Full Bloom

Photo: AP

Michael Bloomberg’s pitch is that he’s not a politician. Not being one, and not having a record as one, seems to have meant that he hasn’t been hung for things that ordinary politicians regularly get hung for.

We’ve lacked a context in which to judge him. The business world is, in some sense, foreign territory to political reporters. And for business reporters, the kind of character issues that figure in politics seldom have much impact on the bottom line (business reporters may be morally lenient while political reporters can be Church Lady churlish).

But what would we think of Michael Bloomberg if we had been a fly on the wall in his office? Would the language and demeanor with which he wielded power tell us something?

That was a question I thought I had some answers to when I wrote a column in September based on an obscure booklet called The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg. The booklet had been prepared as a birthday present by his closest staff members and was filled with business shibboleths and office witticisms that also portrayed an on-the-fly sexism, racism, and homophobia. The woman who prepared the book, Elisabeth DeMarse, one of his closest associates at the time, confirmed its authenticity and described all the quotations as verbatim and the booklet as a tribute. Indeed, it was vivid financial-guy talk (“Make the customer think he’s getting laid when he’s getting fucked”). Wall Street is a place, as the booklet strikingly demonstrates, not only of economic Darwinism but of verbal Darwinism – a place where, if you’re not part of the white, male Establishment, you have to survive exactly the kind of social, ethnic, and sexual slings and arrows that appear throughout this booklet.

And yet, once again, the context seemed to let him off the hook: Men in business talk this way seemed to be the pass he got. The press mostly came to describe it as a “joke” booklet – a roast sort of thing.

As soon as stories about the booklet appeared, DeMarse, who was likely the person best placed to describe the relative seriousness or jokiness of the booklet, was muzzled by Bloomberg’s attorneys, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, who accused her of violating her confidentiality agreement with Bloomberg.

Even that didn’t hang him – it didn’t seem to suggest to anyone that he wielded power in a particularly brutal and ham-handed way.

I spent a few days contacting other Bloomberg people who also said they couldn’t talk, that they had signed agreements, or that they feared Bloomberg retaliation. But several of the people I spoke with said the same thing: Check the filings in the harassment cases.

The existence of three sexual-harassment cases against Bloomberg L.P. had been well reported – so much so that I could hardly imagine that there’d be more to learn. Bloomberg’s alleged admonition to a pregnant employee – “Kill it” – had been widely noted.

The fact that he was running at all for high public office with three different sexual-harassment suits circling around him seemed to indicate on his part lots of confidence that there was little here (alternatively, it could indicate a particular level of hubris). The Bloomberg response to the frequent press inquiries about these lawsuits was that all companies get these suits, and that getting only three was a pretty good record – which, on the face of it, seemed credible.

But curiosity got the better of me.

The suits, which focus on the early to mid-nineties, are in fact not just about Bloomberg the company but about Michael Bloomberg himself and the immediate coterie of executives surrounding him. The publicly available documents, if we are to believe them, all or in part, offer a nearly novelistic picture of Bloomberg: They capture the same voice as in the little booklet, a voice that you can hear all over Wall Street. But the voice here is racheted up from even Wall Street primitivism. Where the Wall Street voice is always a sort of primal “this is our world” proclamation, the Bloomberg voice in these papers takes the next step: This is my world – and I’m going to do what I want and it’s going to be done the way I want it done.

The documents create a picture of not just a hostile sexual environment but a truly weird one. This isn’t Clintonesque lunging on Bloomberg’s part, but rather, what is alleged here is a broader, more juvenile kind of control. Bloomberg’s company is a playground, or clubhouse, or frat house, with Bloomberg himself as the strangely removed but obviously volatile bully or grand master or BMOC. That Bloomberg is the boss may be much more the point than the sex – insults, and the power to get away with insults, are more important than gratification.

There’s the alleged dress code for Bloomberg women: short skirts and “fuck me” shoes. Bloomberg, in these papers, frequently admonishes his female employees on how they should dress, and on what he finds attractive.

There is, described in these documents, a detailed picture of Bloomberg’s odd feelings about the marriages of his female employees.

“What, is the guy dumb and blind? What the hell is he marrying you for?” Bloomberg is alleged to have asked Sekiko Garrison, a senior sales executive, who is one of the plaintiffs in these papers, when he saw her engagement ring. A week later, she maintains, he said, “Still engaged? What, is he that good in bed, or did your father pay him off to get rid of you?”

The pregnancies of his female employees – another issue, according to the papers, that he dwells on – he seems to take as a kind of betrayal. (Or is it just the distraction of an employee’s private life that he resents?) On top of his “Kill it” admonition to Garrison, he allegedly bemoans that she is the sixteenth person in the company to take maternity leave.

