Michael Bloomberg was just a year old when, in 1943, the author Esther Forbes published a children's novel, "Johnny Tremain," the tale of a young Revolutionary-era silversmith apprentice in Boston on the eve of war. The book would come to dominate Bloomberg's imaginative life. As a boy growing up in Medford, Mass., he recalls, "I must have read it 50 times." In the great rhetorical scene at the heart of the story, the revolutionary James Otis addresses a small tavern gathering that includes Sam Adams, John Adams and John Hancock, reminding the nascent rebels that their fight is not only national but global. America would make war, Otis said, so that "there shall be no more tyranny." Between deep sips of grog, he went on: "The peasants of France, the serfs of Russia. Hardly more than animals now. But because we fight, they shall see freedom like a new sun rising in the west. Those natural rights God has given to every man, no matter how humble … We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills … We fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up." A few moments later, the meeting over, Johnny, who would ultimately be the messenger who tells Paul Revere what to watch for in the tower of the Old North Church, muses on Otis's words. " 'That a man can stand up'—as simple as that. And the strange new sun rising in the west. A sun that was to illumine a world to come." (Article continued below...)
Purplish and sentimental, yes, but to a young man growing up surrounded by the legend of the Revolution, it was stirring, and the sun Forbes wrote of in her fervid way illumined Bloomberg's childhood. Holding a copy of the book at the beginning of an interview with NEWSWEEK at New York's Gracie Mansion last week—he had written of its influence on him in his 1997 memoir, so I brought one with me—Bloomberg said with a flourish, " 'One if by land, two if by sea!' " He smiled, still gazing at the cover, before snapping back to the autumn of 2007. "I don't know why I loved this book so much."
The question is actually not a very difficult one. He loved Johnny Tremain because Johnny Tremain was a hero, a boy of obscure origins who made himself indispensable to Revere and others through hard work and ingenuity. It was a very American story, one in which dedication was rewarded to the sound of trumpets. The drama of Bloomberg's young life, which has become the drama of his entire life, took shape as he absorbed stories of Revolutionary heroes, both real and fictional, who acted alone and boldly for the good of the many—and who were therefore celebrated and commemorated as great men, the kind of men whose graves Bloomberg and his Scout troop festooned with flags. Bloomberg decided early on that he wanted to be a great man, too. Most teenagers, if they can, seek glory in sports. Bloomberg was not a great baseball or football player, and so he had to look elsewhere to find his place in the world.
He had to search no farther than the end of his street. There, every April, at the corner of Winthrop and Playstead, came the re-enactment of Revere's ride. The townsmen who formed the parade would stop at Gaffney's funeral home, Bloomberg recalls, for "a tot" before proceeding to Medford Square, where a Scout would recite Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" on what Bloomberg recalled was a "big stage." Let Bloomberg tell the story of his own year in the sun: "Perhaps the proudest moment of my early life was being chosen one year to read [Longfellow's poem] on the raised platform overlooking the assembled revelers," he recalled in his memoir. "With 'Paul' on his prancing horse in front of me, the high school band playing John Philip Sousa marches, and newspaper photographers snapping away, I read aloud into a real live microphone the famous poem: 'Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, / On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five; / Hardly a man is now alive / Who remembers that famous day and year … / One, if by land, and two, if by sea; / and I on the opposite shore will be … / And yet, through the gloom and the light, / the fate of a nation was riding that night …' I can remember it still."
Note what else he remembers, too: The raised platform. The assembled revelers. Photographers snapping away. A real live microphone. For Bloomberg, public service and public attention are inextricably linked, and he thrives in the spotlight. From TR to FDR to Reagan, our greatest politicians have understood that showmanship is a critical element of leadership, and Bloomberg is among the best showmen and leaders at work in American politics.
While he has been on a lot of big stages since that Patriots' Day in Medford Square, it was perhaps inevitable that he is now thinking about taking a turn on the biggest stage of all: a campaign for the White House. The subject of a Bloomberg presidential bid is on a lot of people's minds, including the incumbent's. Landing at the Wall Street heliport earlier this year, after the mayor announced he was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent, President Bush gestured to Marine One and told Bloomberg: "That bird could be yours."
