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His American Dream

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The mayor ambles into an upstairs room in Gracie Mansion and sits on the edge of a sofa beneath a Regis François Gignoux painting. It’s late afternoon on an Indian-summer day, and Bloomberg is here for a cocktail party he’s hosting for the Randalls Island Sports Foundation. In a building so replete with history, I feel compelled to ask if Bloomberg especially admires any of his predecessors. “David Rockefeller, whom I’ve become friendly with—I’m always impressed, I know a Rockefeller!—his first job was as secretary to La Guardia,” he says. “Jimmy Walker was a lady’s man and ran off to avoid going to jail.” And that’s the image he’d like to portray? “I think not.”

Apparently rendered bored by historical reflection, Bloomberg takes a bite of an oatmeal cookie and leaves the past behind. “All I’ve got to worry about is my eight years as mayor,” he says. “You’d love to go out and have every editorial board write this glowing, he’s-done-a-great-job thing, because that’s the measure … When I walk down the street, people yell out of the cab, ‘Love you! Great job! Keep it up!’ Anybody who doesn’t like that should see a psychiatrist.”

Bloomberg, naturally, thinks that talk about his legacy is premature; he still has three years left, right? (Right?) Yet one of the most admirable things about his tenure so far has been the way he has taken on issues where progress is hard and often achingly slow. Education. Infrastructure. Public health. Poverty. The physical transformation of the city. “The mayor’s smart enough to know that his most important initiatives aren’t three-years-and-I-can-wrap-it-up things,” notes Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City. “So he’s trying to tie down as much as he can.”

Bloomberg doesn’t dispute the point, but he’s aware of how limited his power is to tie anything down. He cites education, an area where his policies are being imitated in cities around the nation. “What scares the heck out of me,” he says, “is that Albany, when the current mayoral control runs out in June 2009, they’ll say, ‘We like it, but of course we need some representation from the teachers union. And of course we need the parents there, too’—and then you’re right back to what you had before.”

And that would be tragic?

“It’s not tragic for me,” Bloomberg replies in a tone of infinite solemnity. “Tragic for the kids. And for the city. And for the country. And for the world.”

Some of the mayor’s lieutenants are worried that the advent of the Spitzer era will prove similarly nettlesome, especially regarding big-ticket development projects. “Eliot’s a control freak,” says a private-sector pooh-bah. “I think he respects the mayor, and will try to handle him carefully, but I think he won’t be able to contain himself.”

Bloomberg says he’s sanguine about Spitzer, but that doesn’t stop him from firing warning shots across the governor-elect’s bow. “Eliot’s big problem is not New York City, it’s upstate,” he says. “He’s going to find out that the State Legislature is a force to be dealt with.” He adds, “What’s the incentive for Eliot to have big fights with a mayor who’s only going to be around for three years and has a 70 percent approval rating? Where the city is the major generator of cash for the whole state? No.”

One way Bloomberg could counterbalance Spitzer—who may be governor for a while—and more generally protect his legacy is by handpicking a successor. “I think [Time Warner CEO] Dick Parsons would be a great mayor,” he declares. “If Dick were to run, I would be hard-pressed not to support him.” I ask if he’s prodded Parsons to run. “Yeah, but in a joking way, not seriously,” he replies. “He doesn’t need me to tell him the job. He doesn’t need me to convince.”

But Parsons tells me that the mayor seemed plenty serious. So is he interested? “That’s not my thing. I’m focused right now on getting Time Warner accomplished,” he says. But when I press him on whether he’s saying no definitively, absolutely, Parsons sounds uncannily like Bloomberg regarding the presidency: “I don’t think that sensible people say things like that. You know, never say never.” Even so, the mayor must have been disappointed. Parsons laughs. “It’s flattering, he’s flattering, but what I’m signed up for is extending term limits,” he says. “Make it possible for him to serve a third term.”

No doubt in a wistful moment that thought has crossed Bloomberg’s mind. “The sad thing is, in my next life, when I’m back in the civilian world, you don’t have the power of being mayor,” he says. “But you have the freedom to do other things.”


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