked if he thinks highlighting those results diminishes or excuses the potential crimes Kerik committed, Giuliani said, "of course not.
"How about, it's realistic? It's the complexity of human life and the reality of human life," Giuliani said. "Richard Nixon had this very serious problem, but was his breakthrough with China one of the historic things that happened in the 20th century? Can't take that away from him -- it was."
Ronald Reagan appointed Giuliani U.S. attorney in 1983. Inheriting a number of longstanding investigations against the mafia, Giuliani went after them with a vengeance. He was credited with going after the heads of the five crime families, all at once, as well as tackling a case dubbed the Pizza Connection, involving heroin being trafficked through pizza parlors.
"Historically, the high point was probably the commission case and the pizza connection case and the assault on the mafia and the damage we did to them, not just in the United States but in Italy," he said.
It was a dangerous time to be taking on the mob; Giuliani's counterpart in Italy, Judge Giovanni Falcone, with whom he'd become close, was killed when the mob blew up an entire highway to target his car.
Louis Freeh would go on to become director of the FBI in the1990s, but back then he ran the organized crime unit under Giuliani. He said, "Rudy's security was a serious issue.
"We would sit down with him and sort of give him a security plan or advise him that he ought to have a bodyguard when he traveled around," said Freeh. "He would listen to us as he always did very carefully and say, 'I don't want that. Our job here is to be U.S. attorneys and prosecutors and if we are walking around with bodyguards we are sending the wrong message. We tell the mafia that we are afraid of them. And we are not.'"
Just last month, courtroom testimony revealed that the heads of the notorious five families voted on whether or not to put out a hit on Giuliani. The vote was 3-2 against the hit.
"Which means I won the vote … I guess," Giuliani said, laughing.
When it was pointed out that Giuliani was awfully jovial when discussing almost being whacked, the former mayor said it comes with the territory.
"After awhile, you become calm about it," he said. "When you go through it, as a young man, often enough, you get used to it."
Giuliani said his commitment to taking on organized crime "had something to do with wanting to be a priest when I was young. Maybe it had something to do with the lessons my father used to teach me about honesty and integrity."
Giuliani applied those lessons not just to street criminals but to the go-go '80s world on Wall Street of insider trading, successfully targeting big fish like Ivan Boseky and Michael Milkin and popularizing what we now know as the "perp walk."
Using the media adeptly was a Giuliani trademark … one often criticized by colleagues, especially defense attorneys.
"Did I publicize our efforts so the public would have a right to know what we were doing and we could get cooperation from the public, as a result of that? Of course I did," he said.
One of the splashiest Giuliani media events came in 1986 when he and then-Sen. Al D'Amato donned disguises to go undercover to buy drugs in an operation headed by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The only thing they had available -- so I didn't show up [in a suit] -- was a black leather jacket that turned out to be a Hell's Angels jacket. I didn't even know it was," he said. "I just put the black leather jacket on, took my tie off to try to look a little scruffier."
While some ridiculed the photo op, Giuliani says now -- and said then -- that they did it to bring attention to a new drug the federal government wasn't taking seriously enough: crack cocaine.
His was an aggressive style, and certainly he sometimes overreached; with big public corruption victories under his belt, he went after former city official and 1945 Miss America Bess Myerson.
Fred Hafetz successfully defended Myerson from charges she had bribed a judge -- critics said the case should never have gone to trial to begin with, and ultimately, all parties were acquitted.
"It was a madhouse. It was like a feeding frenzy," said Hafetz. "I remember we couldn't even walk into the courthouse without the assistance of the U.S. marshals."
"He made judgments that lacked restraint, lacked proportionality, and were overaggressive," said Hafetz. "And led to, I believe, really at times an abuse of the broad powers that a prosecutor has."
Giuliani also used those powers against Timothy Tabor, and two other Wall Street traders, in what Giuliani himself said was one of his biggest mistakes as U.S. attorney: sending police to Wall Street where they dragged the traders out of their offices in handcuffs, publicly arresting and humiliating them, in a case that largely dissolved. The charges against Tabor were eventually dropped.
"It wasn't necessary to do it that way," Giuliani said. "I said it at the time. And we corrected that in the future. You didn't see that happen again. If I go back and have to justify every decision I made as U.S. attorney, you know, there are going to be a number of them that were incorrect. But the overall result was an excellent result."
Freeh said the qualities he saw in Giuliani the aggressive prosecutor are the ones that the United States needs now in the war on terror.
"He could understand complicated social and political situations as well as legal situations," said Freeh. "And I think that's important for our future and our safety."
In 1987, Giuliani said, "Whatever I do later, there will be no job I ever wanted to do more than this one as U.S. attorney."
He said "that stands true today."
Even more than he wants to be the president of the United States?
"Sure," he said. "I thought about it much more."
Which is not to say that Giuliani does not want the presidency quite a bit, and has turned his laserlike focus toward winning it. For an ambitious prosecutor, the next case is always the most important one.