In his seven years as mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg has been the recipient of an almost uninterrupted spate of good publicity.
It’s about all his legacy will amount to, and it is not an accident. His entire political career has been designed, down to the carefully released rumors about his presidential ambition, as an experiment in governance through public relations. Barack Obama loves him, John McCain loves him, Time magazine loves him, 70% of New Yorkers loves him, and yet if I stopped writing right here to ask what, exactly, Bloomberg has ever accomplished, not many people could come up with an intelligible answer. They might mutter something vague about “education reform” without being able to explain its manic-depressive vicissitudes, or cite any concrete evidence of its success. Crime? That’s been down since the days of Giuliani, and anyone might have been able to maintain an already successful law enforcement program.
Behind the po-faced façade of a competent but bland CEO of America’s toughest metropolis lurks a breathtakingly calculated mediocrity, a man who silences his critics with cash and is then the first to tell you just how popular he is.
It’s worth remembering that Bloomberg, a fired Salomon Brothers partner who parlayed his $10 million severance package into a financial software empire, was a registered Democrat before he decided to enter public life in a year that seemed friendly to Republicans. In 2001, the year he ran as Giuliani’s successor, Bloomberg donated $705,000 to the New York State GOP, its largest single-donor windfall since Nelson Rockefeller, and followed up that noticeable gift with another $500,000 a year later, ostensibly to ensure the re-election of Gov. George Pataki, but clearly also to ensure party loyalty.
It allowed Bloomberg’s nanny-like encroachments on property rights and civil liberties to go largely unlamented by machine Republicans. He’s added laws to the books that fine storeowners for having too many letters in their awnings, or ticket cars that are rendered immobile by snowstorms. And don’t even think about lighting up in a bar, sitting on a milk crate, or putting your bag down on the adjoining subway seat. The kind of velvet fascism that rules American corporate culture now rules Gotham, a city once celebrated for its louche glamour and gritty countercultural style, something many puritans wrongly misremember as being only coexistent with rampant crime. (Oh yes, there was middle ground between Mean Streets and Sex and the City, a time when “poverty” could be comfortable, and Times Square was a navigable cesspool far preferable to the Disney World it’s become.)
In a city with a skyrocketing cost of living — Moscow on the Hudson has been redefined — plutocracy is king. For Bloomberg “[t]he money,” as Fred Siegel and Michael Goodwin have written, “buys acquiescence if not adulation.” And it’s spread around everywhere. In 2005, Bloomberg gave $140 million to over 800 organizations, including the Independence Party, which has backed him twice, and on whose executive committee sits Lenora Fulani, a vicious Jew-hater and protégé of the Stalinoid cult leader Fred Newman (think Lyndon LaRouche, but with even less charisma). Overall, Bloomberg has poured about $160 million of his own fortune into both his inaugural and re-election campaigns. To get an idea of just how much that is relative to normal candidates, consider that his challenger in 2005, the hapless Democrat Freddy Ferrer, spent on his entire run what Bloomberg spent on his consultants, all of whom should have advised him to tighten his purse strings.
Though lauded far and wide for his Warren Buffet-like willingness to give to charity (Slate is a big Bloomberg booster on the philanthropy front), less acknowledged is the fact that the mayor’s largesse silences special interest groups and liberal tubthumpers, who might otherwise find fault with the steward of so many of the reviled and “authoritarian” policies of his predecessor.
Bloomberg rather resembles Hugo Chavez in this respect, except that instead of mistaking the populism of almsgiving as genuine socialism, he mistakes it as well-oiled, technocratic democracy, with himself in the role of lead “manager.” In 2000, before he entered politics, he gave $500,000 to the Dance Theater of Harlem, and $100,000 to Ballet Hispanico, both noble causes, but also convenient ones for cultivating an image as a healer of racial wounds in a town where they’ve historically been gangrenous.