Michael Bloomberg’s Knightly Ambitions

He is a short (5-foot-7) Jewish man from Massachusetts in a mostly Christian nation that is moving south and west. He has so little conventional star power that as mayor of New York City he can take the subway to work without other straphangers' really noticing. While he can be dryly witty, he sometimes turns wooden behind a podium. On the other hand, he can spend half a billion (if not more) of his own dollars to get elected. He is beholden to no interest groups. And he is very, very competent.

Michael Bloomberg is the latest rescue fantasy to tantalize the American public (or at least its representatives in the media). The country is adrift; people feel threatened by forces beyond their control. One political era seems to be ending, but a new one has yet to begin. At 26 percent in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, President George W. Bush has the lowest approval rating since Richard Nixon during Watergate, and Congress rates slightly lower. The voters are sick of politicians and partisan bickering. Why not elect an outsider who can get things done?

By renouncing his ties to the Republican Party, Bloomberg has stirred up speculation that he will run for president as an independent. Smiling, seemingly enjoying himself before a crowd of reporters, he declared that he had no plan to seek the White House and that he intends to serve out his mayoral term, which runs through 2009. He has told friends that he is sticking his toe in the presidential waters to stay relevant, to avoid becoming a mayoral lame duck, and that he will run only if he feels sure he can win. But from the way he jumps up to hold forth on the fate of the world at even the smallest gatherings, it is hard to believe that he does not want to be president. More than anyone, he believes he may be the White Knight who can save the country.

History is against him. No independent candidate has ever won the presidency. Still largely unknown to the American public, Bloomberg, at 11 percent in the NEWSWEEK Poll, would lose badly to Hillary Clinton (47 percent) and Rudy Giuliani (36 percent). The voters may be alienated from the political parties, but the two-party system is entrenched in American life. Independent candidates have long been dismissed as cranks or kooks, and not without reason. In the past, they have tended to be dreamy, slightly prissy do-gooders (John Anderson, 1980) or angry renegades playing on popular fears (George Wallace, 1968).

But Bloomberg does not fit easily into old models. He is hard to label, which is one of his attractions. He is ambitious and loves control. At the same time, however, he has been effective at creating workplace cultures that are open to ideas and that are essentially democratic. Employees and voters tend not to like him very much, at least at first, but they come to respect him. While most politicians are needy and histrionic, Bloomberg is self-possessed and cool. When you look back at his career in business and public life, it is not hard to see why he believes that he is the right man to run just about anything, including the United States.

A beer-drinking frat boy and indifferent engineering student at Johns Hopkins University, he headed to Wall Street after an ego and résumé polish at Harvard Business School. At Salomon Brothers, he thrived in the fierce, profane world of the trading pits. Second-guessing his bosses a few times too often, he was forced out in 1981, though with a $10 million parachute. Bloomberg was able to see that the clubby world of high finance was breaking down—that technology could open up the marketplace. He started a company to rent special computers that funneled financial data to stock traders and analysts. The computers were called Bloomberg Boxes, or just Bloombergs, and he has made billions off the information empire they spawned. (Bloomberg is low-key, but not exactly self-effacing: he called his $20 billion company, in which he still owns a controlling interest, Bloomberg L.P.; he named his financial-news service Bloomberg News, and his memoir is entitled "Bloomberg by Bloomberg.")

Bloomberg demands loyalty. Employees who leave are seldom, if ever, welcomed back. At Bloomberg News, security is strict. All employees must wear identity badges at all times; a fingerprint identification is required to log on to computers. Cameras survey the newsroom, in part to make sure no one is leaking sensitive financial data. To encourage communication and fraternity, free snacks are available in an office food court. To some Bloomberg staffers, it all seems a bit Orwellian, though they say that ethics standards are high and that hard work is fairly rewarded.

Since his election to succeed Rudy Giuliani in New York in 2001, Bloomberg has become known as the Nanny Mayor. In a city noted for smoky pubs and greasy spoons, the mayor banned smoking in bars and small restaurants and the use of trans fats in eateries. (Bloomberg had two coronary stents put in before he became mayor; an associate, who didn't want to be named discussing Bloomberg's medical status, says his health is excellent.) But he was eventually praised for restoring a city shaken by 9/11, and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2005. He showed an admirable willingness to take on sacred cows: he pushed aside the crony-ridden Board of Education and began directly trying to tame the teachers union, with some results measured in record high-school-graduation rates. When Giuliani left behind a $4 billion deficit, Bloomberg raised property taxes and made across-the-board spending cuts, even closing some firehouses. Thanks to the taxes thrown off by the Wall Street boom as well as Bloomberg's good management, city finances are now sound.

Though Giuliani's endorsement was essential to Bloomberg's election in 2001, the two men soon began sniping at each other over the responsibility for the city's shaky finances. Giuliani's backers say that Bloomberg's only success has been, as Fred Siegel, author of a pro-Giuliani biography, "The Prince of the City," put it to The New York Times, "not to screw up" what Giuliani achieved in his two terms. Bloomberg partisans point out that major crime in the city has dropped an additional 30 percent since Giuliani left office, and that Bloomberg has been able to govern without the in-your-face shouting matches that Giuliani seemed to relish.