The odds against an independent bid for the White House are long, but if Bloomberg's life tells us anything, it is that he is often more motivated, and more successful, when other people say he cannot do something. "Stubborn isn't a word I would use to describe myself; pigheaded is more appropriate," Bloomberg wrote in his memoir. "To a contrarian like me, constant advice not to do something almost always starts me quickly down the risky, unpopular path." He loves defying conventional wisdom, and like the Revolutionary luminaries he admires, he would like to mount up and ride through what Longfellow called the gloom and the light, playing the hero's part, leading the way, making a difference.
Last Friday morning, at dawn in Seattle, where he had flown overnight to tour Microsoft, speak to a gathering of mayors, and dine with Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Bill and Melinda Gates, he rode down to the lobby to talk once more about what makes him go. "I will say that walking down the street, getting on the subway, taking the elevator, if there's one or two people and they say, 'Great job, Mayor,' that is a real turn-on. I mean, anybody that wouldn't find that satisfying, rewarding, exciting, thrilling—I think they should see the doctor."
Bloomberg had two loving but very different parents. When he told his mother that he had been admitted to Harvard Business School, her reply was terse: "Don't let it go to your head." (Mrs. Bloomberg, a 1929 graduate of New York University, is a kind of Jewish Boston equivalent of Dorothy Walker Bush, the 41st president's mother, who always admonished her son not to talk about himself so much.) His father, a bookkeeper at a dairy company who died the year before Bloomberg went to Harvard, would have been ecstatic. "For Dad, an average, working-class guy from Chelsea, Mass., Harvard was a rarefied and almost unattainable waypoint on the trail to the great American Dream," Bloomberg recalled.
His father's pride and his mother's humility are opposing forces still evident in the life of their 65-year-old son. Depending on the moment, Bloomberg can be egocentric and modest, showy and elusive, sweet and sarcastic, democratic and authoritarian, flexible and stiff-necked. Exactly a year before the 2008 presidential election, Bloomberg is a billionaire wild card, a centrist who has the means to make one of the most significant third-party bids for the White House in American history. Worth an estimated $13 billion or so, he has more money than Theodore Roosevelt or Ross Perot, and he also has something no other plausible 2008 independent has: a strong résumé in the public sector. A rich man with a record of service and seemingly limitless ambition, Bloom-berg represents a formidable threat to the traditional party nominees. "This is a billion-dollar campaign," Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg's chief political adviser, told NEWSWEEK ABOARD Bloomberg's Falcon 9 jet flying from Washington, D.C., to Seattle late last week. He then amended the declaration—slightly: "If it happens, it's a billion-dollar campaign."
If it happens. What would make it happen? In Sheekey's view—on the record, Bloomberg himself answers questions about his White House ambitions by saying he has 790-odd days to go as mayor, and that he could not be happier—the two major parties may wind up nominating candidates with negative ratings at or above 40 percent. (According to a September Gallup poll, Hillary Clinton is at 49 percent, Rudy Giuliani at 38.) And if polls show, as they have in the recent past, that 70 percent or more of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, then there may well be an opening for Bloomberg. "You have to have opponents the country is basically unhappy with, at a time when the country is basically unhappy," says Sheekey. In what he calls, only somewhat ironically, "The Sheekey Master Plan," he believes that the hour of decision will come not after Feb. 5, when 21 states hold their primaries, but on March 5, the day after the Texas primary. (Sheekey thinks it possible that the GOP race will not settle down until Texas.) Ultimately finding a place on all 50 ballots is clearly within reach, Sheekey says: "It's something you can do with resources."
History is full of examples of third-party candidates who ran to force an issue forward, or to register a protest against the status quo. Bloomberg, however, will not run unless Sheekey can convince him that winning the necessary 270 electoral votes is not only possible, but likely. The mayor would not be a vanity candidate, nor does he want to be a spoiler. If he runs, he will run to win, and there is a good case that Perot's 19 percent in 1992 is, in Sheekey's phrase, "the floor for an independent, not a ceiling."
