One day last July, Al From received an unexpected call from Michael Steinhardt. From is the founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist outfit in Washington that helped propel Bill Clinton into the White House; Steinhardt is the once-hellacious hedge-fund manager turned philanthropist whose name now graces the School of Education at NYU, a former chairman of the DLC, and a friend for decades of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When From picked up the phone, Steinhardt greeted him thus: “How’d you like to come to New York and have dinner with the next president of the United States?”
From replied, teasingly, “I didn’t realize you’re so friendly with Hillary Clinton.”
The genesis of Steinhardt’s call was a conversation with New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein. Klein said that “Bloomberg was preoccupied—no, that’s too strong a word—that he was really focused on whether he should run for president,” Steinhardt recalls. Steinhardt reminded Klein of his association with the DLC and told him that if Bloomberg wanted to meet From “to get some perspective about the realities of running for national office,” he would happily arrange it. Fifteen minutes later, Klein called back and said that Bloomberg certainly did.
Soon enough, From found himself having supper at Steinhardt’s apartment on the Upper East Side with Bloomberg and his senior political adjutants: deputy mayors Patti Harris, Kevin Sheekey, and Ed Skyler. For the next couple of hours, From laid out his analysis of the political landscape and his views on the viability of an independent candidacy. He discussed DLC poll data concerning the alienation of voters from the two major parties. But he also argued that any mayor—and especially a mayor of New York—would face an uphill slog. Bloomberg listened closely but asked few questions, preferring to hold forth (at great length) about his record as mayor. Regarding his national aspirations, he adopted a posture of self-protective self-deprecation. “What chance does a five-foot-seven billionaire Jew who’s divorced really have of becoming president?” he asked.
Steinhardt left the dinner buzzing and spent weeks talking up the prospect of Bloomberg 2008 at various dinner parties. From returned to Washington dubious about Bloomberg’s presidential prospects, yet firm in one conclusion. “They’re serious about it,” he tells me. “I don’t necessarily think that they’re going to do it, but they clearly want to be ready if the opportunity is there.”
Until last week, when the furor over the Queens police shooting erupted, Michael Bloomberg, 64, was having a nearly perfect year. His approval numbers, which in 2003 fell to 24 percent, had been above 70 precent since January. By taking visible and voluble positions on issues from guns to immigration to stem-cell research, he’d started to carve out a national profile. In a poll released last week rating the likability of twenty big-name pols, Bloomberg ranked seventh, behind Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, and John McCain but ahead of John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and (obviously) George W. Bush. And although the racial tensions now simmering in the city suggest that Bloomberg will be on the hot seat for weeks to come, there’s a reasonable chance that his handling of the crisis—conciliatory, consultative, built on a history of fair dealing with New York’s black leadership—may actually redound to his benefit.
From Bloomberg’s City Hall coterie comes a consistent refrain: that their boss has emerged as more than a competent, steady, managerial steward; that he is, in the words of Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, “a great, visionary mayor.” This sentiment is echoed, not surprisingly, by his friends. “There’s just no question,” says the investor Steve Rattner, “that he is the greatest mayor of New York since Fiorella La Guardia.”
The Bloomberg 2008 boomlet owes much to such assessments. Also to the sense that his persona—blunt, pragmatic, consensus-building, ideologically ambidextrous—is in sync with an electorate desperately craving calm, coherent centrism. Bloomberg has steadfastly insisted that he has no intention of hurling himself at the White House. He plans to serve out his term, then turn his attention to giving away his monumental fortune. And yet, in ways conspicuous and subtle, he is keeping the door ajar. “Oh, I don’t know, that’s a hypothetical thing,” Bloomberg says when I ask him if he’s ready to rule out a presidential run. “It’s like, ‘Read my lips, no new taxes’—you can’t say that.”
Actually, you can—unless there’s a chance that you’ll do the opposite. Long before Bloomberg occupied City Hall, his ambition, energy, and ego were nearly limitless, and his success as mayor has enlarged them exponentially. Today, he seems to view himself as a man of destiny, whose wealth and wisdom empower him to transform not just the city but the country and even the world. Now he faces a fateful choice: between the well-trod, comforting, ennobling path of philanthropy and something far more exciting, grandiose—and arguably quite absurd.