Bloomberg has learned, partly by painful experience, when to keep his mouth shut. In his early days at Bloomberg L.P., he was known for the sort of macho talk that is still the lingua franca of Wall Street traders. Female employees sued Bloomberg's company—and in one suit, they named Bloomberg—alleging sexual harassment in the workplace. At a deposition, Bloomberg tried to walk out after being asked embarrassing questions. There were claims that Bloomberg had pointed to multiple women in the office and boasted, "I did her." According to news reports confirmed by a knowledgeable source who declined to be identified discussing sensitive matters, Bloomberg later said that if he did use such expressions, he did not necessarily mean that he had had sex with each of the women. (Bloomberg's city hall office declined to comment on details of the lawsuit. A Bloomberg company spokeswoman says the firm goes "above and beyond the norm in providing family benefits" and that it's "an incredibly family friendly culture.") The lawsuit that named Bloomberg was settled months before his first run for mayor in 2001. (The terms weren't disclosed.)

There has been no whiff of scandal surrounding the Mayor Bloomberg administration. He's developed a knack for heading off problems before they become public brouhahas. (When a NEWSWEEK reporter went looking for Stu Loeser, who conducted "opposition research" for Bloomberg's 2001 Democratic opponent, Mark Green, the reporter learned that Loeser had become Bloomberg's press secretary.) Bloomberg favors an open-management style. At city hall, his desk is in the middle of a "bullpen." Bloomberg used the same setup in private business. The cubicles are all about a culture of meritocracy, says Lex Fenwick, the CEO of Bloomberg, who has worked with the now mayor for two decades.

Bloomberg's aides say the openness means less backstabbing and intrigue. "You can walk over to him or you can just yell across the room," says Dennis Walcott, a deputy mayor. "There's instant access." Conference rooms have glass walls. Bloomberg is "fairly fond of pointing out that there's basically been zero leaks out of our administration," says Dan Doctoroff, another deputy mayor. "I think a part of that is that everybody knows what everybody else is doing."

There is something a little creepy about this enforced togetherness under the all-seeing eye of the Nanny Mayor. But the atmosphere is not so much Big Brother as Big Daddy. Bloomberg is like the grown-up who tells his teenage kids to stop whining and clean up their room, but who also pays a generous allowance. Americans, spoiled but also fearful, may be in the mood for such a leader. Security is a good thing to offer in the age of terror and nuclear proliferation. Bloomberg might even be willing to ask Americans to sacrifice: in New York, he has decided to push for a "congestion fee," basically charging drivers $8 to visit traffic-clogged areas like midtown. Bloomberg has told reporters that he enjoys the edge of danger—a pilot, he has walked away from helicopter and small-plane crashes (neither his fault). Doctoroff says Bloomberg encourages "a culture of intelligent risk," meaning the willingness to take political risks after carefully laying the groundwork.

Americans might follow a leader who is not fearfully poll-driven. But they are going to have to believe that the candidate can relate to them on a personal level. Bloomberg is a mix of regular guy and master of the universe. He comes from humble roots: his father was a bookkeeper in middle-class Medford, Mass., and Bloomberg still has a trace of a "Baw-ston" accent. But he likes to live rich. He has lavish houses on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and in Westchester County, London, Vail and Bermuda. He chose not to live at the mayor's public residence, Gracie Mansion, which had not had a face-lift in a long time. (Bloomberg partially paid for one out of his own pocket.) At first, he said that reporters had no business knowing where he went on his days off, then wised up after gotcha stories began appearing about his slipping off to Bermuda to play golf on the weekends. Bloomberg has long enjoyed throwing dinner parties mixing tycoons, opera stars, media moguls and socialites.

Bloomberg does not exactly have a save-the-family view of marriage. A father of two, he was divorced in 1993; his ex-wife remains a close friend and political adviser. When someone on his staff would happily announce that he or she was engaged, instead of offering congratulations, he would say, "Is it too late to change your mind? Can I talk you out of it?" When gay marriage first surfaced as an issue, he would respond by saying, "I don't think anybody should get married."

Bloomberg does not seem to be motivated by fame or riches so much as power. "He's not a guy who's going to run just to run," says Joel Klein, Bloomberg's schools chancellor. Bloomberg will likely survey the field after the Super Tuesday primary on Feb. 5. If the Democrat and Republican nominees have high negatives, and if vast numbers of people continue to tell pollsters the country's on the "wrong track," Bloomberg is a good bet to make the jump. At the White House, where top aides still believe that Ross Perot's third-party candidacy cost the president's father's re-election in 1992, Bloomberg is described as a "spoiler." But there are rumbles in the land suggesting that Bloomberg is not the only one weighing his chances for 2008. An organization called Unity08 has no formal ties to Bloomberg, but it is preparing for the arduous process of getting a ballot line in all 50 states and plans to hold a nationwide, Internet nominating process for an independent candidate next spring. Don't be surprised if the name selected is Bloomberg.

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