The electoral war-gaming can quickly turn into political porn: Whom would Bloomberg hurt most? Could he craft a centrist message—he is a Democrat turned Republican turned independent—and spend so much promoting it in major media markets that he could take a plurality of the popular vote? If he did that, but failed to win the necessary 270 votes in the Electoral College, what would happen? Under the Constitution, the college's failure to elect sends the presidential decision to the House of Representatives, where Democrats hold a majority. (The Congress that is elected in November 2008 would render the verdict.) In that scenario, assuming the Democrats hold on to the House, the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she may be, is the most likely winner.
The clearest-cut alternative is an outright Electoral College victory built on carrying California, New York, Texas—or, in Sheekey's musings, a Congress that decides the 18th-century system of checks and balances should not dictate the selection of a president who did not receive the most votes. "When we went through Florida in 2000, there was a great uneasiness about choosing the guy who may not have gotten the most popular votes," Sheekey says. "Would a Democratic Congress really want to reach down and pick a second- or even third-place candidate to install as president if Bloomberg were to win the most votes? I think that is an open question."
What is not open to question is Bloomberg's steadiness, self-confidence and apparent sanity (the last not being the most common of political traits). "I've been very lucky," Bloomberg says. "My parents gave me a Norman Rockwell kind of upbringing; my father worked seven days a week until he checked himself into the hospital to die; my academic record was never stellar, but it wasn't a disaster, either. I am a believer in what I learned in seventh-grade civics: I really down inside believe that everybody in this country has an opportunity … America is built around this premise that you can do it, and there are an awful lot of people who are unlikely to have done it who did."
His mother, now 98 and still living in the family house, appears never to have doubted that her son could do whatever he wanted. Young Michael, says Charlotte Bloomberg, was always "self-sufficient," always confident. His closest friend in the neighborhood was a boy two years his elder, and he ran with a crowd of older boys. "He could get along with boys that were older than he, he had enough self-confidence," she says. Public speaking came especially naturally to him. As an elementary-school student at the Gleason School, Bloomberg would take part every year in a Memorial Day ceremony. Each year, one student would be picked to give a speech. "You just knew ahead of time that he was going to be the one," Bloomberg's mother says. "It never seemed to bother him to get out in front of an audience and talk."
Bloomberg's academic adventures were not always as heroic as his mother remembers now. He could be an uneven student, though his dustups say more about his character than his mind. "He has a towering intellect," says his sister, Marjorie Bloom-berg Tiven. "In high school, did he use it all the time? No, but he used it on things he was interested in, and he did things the way he wanted. I remember the year he took two math courses, getting an A in one and a D in the other. My parents were baffled, and it turned out that in the course where he got the D he had written down all the correct answers on the final, but he had done the work in his head, and did not show how he had gotten them, so the teacher assumed he was cheating."
Bloomberg recalls a similar story from Harvard Business School. "Yeah, I've had a stubborn streak. In graduate school, you were supposed to write 10 pages solving a problem, and I wrote half a page saying there really wasn't a problem because one of the facts was wrong. After the second time I did that, I got called in and it was explained to me that if I wanted to graduate, then I'd stick to the rules, look at what they're trying to do, and don't be a cute wise guy."
"Have you always successfully overcome being a wise guy?" I asked.
"No. I every once in a while say things that I wish I hadn't. You know, I think you have to be realistic and have fun. Everybody says that humor is something that in the end will hurt you, and if that's true, it's sad and I don't think you should go through your life that way."
Patriotism—of the merit-badge-earning, flag-waving kind—was in his blood. "My mother's most vivid recollection of World War I was that she was allowed to go farther away from home than ever before to buy flags for Armistice Day in Jersey City, because everybody had a flag," Bloomberg recalled. "It was a very patriotic time in our country." It was, but the era of Bloomberg's childhood was still one of more overt discrimination and anti-Semitism, dark reminders that there remained a gap between the American rhetoric of liberty and equality and the reality of American life. The awareness that he was seen as different, at least in some quarters, may have helped hone Bloomberg's sense of competitiveness.
