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The Kingdom and the Power, All Self-Made
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By JACOB WEISBERG
Published: October 8, 2009
When Michael R. Bloomberg became mayor of New York City on Jan. 1, 2002, there was every reason to expect him to fail. A cosseted tycoon with no political experience, he had essentially purchased the office with a $74 million check. He had no place in the city’s ethnic stew, no gift for relating to ordinary people, and little news media presence. His clumsy, often arrogant comments were shot through with the Ross Perot fallacy that political problems are easy compared with the really tough ones businessmen have to deal with.
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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Money, Power, Politics
By Joyce Purnick
Illustrated. 252 pages. PublicAffairs. $26.95.
Excerpt: ‘Mike Bloomberg’ (October 9, 2009)
Times Topics: Michael Bloomberg
The Sunday Book Review on ‘Mike Bloomberg’ (October 11, 2009)
How the former chief executive overcame these liabilities to become a popular and effective mayor has the makings of a wonderful metropolitan fable, a reverse Cinderella tale in which the princess throws away her glass slippers and gets serious about sweeping the floor. Part of his success would seem to derive from a well-concealed modesty. Mr. Bloomberg knew what he didn’t know and learned from his mistakes, even if he seldom acknowledged them.
He brought in high-quality people, listened to them and looked after them. Another aspect of Mr. Bloomberg’s success, surely, has been the substantive core of his amateurism — his naïve view that politics is a problem on the way to policy and not the other way around. Because he wasn’t trying to get anywhere else, he didn’t shrink from making sound, unpopular decisions like raising property taxes or banning smoking in bars. Nor did he avoid clashes with entrenched constituencies like the teachers’ unions, transportation workers or the antediluvian overlords in Albany.
Joyce Purnick, a former columnist and metropolitan editor for The New York Times, gives us the basics of this story in a straightforward, biographical chronicle, “Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics.”
Her account begins with Mr. Bloomberg’s unexceptional middle-class childhood in Medford, Mass., glances over his formative years as a salesman at Salomon Brothers, charts the rise of his eponymous company after he was cut loose from Salomon with a $10 million parachute, and offers a few mildly salacious tidbits from his years as a divorced man about town in the 1990s.
Her narrative grows more animated when she arrives at the 2001 and 2005 mayoral campaigns, which she covered as a reporter and columnist. It becomes more excited still when she tries to establish, not very convincingly, that Mr. Bloomberg nearly ran for president as a third-party candidate in 2008 and, more persuasively, that he held off declaring his decision to run for a third term until it was too late to put New York’s term-limits law to a public referendum, which he probably would have lost.
While Ms. Purnick’s recounting of Mr. Bloomberg’s early gaffes and fumbles may interest political trivia buffs, she underplays the far more interesting issues his mayoralty raises about New York City and about urban governing in general. How did Mayor Bloomberg achieve further reductions in crime, which many people assumed couldn’t happen after the large gains of the Giuliani years? Has he improved the city’s fundamental fiscal position or just postponed crisis for a few years? On such policy questions, she has little to say.
To a large extent, this is a book undermined by the principle of journalistic neutrality. Because she is not willing to grant the premise that Mr. Bloomberg has done a good job as mayor — or to challenge it either — Ms. Purnick pre-empts any deeper inquiry into the reasons for his successes and failures. Too often, she resorts to the “critics complain” formulation or takes the reporter’s dodge of casting decisions in terms of political perceptions.
Too often as well, Ms. Purnick levels pallid accusations of personal hypocrisy. “His stubborn insistence on banning the use of cellphones in public schools mystified and angered New Yorkers, more convinced than ever that the mayor, personally BlackBerry-addicted, was out of touch with day-to-day concerns of students,” she writes. This hardly counts as a critique of the policy. When it comes to Mr. Bloomberg’s most important education initiative — mayoral control of the schools — she falls back on the conclusion that he and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have exaggerated their successes. Well, who in politics hasn’t?
Lukewarm about her subject, she faults him for being dull. The result is a lifeless portrait. “He is not warm, beloved, or glib in a profession that demands all three,” she concludes, adding, “And that is okay with him.” We finish knowing a bit more about Mr. Bloomberg, but not knowing him any better.
I suspect that an author who managed to penetrate deeper inside the mayor’s head would find it a far more interesting place. So too would a writer more attuned to the social comedy of a city ruled by its richest resident.
Like most liberal billionaires, Mr. Bloomberg is a hypocrite for pushing social equality while using his cash to buy extraordinary power and privilege. If bottomless wealth frees him from the conventional temptations of politics, it inclines him to buy his way out of tight corners, as in negotiations with the big municipal unions, where he has overpaid relative to what the city can afford. Living so long in a coddled bubble has left Mr. Bloomberg philanthropically minded but less engaged by the specific problems of the city’s poor than by livability issues like traffic, transportation, public safety and clean air.
New York’s billionaire mayor may be, as Ms. Purnick says, sui generis, but as a rich man seeking fulfillment in public life, he represents a growing trend. Despite the recent catastrophe of American finance, heroes of capitalism, who have presumably graduated from the motive of economic self-interest, hold a priestly allure. Being ordered about by a self-made Bloomberg or Jon Corzine doesn’t have the same class implications as being scolded by a Rockefeller or a Bush — which may be why ungovernable New Yorkers have come to tolerate the mayor’s paternalism. He may whine about our diets, our manners, our carbon emissions. But after eight years, many New Yorkers seem to agree that it’s nice having a sugar daddy to take care of you.