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His American Dream

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The Sunday after the election, Bloomberg flew to Little Rock, Arkansas, to give a speech at the Clinton presidential library. The occasion was a conference on philanthropy organized by Slate, which each year features a list of the country’s biggest donors, the Slate 60. In the second-floor hall of the library, looking out on the Arkansas River, Bloomberg said, “As one of my favorite authors once wrote, ‘I’ve always respected those who tried to change the world for the better, rather than just complain about it.’ That quote is from a stirring autobiography written ten years ago. Maybe you’ve heard of it: Bloomberg by Bloomberg.

Bloomberg’s oratorical proficiency is often roundly mocked. (Given his relentless monotone, one of the more amusing experiences in rhetorical voyeurism is listening to him try to do justice to an exclamation point in his prepared text.) But Bloomberg’s speeches occasionally have passages that are working on a subtler level than you first imagine, and the above is an example. What he seems to be doing is mocking himself, poking fun at his own ego. But he’s also reminding his audience that he has been preaching the virtues of philanthropy since before Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, et al. made it fashionable.

Bloomberg, to be fair, has been doing more than preaching; he’s been walking the walk. With donations of $144 million in 2005, he ranked seventh on this year’s Slate 60, just under David Rockefeller. And if he lives up to his word, his rank will almost certainly rise. Bloomberg says that he intends to give away most of his moola after he leaves office. To that end, he recently bought a $45 million building on East 78th Street near his home, out of which he and Patti Harris will run his foundation.

How much cash will they be dispensing? Possibly more than anyone presumes. For now, Bloomberg has squelched rumors that he’s preparing to sell Bloomberg LP—but someday he will, and when he does, his net worth will expand dramatically. A recent piece in the New York Sun estimated that the mayor’s net worth, which Forbes pegs at $5.3 billion, may be over $20 billion (if his company is properly valued). Bloomberg’s aides whisper that the story may be accurate. In any event, the mayor tells me that in the future he expects to be doling out “$300 million, $400 million a year.”

Bloomberg says that public-health causes will be among the main beneficiaries. Of all the things I heard Bloomberg brag about in our time together—a list as copious as that of Wilt Chamberlain’s sexual conquests—none was touted with more pride than the smoking ban. “Nothing I ever do in all my life will save as many lives,” he exults. “Because of that, we have twelve states and twelve countries that have banned it. France has talked about passing a law banning smoking in restaurants. Who would’ve thought it? France!”

But Bloomberg tells me he has another concept brewing. “There’s the area of, how do you encourage more democracy,” he says. “Whether it’s getting good people to go into public service, or finding ways for the public to measure the people they elect and whether they deliver what they promise.”

You’re talking about merging your politics to your philanthropy, I say.

“Yes, but you’ve got to distinguish between what I’m talking about and what George Soros is trying to do. Soros uses his money to push his views. I’d be more inclined to use my money to give people the ability to make up their own minds and express themselves.”

Bloomberg’s ideas on this topic are larval, incredibly vague. One interpretation of them is that he aims to become a hybrid of Bill Gates and Bill Clinton: a very rich man with the benefit of a history in politics, with all the savvy and connections that it entails. “Whatever amount of money Mike has, it’s less than Gates has,” Steve Rattner notes. “And whatever amount of political capital he has, it’s less than Clinton has. But Bill Clinton has no money and Bill Gates has no political capital. And Mike could be an interesting amalgam of the two.”

Bloomberg seems to like this interpretation when I present it to him. “What I find fascinating,” he observes, “is that for most people in government, their whole objective is to work themselves up to living in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue … But you don’t have to live in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to have a real chance to make a difference.”

There is, however, a less, er, charitable—and perhaps more incisive—reading of Bloomberg’s vagueness. “I don’t think that, deep in his heart, he has any philanthropy that really touches him deeply,” his old friend Steinhardt says. “Now, he’s not a guy who shows emotional connections readily. But frankly, I don’t think that he’s a guy who has deep emotional connections to very much. Neither people nor things.”


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