When I asked him if he had encountered anti-Semitism growing up, Bloom-berg initially said no, but then recalled three different episodes. In 1947, Charlotte Bloomberg was looking for a home for her husband and two small children. They had been renting in a two-family house in Brookline, Mass., but a new owner informed them that the apartment would no longer be for rent. "Buy something's that convenient," her husband told her, meaning something close to his work in Somerville. "So I looked at a map," she says, and settled on Medford, where she found a gray house on a leafy street, halfway up a shady hill.
The transaction, however, was not a simple one. The seller had developed the neighborhood, and, in Bloomberg's recollection, did not want to be the first family on the block to sell to Jews. "And so he sold it to my father's Irish lawyer, who resold it to my father at the same table." Marjorie Bloomberg Tiven remembers the story well. "There is certainly the story of our parents' not being able to buy our house, of knowing they were not welcome in the neighborhood."
Bloomberg got into one scuffle as a child over the same kind of issue. "I vaguely remember one kid once saying something to me, and getting into a fight, but that was so long ago …"
"Did you win?" I asked him.
"Well," Bloomberg re-plied, smiling, "I'm alive and I don't know about him."
In the late 1940s, Bloomberg's father was asked to go to a convention in Miami Beach, Fla. It was a big deal for the senior Bloomberg. "My mother went to the library to get books on conventions—how to dress, what you say, how to check into a hotel—literally," says Bloomberg. "And he came back, and my mother insisted that we wait dinner for him. My father told us that when he got to Miami Beach, he went to check into the hotel and they said, 'Bloomberg, that's a Jewish name, isn't it?' He said yes, and they said, 'We don't allow Jews here.' And somebody made a fuss and got him in."
I asked Bloomberg whether a sense of insecurity in the broader world—the prospect that there might be people like the developer, or the kid he had the fight with, or the hotel clerk out there—helped explain his drive to succeed. He demurred. "I thought where you were going with this was that 'you have an inferiority complex where you had to be better.' I don't think I have that."
I pressed again: do you think the potential feeling of being different, or seen as different, is part of why you want to succeed? "You know, it may be nice for your story for me to say that I feel different, but I don't …"
But did you, back then?
"It would be nice for your story if I tell you that I did. I don't remember. I just have never seen in my mind any differences. Now, would I feel this way if I were black, or poor, or handicapped, I don't know. But I get on the subway and I don't feel any different from anyone else, and I don't think I did back then."
In the same conversation, Bloomberg mentioned the only movie he has ever financed, made from an Arthur Miller novel called "Focus." In Bloomberg's telling, "it was the story of a WASPy guy between the wars. He had to get a pair of glasses, and people started asking him if he was Jewish. 'Are you one of them?' they'd say. It was amazing how much a pair of glasses can change things. And then, in the end, the guy answers, 'Yes, I am one of them,' which showed how we really all are connected, we are a single country." It is not difficult to see why the story resonated with Bloomberg, who may say he neither felt nor feels different, but whose life experience clearly shows that he understands things that can divide. That he wants to overcome such divisions of religion, race and class is a tribute to his determination to make the most, and the best, of everything.
"The patriotism is real," says Marjorie Bloomberg Tiven. "It was part of what we were taught, and what we believed: that we were among the luckiest people in the world. My father was one generation away from an immigrant experience. There was an intense appreciation of the security, the physical security, that we felt." Service was crucial. "I remember when my father was called for jury duty and apparently told the judge that he was busy at work and had to be excused. He was in the court at Scollay Square … He told us this story at the dinner table. The judge said to him, 'Mr. Bloomberg, if you were the defendant, who would you like on the jury? One of those bums out there, or someone like yourself?' The lesson was that the system only works if everybody does his part and doesn't duck out of service. These are the values Mike was lucky enough to grow up with."
