It isn’t that Michael Bloomberg is stubborn, exactly. He does listen to advice. He does, occasionally, admit to error. But the man does not lack faith in his own judgment. Last week, Bloomberg made it clear—yet again—that he believes he knows how to fix the country. That unshakable self-assurance is what makes him equally capable of inspiring high-mindedness and exasperating high-handedness.
This past summer, religious extremists and political opportunists stoked a controversy over the proposal to build an Islamic-American community center on Park Place. Bloomberg, when asked, forcefully defended freedom of religion as a fundamental American principle, even if it meant creating a new mosque near ground zero. But his statements were piecemeal, and the anti-Muslim shouters only grew louder. Bloomberg wanted to deliver a comprehensive speech, so Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson stayed up late one night writing a draft, which was polished by City Hall speechwriter Frank Barry. Mayoral spokesman Stu Loeser suggested the appropriately symbolic setting: Governors Island, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. On August 3, the Landmarks Preservation Commission cleared away the final bureaucratic hurdle to the Islamic center, and Bloomberg seized the moment, ferrying out into New York Harbor to deliver the most eloquent speech of his nine years in office—but not before the mayor himself added the most poetic passage. “On September 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ ” Bloomberg said, his voice cracking. “We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”
The mayor’s certitude produced less edifying moments too: He zealously defended Wall Street’s right to garish profits and backed term limits … for everybody else. And then there was his secret courtship of Cathie Black to lead the city’s public schools. Bloomberg is routinely blasted as autocratic, elitist, and contemptuous of transparency—and by suddenly replacing Joel Klein with a career publishing executive who possesses nothing resembling experience in educating children, the mayor seemed bent on proving his critics correct. (Another name on his short list, charter-school entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada, might have proved just as controversial.) Bloomberg briefly claimed he’d conducted a “public search,” but he picked Black because he’s sure she can do the job, dammit, and that’s all that mattered.
This year was an emphatic reminder that he remains a perfect temperamental fit for this city: New York thrives on creative chaos, but we seem to like our mayors unequivocal. For better and worse, Mike Bloomberg is in charge. Let’s hope, for the sake of 1.1 million kids, that he’s right again.