The Michael Bloomberg depicted here seems often to be sensing the possibility of sexual betrayal (even on the part of people with whom he is not sexually involved). When Bloomberg sees Garrison speaking with Bill Beutel, the local news anchor, at a Corporate Challenge road race in Central Park, Bloomberg, in the presence of other employees, accuses her, allegedly, of wanting to have sex with the anchorman.

A sense of proprietorship over his female staff is another constant theme in these papers. He tells Garrison, in one instance, that he doesn’t like her dress. “Your ass looks huge in it,” she says he said.

Perhaps most of all, these papers depict a sense of a remarkable lack of control on Bloomberg’s part, or a presumed absolute freedom to say whatever comes into his mind – it’s a kind of corporate-culture Tourette’s syndrome. “If you had to, would you rather do that or that?” Bloomberg questioned Garrison, she says, wanting her to choose between a newly hired older female employee or an overweight male employee. The portrait in the papers is of someone who just can’t seem to stifle himself.

There is, too, Bloomberg’s alleged tolerance of similar or worse behavior on the part of his male colleagues and the casual and systematic retaliations that resulted when the women in the company didn’t play their prescribed role.

The pervasive sense throughout these documents is of one man’s notion of what it means to be No. 1 – of the control he possesses, and the freedoms he’s entitled to. It isn’t real life – it’s life lived in a bubble, a bubble floated on inordinate cash flow.

Bloomberg has denied everything in the three lawsuits (although, according to the Daily News, he has admitted to “normal banter”). He told the News he took a polygraph, and that he passed it, but he’s refused to release the details of the test. He gave a deposition in the Garrison suit. But by the terms of the settlement, the Bloomberg deposition was never made public and both sides agreed not to discuss anything relating to the suit.

One of the other suits, filed by Mary Ann Olszewski, was dismissed because of mistakes by the plaintiff’s counsel (late filings among them). The third suit, by T. Diane Winger, has been dropped (Winger’s husband also worked for Bloomberg, and was subsequently found to have embezzled money, which may or may not have been a factor in the disappearance of the case).

Let us assume that absolute truth is unknowable.

And yet what we have here fits. It sounds like Michael Bloomberg. It sounds like Wall Street. The charges are relentless and specific – page after page of gross but nuanced relations between employer and employee.

In politics, all we customarily require is a smell test – and that smell test is what, in politics, informs the character issue. What’s more, there are three lawsuits here – remember what only one did to Bill Clinton.

There are some people who say that even if much of this is true in substance, it’s not true in tone – that Bloomberg and his cronies operate with a certain sense of humor (and that the inherent problem of such legalistic testimony is that it turns the playful literal). This is banter. If Bloomberg is guilty of something, it’s of being a lovable asshole, a charming dickhead.

Even if we accept that, it still doesn’t explain why, among all politicians, Bloomberg has gotten the benefit of the doubt here. Such allegations – indeed, far less credible allegations – would customarily torpedo a political career. It is certainly possible to argue that politicians should get the benefit of the doubt more often then they do. But why has Michael Bloomberg been the lucky one?

These documents are freely available. I know that various reporters at the New York Times have them – and have had them for months (Jonathan Landman, the Times Metro editor, refused to return phone calls to discuss the issue).

The Daily News, in fact, wrote a revealing story based upon these papers, focusing on the “Kill it” remark and using other vivid quotations. But still the story did not, in the media hierarchy, rise to the level of the character issue.

After the Daily News story, a Newsday reporter, James Madore, spent a few weeks looking for a new angle on it, but then, he says, he switched assignments and, he admits, the story seemed to have “fallen through the cracks.”

Bloomberg has surely benefited from having the money to silence his adversaries – by settling a lawsuit and demanding confidentiality agreements, he’s able to exercise control of his own biography.

And there are those who would argue that his money and social standing give him a further sort of media inoculation – he benefits from knowing the people who own the companies that publish or broadcast the news. But it may be, too, that at least up until now, he hasn’t been taken seriously enough to be a genuine media target. After all, why undermine a political career that isn’t going anywhere? The media may have a heart when it comes to a hopeless dreamer (even a rich one).

And yet that seems to assume that if Bloomberg fails in the upcoming election, this will be the end of him as a candidate. That view doesn’t see this race as the first step in how a rich man builds a political career. Losing in 2001, losing by a large enough margin never to have really drawn the fire of the press, but spending enough to lose by a small enough margin to claim a respectable showing, is a way to launder your dirty linen (if it isn’t a story now, the media isn’t likely to make old news a story later) and take the next step in the political career you’re determined to buy for yourself.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Full Bloom