He knows it, and is grateful, and he relishes a life that emerged from an age when meritocracy and discrimination were at war. To Bloomberg, the question again: why are you so driven? "I enjoy it," he says, with emphasis. "I've never not liked a day of work. I'm the luckiest guy in the world … If you love what you're doing, you never want it to end."
From high school, Bloomberg went to Johns Hopkins (where, he noted in his memoir, he was "the first Jew to be admitted to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity"), took an engineering degree and then ended up at Harvard Business School. His mother was crucial in this era of his life, as in all others. "It's a good thing she was 20 minutes away" in Medford, Bloomberg says, "because I couldn't have typed my own papers." It was 1966 when he got his M.B.A., but the "Johnny Tremain" and Paul Revere devotee decided to join the military before seeking a larger fortune. He was accepted into Officer Candidate School, but the doctors discovered he had flat feet. "I've always felt a little lacking, a little embarrassed, that I wasn't in the Army," he says. Before long he was at Salomon Brothers, a meritocratic trading firm on Wall Street. He was on his way.
Jim Blume, now an investment adviser in Berkeley, Calif., got to know Bloomberg at Harvard, and they were close when they were young together in New York. They shared a summer house in the Hamptons (Bloomberg initiated the idea and organized the share). "He was a trader and I was a research analyst," Blume says. "And this time he called me up and said, 'Blume—what's going on? Stay with me a moment' … He put me on hold and three minutes later came back and said, 'Now, what did you want?' I said, 'Bloomberg, you called me!' He was always in that state of perpetual motion, always got a deal going."
Sharon Baum met Bloomberg at a Harvard Business School alumni function (Baum had graduated from Harvard a year before, one of seven women in her class) shortly after he moved to New York. They dated casually. Even in his youth, Bloomberg had a tendency toward grand gestures. On the day Baum married another man in 1969, Bloomberg sent her a dozen long-stem roses with a card: "I wish you all the happiness in the world."
Baum remembers the young investment-banker Bloomberg as a man with limitless energy. At night, they had a socially energetic group of friends that was up for anything—gourmet-dinner clubs, trips to the circus and the Ice Capades, "things nobody would say today that they'd done because they're so unsophisticated." The city dazzled him. "He loved New York when he got here," Baum says. "He's from Medford, I'm from Jefferson City, Mo. I couldn't wait to be here. He was the same way."
Baum, who is now an executive at Corcoran, frequently sees Bloomberg at parties, on Madison Avenue in the mornings and at Temple Emanu-El. At temple, "he doesn't try to come in, not have anybody see him, and then get out. He's not looking for the side door. He's there talking … He really, really loves what he's doing, or if he doesn't he puts on a really good act." She says the thing that hasn't changed in Bloomberg is his self-possession, his comfort in his own skin. "When you look at him, even in tough times, his body language suggests he always has a pretty positive and pleasant outlook ... Think about how close he is to his daughters. Or that he also has remained close friends with Sue [his first wife]. Look at the way those kind of things are handled today with so many people. But there was no big stuff in the press about the girls or her."
Baum is convinced that Bloomberg's mother is the key to understanding his values. She recalls running into Bloomberg on his way into a benefit uptown in the middle of a transit strike in December 2005. She complimented him on the pictures she'd seen of him walking with commuters across the Brooklyn Bridge. "You looked really great coming across the bridge," she said. "But where was your hat?" Bloomberg grimaced. "Ugh, you and my mother." Then she changed the subject. "Why aren't you running for president?" she pestered. The mayor's response was the same: "Ugh, you and my mother."
He has been a good father to his two daughters. Married for 19 years to Susan Brown, an Englishwoman, Bloomberg played a big role in raising Emma (born in 1979) and Georgina (born in 1983). Asked about her first memory of her father, Emma hesitates. "It's hard to say, because there are very few memories he is not a part of. He was always around, especially when I was a kid and the company was smaller. I was 3? when my sister was born, and I gather I wasn't thrilled, so we went off to Utah. He would do things like that." He taught his daughters to ski, went to their equestrian shows and watched World War II documentaries with them to explain the evolution of bomber technology. "I once asked him how an elevator worked, and to teach me he helped me build a model of one," says Emma. "I still have it." When she was small, she was dispatched, she recalls, to a weeklong Revolutionary War camp, where she wore tricorn hats and carried toy muskets.
