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Chairman Mike

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I called her. Our conversation was terse and awkward. She seemed alarmed that I had the booklet, then wanted to know where I got it, then made me describe it in detail, then said there weren't more than a dozen copies in existence. She said: "It was made for Mike's birthday. He's got a leather-bound copy. His inner circle always gives him presents like this -- videos about him or scrapbooks or mock newspapers about his life and accomplishments."

"You prepared it?"

"There were other people who helped," she answered. "It was an office project."

I read from the booklet: "The three biggest lies are: the check's in the mail, I'll respect you in the morning, and I'm glad I'm Jewish." I said: "He actually said that?"

Pause. "Often."

I read another Bloombergism: "If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they'd go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale's." And another: "I know for a fact that any self-respecting woman who walks past a construction site and doesn't get a whistle will turn around and walk past again and again until she does get one."

"This is Bloomberg culture," she said. "You have to understand, Mike is very uncensored." After a second, she went on: "When Mike says outrageous things, it's sort of a test. It's a loyalty test. It's a bonding thing when everyone laughs. You stop thinking that it might be inappropriate."

"Is all of this a direct quote -- these are his actual words?"

"Yes."

I couldn't resist quoting Bloomberg again: "I make it a rule never to go to Queens -- and since that eliminates both airports I don't travel a great deal." I found another New York slur: "I told my good friend Liz Holtzman that she should arrange 24-hour protection for me and my family -- because the minute they're at risk in this city, I'm moving my family and my 200 New York City employees out of here."

"It's his patter -- he's on cruise control," DeMarse said. "He says this stuff to customers and new hires and anyone who comes into the office. These are his lines. Everything in there I've heard him say many times. I sat next to him for seven years."

"Was it supposed to be funny when you gave it to him? Like a roast? What was the tone of this present supposed to be?"

She paused to consider. "Adulatory."

"And how did he react to the gift?"

"He was touched. He loves things that are about himself. He saw this as a tribute, a testimonial -- which it was. He wanted everyone to get a copy."

The present-day political question is clear: Is the person who makes such statements a racist-sexist homophobe, or just someone with a questionable sense of taste and humor? The latter is the context argument. For Bloomberg, as for Peter Bart, the editor of Variety who was recently suspended for like-minded remarks, you can make the case that this is a kind of organizational patois. Saying the unsayable (or at least the inappropriate) can even pass for a kind of out-of-the-box thinking. ("He's so over-the-top," people say admiringly.)

For Wall Street, the Bloomberg wit and wisdom is everyday stuff. Bloomberg is just talking the talk.

On the other hand, what does it mean when you treasure such idiocies -- when your organization officially elevates them to pearls of wit and wisdom?

It may not indicate a larger tolerance of racism-sexism-homophobia than exists anywhere else, but it represents, I think, an institutional acceptance of the arrogance, cruelty, carelessness, and rulelessness of the CEO.

It's about dominance -- his dominance -- and the pleasure he takes in dominating. You hate him (he will make you hate him), but you love him, too (you have no choice).

Across countless political scandals, we've seen heretofore respected and charismatic politicians revealed as craven and venal. In response, we've come to think of CEOs, who, in fact, run the real precincts of our livelihoods, as our actual leaders and role models.

It is perhaps a natural swing of the pendulum that we begin to learn that the Neutron Jack, Chainsaw Al, bottom-line, my-way-or-the-highway charismatic CEO is as likely to be the most emotionally stunted, attention-craving, socially maladroit, casually cruel, spectacular boor in the room.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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