One hundred twenty-six hours after terrorists cut a hellish hole in his city, Mayor Rudy Giuliani put on a black tuxedo, tucked a white rose in his left lapel, slipped on black penny loafers and kept a solemn promise. He was in the St. James Lutheran Church in Brooklyn's Gerritsen Beach, not far from where he was raised in rough-and-tumble Flatbush, for the Sept. 16 wedding of Diane Gorumba, 23, to police officer Michael Ferrito, 31. Giuliani had vowed to walk the bride down the aisle in place of her brother Michael, a New York City firefighter killed in a three-alarm fire on Aug. 28. Despite the extraordinary events of the previous week, he kept that promise. "It was absolutely beautiful, these two young people who are very much in love," says Giuliani, who stayed after the service greeting guests and posing for wedding pictures. "I'm trying to get the city, and I think it's succeeding, to focus on the good parts of life."

One of the good things about the city in the days since the downing of the World Trade towers has been Rudolph Giuliani himself. Long a larger-than-life figure but lately a man battered by a bout with cancer and a bitter, ongoing divorce, Giuliani, 57, has emerged as a symbol of strength and hope for New York and, indeed, the nation. Stalwart and defiant yet consoling and utterly human, Giuliani has at once orchestrated massive relief efforts, comforted a terrified citizenry and re-established a sense of order and even optimism. "He is the right man at the right time," says former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who was driven out of office by the mayor in 1996. "He is incredibly smart, and he is able to focus very clearly and absorb lots of information. The worse the crisis, the calmer he gets in his public appearance."

Giuliani's sternly reassuring presence—on the early-morning TV shows, at press conferences and memorial services, in frequent visits to the smoky rubble of the towers—has led to talk that he is upstaging President George W. Bush, who, it seems, has been slower to find his voice in the face of the shocking devastation. "Winston Churchill in a Yankees cap," The Washington Post dubbed the lame-duck mayor; "Our President Shows That He's No Giuliani," blared the headline of a New York Newsday column. And David Letterman, who resumed his Manhattan-based CBS show Sept. 17, movingly praised the mayor as "the personification of courage." Indeed, the qualities that made Giuliani so many enemies during his eight years in office—arrogance, industrial-strength ego and a tendency to bully people—have been superseded by a pure resolve to figure out what is best for the city and to get it done. "He alienated a lot of people by being petty, but that has all been wiped out," says former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a frequent critic. "He has undone all the bad things that have taken a toll on him by his magnificent performance during this catastrophe."

To be sure, there have been some vintage Rudy moments: the mayor scolding ill-informed journalists, threatening scam artists and almost daring potential looters to, in effect, make his day. But there have also been surprising displays of tenderness, such as his hug with onetime Senate rival Hillary Rodham Clinton and his exhausted, emotional embrace with New York Gov. George Pataki, another former adversary, at a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. The mayor, who lost several friends in the collapse of the towers, says he is "in absolute awe of the incredible strength of the people of this city. I have seen the worst things I've ever seen in my life, and I have seen the best." Says his good friend Elliot Cuker: "Rudy has a very deep connection to people who are hurt and wounded. It gives him a tremendous amount of inner strength to know he is helping people, and that is what sustains him."

Giuliani's time of heroism follows what had been the toughest 12 months of his storied political career. The grandson of Italian immigrants and the only child of Harold Giuliani, a tavern owner (he died in 1981), and Helen, 91, a onetime bookkeeper, he waged a successful war against Mob figures, insider traders and other high-profile criminals as a U.S. Attorney for New York in the 1980s. He lost the race for mayor to David Dinkins in 1989, but four years later Giuliani became the city's first Republican mayor in decades, embarking on two eventful terms marked by reduced crime rates, slashed welfare rolls and an invigorated economy. Along with the victories, though, came controversy. The 1999 killing by police of unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo bolstered perceptions that his tough tactics were unfair to minorities, while his battles with school chancellors and other officials laid bare his shrill and vindictive side and caused his popularity to drop. "You either did things his way," says Koch, "or he did everything in his power to destroy you politically."

Then, after hinting last year he would challenge Hillary Clinton for a Senate seat, Giuliani revealed in April 2000 that he had prostate cancer and would not run. He fought the disease with drugs and radiation, and it is under control. But he lost public sympathy when his affair with Judi Nathan, 46, became known and his 17-year marriage to former Fox News correspondent Donna Hanover, 51—with whom he has a son, Andrew, 15, and daughter, Caroline, 12—dissolved in a hail of insults and recriminations. This July Giuliani moved out of the mayoral residence and is staying with friends while divorce proceedings continue.

Yet the mayor's soap-opera summer now seems a distant memory. He slept not at all in the first 48 hours after the attacks and has had only a few hours a night since then, typically attending several meetings and press conferences a day and turning up at every memorial service for fallen cops and firefighters. "You just get up and do it," he says. "You find that you don't want to sleep; you want to get up and do things that have to be done. If I can get three or four hours in a row, I'm in good shape."

It seems clear he will not rest until the city he loves is in good shape too. His term as mayor runs out at the end of the year, and after that he seems a shoo-in for some higher office, perhaps even in the Bush Administration. "If he were running now, he would sweep the election," says Koch. "And that's any office in the State of New York." For now, Giuliani, his image refurbished and his rough edges smoothed by a new humanity, seeks only to see New York City up on its feet again. "You have to concentrate on the good things," he insists. "Life presents as many opportunities for happiness as it does for tragedy."