The Bloombergs decided to divorce in 1993, but remain very friendly. After the split they lived together in the city for more than a year and shared a country house. "We still spend holidays together. Just because they're divorced doesn't mean we aren't family," says Emma. The former Mrs. Bloomberg even campaigned for her ex-husband. Bloomberg has been dating Diana Taylor, a former New York state superintendent of banks, for seven years.
The culture he created at Bloomberg LP, which he founded after leaving Salomon Brothers in 1981, was at once democratic and competitive. After a sit-down meeting once went on too long, he had the chairs taken out of the conference room. The next week the meeting went faster. At Bloomberg he banned titles ("I've always thought titles are disruptive at best. They separate, create class distinctions and inhibit communications") and cut down on private offices (to cut down on closed-door plotting and scheming). It is a charming way of doing business; still, Bloomberg's soft touch has its steely side. In the private sector he refused to attend going-away parties for departing employees. "Why should I?" he asked rhetorically in his memoir. "I don't wish them ill, but I can't exactly wish them well either. I wouldn't mean it. We're dependent on one another—and when someone departs, those of us who stay are hurt." Those who remain are taken care of.
But he is far from a universally revered boss; there have been serious questions raised about the treatment of women within the Bloomberg corporate culture. In 1998, in a complaint against Bloomberg and the company filed in federal court in Manhattan, Sekiko Garrison, one of the earliest recruits to Bloomberg's largely female sales force, claimed that Bloomberg insulted and harassed her and other female employees. Garrison's most startling allegation was that when she told Bloomberg she had become pregnant, he told her to "kill it." She said that Bloomberg also expressed dismay that she was the 16th company employee to go on maternity leave. (A Bloomberg LP official called the allegations about discrimination against pregnant women "ridiculous … untrue," and said that the company "really goes above and beyond the norm in providing family benefits, and it's an incredibly family-friendly culture.")
In 2000, Bloomberg tried to walk out of a deposition after being asked about claims that he had pointed to various women in his office with the explanation, "I'd do her." "It was resolved," Neal Brickman, Garrison's lawyer, told NEWSWEEK. "I'm very happy with the resolution." He added that he could provide no further details—including financial details—about the settlement because the terms were "confidential." (Bloomberg and his city-hall office declined to comment on the details of the lawsuit. "We made a settlement and agreed not to talk about it," Bloomberg told me.)
At the same time the locker-room culture was in place, though, some of the top executives were women, and Bloomberg watchers think he has steadily grown out of a prolonged adolescence. "I've aged, that's for sure," Bloomberg says when asked if that is true. He then turns more reflective. "Yeah, sure, I think you get more tolerant, you get more of an understanding that we're all going to be buried in the same ground. With time you get more experience, and you get better at certain things."
His city-hall offices are arranged like a newsroom bullpen, and he works in the open, with his staff. "He came in as the caretaker, but he's been something of a revolutionary, which I think almost no one expected," says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the right-of-center Manhattan Institute. From bans on smoking and trans fats to his pledge to make New York as green as possible by limiting carbon emissions—last Friday he announced his support for a carbon tax in order to reduce greenhouse gases—Bloomberg has become something of a rock-star mayor. At an elegant dinner for Conservation International last Thursday in Washington, Tom Friedman of The New York Times introduced Bloom-berg, saying, "The only thing a lot of us would like to change about Michael is his job title, but I won't go there …" He did not need to; the audience cheered on cue.
Former Democratic mayor Ed Koch credits Bloomberg with making the city a more tolerant place. "He's also brought racial relations to a point where there is no friction, or hardly any," says Koch. "He sets a tone. I believe it is by virtue of his personality." On one of the first days Bloomberg was in office, he saw Al Sharpton walking out of city hall. "Bloomberg went over and introduced himself," Koch says, "whereas Giuliani would probably have called the police." (Koch and Giuliani have had a falling-out.)
