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.
To his credit, Bloomberg has abandoned Giuliani’s callous morning-after approach to dealing with racially explosive scandals. When Sean Bell, the unarmed black man leaving a bachelor party in Queens in 2006, died after having 50 bullets emptied into his car by five pursuing police officers, Bloomberg escaped the usual round of public censure by describing the cops’ response as seemingly “excessive.” But both he and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly attended the same delicate meetings with community activists and black politicians like Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. Charles Rangel and Rev. Herbert Daugherty, and yet it was only Kelly’s resignation that was loudly demanded. (In response to the Bell affair, the commissioner appointed an NYPD panel that recommended 19 new protocols — including a psychological screening for applicants for undercover duty and a breathalyzer test for any officer involved in a shooting — all of which Kelly accepted.)
Bloomberg’s ability to deflect blame and take credit is rivaled only by that of Hillary Clinton, perhaps not coincidentally, the woman many local newspapers once pined Bloomberg would have run against for president in a kind of executive subway series. After hundreds of RNC protesters in 2004 were kept for almost two days behind a chain link fence topped with concertina wire, the mayor didn’t so much as field a questioning phone call from the ACLU, much less prompt an angry editorial in the New York Times deploring his heavy-handed peacekeeping practices. Kelly, once again, got all the blame. And never mind that Hizzoner was busy fawning all over George W. Bush inside Madison Square Garden in one of the few remaining acts of political theatre in which he partook as a registered Republican.
Bloomberg himself appears punch-drunk on what he sees as an outpouring of public affection for him, a self-conception no doubt reinforced by his legion of overpaid yes-men and handlers. What price true love? He awarded six-figure bonuses in Christmas of 2005 to many of the staffers who worked on his reelection campaign. And in a jaw-dropping interview he gave to New York Magazine’s John Heilemann in December 2006 (when the presidential dream was still in deep REM state), Bloomberg recounted his ecstatic reception at the West Indian-American Day Parade in Brooklyn.
“There was not one boo, not one catcall,” Bloomberg merrily proclaims. “Young people, old people: ‘Bloomberg! Bloomberg!’ ‘Mayor! Mayor!’ ‘Great! Thumbs up!’ ” Quite a change, that is, from three years ago, when his reception at outer-borough parades was uniformly brutal: jeers, extended middle fingers, cigarettes flung at him. For a bracing experience, he says, “close firehouses, raise property taxes, put in a smoking ban-then do a parade in Staten Island.” He smiles. “Today in Staten Island, I get 80 percent of the vote and everybody loves me.”
That belongs in the DSM-IV manual under “megalomania.” Though he should try selling that outer borough ego closer to the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.
Bloomberg’s reputation among the fast-vanishing middle class of New York — as an economic demographic, it accounts for a mere 20% of the city’s total population — is that of an oblivious fat cat who has turned the island of Manhattan into an overpriced playground for all his rich friends. A prime example: During his first year in office, Bloomberg’s ewe-lamb of a development project was to build a giant sports arena for the New York Jets on the large empty lot on the Lower West Side. The idea had originated with Giuliani, who never made it work, but Bloomberg redoubled Rudy’s efforts and — oddly for a reputed capitalist — undercut the market by offering the Jets this billion dollar strip of land for a mere $200 million. The offer was made with the intention of luring the Olympics to New York in 2012. (Ask the average New Yorker about that mercifully bust idea.) In any event, the games are going to London, however, for all his wooing of Stockholm, Bloomberg squandered the opportunity to hasten the rebuilding of Ground Zero; what little has been done on the ruins of the World Trade Center is courtesy of the state, not the city.
On education, which was Bloomberg’s banner issue in 2001, his accomplishments are similarly spectral, or at least confined to the full-page ads his tycoon friends take out in the New York Times on his behalf. Bloomberg has added about $1 billion a year to the school budget since 2003, eliminated the admittedly ineffectual Board of Education, and offered salary increases to teachers. Yet, as education analyst Sol Stern has argued, the mayor cooks the books with respect to test scores, taking credit for citywide increases that occurred before he implemented any new policies, and papering over any unflattering dips over which his administration did in fact preside. Bloomberg then centralized the operation of all New York City schools. In his first term in office, he claimed that he, personally, should be held accountable for their progress or failure. Big of him, except that it’s his Chancellor of Education, the well meaning but disconnected Joel Klein, who gets read the riot act whenever the unions express their displeasure at Bloomberg-concocted policies. The most revolutionary of them was short lived, anyway. After three years, and with no discernible improvements drawn from the new top-down restructuring of authority, city schools were once again decentralized, while the architect of this project convinced reporters that this was part of his long-term strategy all along. (Former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson wryly noted that if such a dramatic about-face yielded no results in the private sector, it’d be counted a “risky investment.”)
Of course, part of the reason Bloomberg befriends the media is that, in true hall monitor fashion, he can’t stand being criticized or rebuked in any way. Upon seeing teachers and parents march in a 1,500-person parade against his education initiatives, he called them “selfish,” explicitly compared the United Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association, and implicitly compared them to abettors of terrorism. “You’re either with the children, or you’re against the children,” he said, sounding like George Bush filtered through one of those pedantic “The More You Know” spots on NBC.
Similarly, in the winter of last year, a busing crisis struck New York, leaving roughly 7,000 students stranded in the cold — all because Bloomberg awarded a no-bid contract to a consulting firm that decided to rejigger the old routes without letting the parents know. Again, Mayor Mike reprehended his antagonists as people “who have no experience in doing anything” and should have thought to call 311, the 24-hour hotline he imported from Chicago that dispenses (often incorrect) information about parking and train schedules and lets callers bitch about car alarms. (Tim Robbins had the better plan in the film Noise.)
Bloomberg has even withstood scrutiny for his own “Heckuva job, Brownie” moment. There was a blackout in Queens in July 2006, which was produced by incompetence on the part of the city’s energy monopoly Con Edison. The mayor didn’t bother to visit the affected areas (“Allahpundit” of Hot Air, who lives in Queens, memorably blogged about the mayor’s indifference), and then added insult to insult by declaring, “I think [Con Ed CEO] Kevin Burke deserves a thanks from this city. He’s worked as hard as he can…”
As Siegel and Goodwin put it, “Bloomberg’s reputation is built on the idea that he’s not just another politician but an apolitical manager who rises above petty interests. But this image reverses the reality. Bloomberg’s failures have been managerial, while he’s been a brilliant success politically by catering – via the city treasury and his own fortune – to those petty interests.”
Ones begins to see what all the veepstakes fuss is about.