There is little staff turnover in the Bloomberg administration; he is a tough but deft boss. "There was a moment where the budget director and I were literally screaming at each other," says Martha Stark, New York City's Finance commissioner. "All of us care tremendously about the work we're doing, and at times like that your temper can flare. The mayor learned about this and summoned us all, the budget director, me, [supervising] deputy mayors, to a meeting at his house … What I will say about that meeting is the mayor's smart. He was incredibly able to zero in on what the issues were. It was all pointed toward, 'You guys need to get along'."
Stark said Bloomberg was also aware of the underlying dynamics in the room. Stark was the only woman present. "He was very insightful in zeroing in on some of the power dynamic, some of the gender dynamic," she says. "He said something along the lines of, 'All right, guys, we're not going to gang up on her now, are we?' "
Bloomberg is hardly the most sensitive guy you will ever meet, but he has learned a lot in his city-hall years. "I always try to get to the hospital first when we have a cop shot or a firefighter killed, and I like to tell the family myself," he says. "I am older than the clergy, and more experienced, and older and more experienced than the chiefs, and I think it is my job. I believe you hug them, and don't try to be something you are not; you have to understand that it is their tragedy, not yours."
To call someone authentic usually means he has carefully manufactured an image of authenticity, but with Bloomberg what you see does seem to be pretty much what you get. On the first day he began campaigning for mayor in 2001, he found himself on South Beach in Staten Island, and an elderly woman swooned over him, saying, "And I am so glad you are pro-life!" As Bloomberg recalls it, "that immediately presented me with a political problem right there on day one. Should I let her think what she thought, or tell her the truth? And I told her the truth. 'I'm sorry, ma'am, but I'm pro-choice,' and then I explained why. And I'll bet you anything I got her vote."
Bloomberg and his circle are counting on candor and centrism to set him apart from the presidential field. (He is open about almost everything except his presidential ambitions, which he cloaks, for now, with humor. In speeches last week, he joked that he had gotten a warm greeting from fellow trick-or-treaters in New York who said they wanted him to run for higher office. The punch line: "I have to confess that I was wearing a Stephen Colbert mask at the time.")
For months the chatter in New York political and social circles has centered on whether tensions between Bloomberg and his mayoral predecessor may be driving Bloomberg's interest in the presidential race. Publicly, everything between the two men is sweetness and light, but the Giuliani-Bloomberg relationship is fraught. Giuliani's people believe Bloomberg is taking too much credit for successful New York City government policies—on public spending and crime in particular—that were undertaken by Giuliani, and they fear Bloomberg's potential $1 billion bid for the White House. "You can be sure that Rudy's not happy that Mike keeps toying with a run for the presidency," says Herman Badillo, a former congressman and city official who once was a prominent Democratic power broker and who is now a Republican. "I know Rudy quite well. He feels that Mike wouldn't have been elected without his endorsement."
To reporters, Giuliani's people stay above the fray. "I've never heard Rudy or his people bust [Bloomberg's] chops," said a Giuliani political adviser, who asked for anonymity when discussing internal campaign matters. "People come to Rudy with problems [related to city administration] and he'll say: 'I'm not the mayor any- more'," the adviser says, adding that Giuliani "doesn't see himself competing" with his successor and gives Bloomberg credit for continuing policies started by Giuliani, such as policing methods that have kept city crime rates low and manageable.
If his potential opponents' fears come true and Bloomberg runs, he would campaign, predictably, as an outsider. What is less predictable is the impact nearly a billion dollars of TV and Internet advertising might have. The possible theme of such advertising, and of such a campaign, is becoming clearer by the day. In speeches Bloomberg has begun to be more explicitly critical of the capital culture. "The people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and on both sides of the aisle just aren't facing up to the problems that need facing," he says, and has taken to referring to Washington as a "swamp of dysfunction." He is pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-gay rights. He has become a devoted campaigner against global warming. He raised property taxes in New York, but could legitimately claim to be the biggest fiscal hawk and an unabashed supporter of free trade. Who could be a bigger believer in the power of markets than the inventor of the Bloomberg Terminal?
At the moment, he is enjoying the benefits of a classic American political phenomenon: he seems a great candidate in part because he is not a candidate. He tries, but fails, to stay clear of commenting on foreign policy: he really cannot help himself if asked. "The current situation is intolerable in Iraq," he says. "The public doesn't understand why we are there, and part of leadership is explaining, bringing people along." On Iran: "You've got to stop nuclear proliferation, but I don't see any rational case for invasion or bombing. I've always thought that you should talk to everybody. Now I am not saying that the president of the United States should be talking to the president of Iran, but there ought to be back channels, ways of engaging."
At Gracie Mansion the other day, Bloomberg stuck to his script on the White House question. "I am not running for president. I have 790-odd days to go in this job, the greatest job in the world—maybe the second greatest job. The mayor's job is where you can really get things done." He enjoys the idea that he, like Henry Kissinger, has mastered different fields. "Agree or disagree with him, Kissinger was a success in academe, government and business," Bloomberg says. "And I have been successful in business, and I hope when I leave this job they will say I was a good mayor or a great mayor. Philanthropy will probably be the next big thing. I am lucky enough to have a lot of money, I am planning on giving it all away, and I think you change the world that way."
Pressed once more, he says he is not running, but then offers a lucid, if indirect, case for a man like him at a time like this. "I think that the candidates are not addressing, in a way at least I can understand, what they would do if they got elected. Unfortunately in the process that we go through—all of these, quote, 'debates'—you've got 30 seconds to tell us what you're going to do about the Iraq War, 30 seconds to tell us how to solve health care, 30 seconds on how to repair our relations around the world, 30 seconds on solving Social Security—there's no way to do that.
"The job of being president is to lead the country and the legislature, and it is pulling those together. And because America is the only remaining superpower, you are the leader of the free world, it is having the credibility and working with other countries to get them all to work together to stop genocide, to stop nuclear proliferation, to make sure we have fair trade among countries … Trade, immigration, terrorism, fighting disease—all of those things require cooperation. And one of the sad things is that at the moment America is not liked around the world. We are closing our eyes. We have this view that we can do it alone, as we are getting more into a world where you can't. You couldn't do it before, and you certainly can't do it now, and it's inconceivable that you could do it tomorrow. And I don't hear from the candidates how they would go about pulling the world together, getting people to respect us. How do you get people to respect you? Show them recognition, respect, that you are listening to them. I don't care how smart we are, other people have good ideas, and what works here isn't perfect for them." He sketches two portraits of different neighborhoods in New York. In one, he says, patriotism is overt and common. ("They don't just pledge allegiance at the beginning of the school day, they do it before every class," he says.) In the other, outward displays of civic pride are less common. ("They would never wear a flag in their lapel," he says, pointing to his own.) "And the thing I'm proudest of is I got 75 percent of the vote in both neighborhoods. My job is to bring people together."
This Bloomberg anecdote feels more illustrative than strictly accurate, and it is all the more revealing for that. Notice how, as he came to the conclusion of a series of remarks that implicitly suggested the relevance of his own virtues, philosophy and experience to the national and global stages, he recurred to the stuff of his childhood—patriotism, the flag, love of tradition—to close the case. What was the one thing that bridged these two mythic neighborhoods—neighborhoods, in the mayor's telling, divided by culture and custom? They had nothing in common, nothing to hold them together, nothing to link them one to another. Nothing, Michael Bloomberg suggested, save for one thing: Michael Bloomberg.
Before Massachusetts's next Patriots' Day—it will be observed on Monday, April 21, 2008—Bloomberg will have made his decision about whether to run for president. There is little in the story of his life to suggest that he would not seek out and embrace such a challenge; after all, he always has. Like Johnny Tremain and Paul Revere, he would like to have the fate of a nation in his hands. He cannot imagine a safer place for it.