So here we are, 100 days into the Bloomberg era, and somehow it all still seems so improbable. Just why did he want to do this? Is he happy – really, deep down – to have the job? Doesn’t he ever – on a night, say, when some dreary civic obligation is staring him in the face – wish he could turn back time and once again be Citizen Mike, billionaire bachelor?
Funny thing: To a surprising degree, he still is. He’s doing the job his way, which is different from the ways of those who preceded him (especially he who immediately preceded him). This tells us something about both the mayor and the city.
Ever since television became the lens through which citizens inspected candidates – in New York, it began with John Lindsay’s 1965 campaign – voters have elected as mayor the candidate who was temperamentally most unlike his predecessor. The aging Wagner gave way to the youthful, dynamic Lindsay; Lindsay to Beame, the dour accountant; Beame to the ebullient Koch; Koch to the courtly but passive Dinkins; Dinkins to the one-man volcano called Giuliani. The consistent theme has been, paradoxically, the desire for inconsistency.
Voters didn’t know much about Mike Bloomberg when they elected him. But they knew what he wasn’t. He wasn’t an old-guard Democrat, lugging that baggage. And yet he wasn’t Rudy either. True, if Giuliani had been allowed to run again, he’d have won. But he wasn’t, and voters looked ahead, perhaps sensing in Bloomberg the person most likely to break the fevers that roiled the city during the Giuliani era.
In 100 days, Bloomberg’s main accomplishment has been, to use the operative cliché, to “change the tone.” Analysis along these lines will usually mention that he paid a call on Al Sharpton, and that he doesn’t go around labeling people idiots or loopy Marxists. But the about-face taking place at City Hall runs deeper than that, and it could prove the key to Bloomberg’s success, if indeed he’s successful. It can be summed up in one sentence: Bloomberg – the mayor, if not the businessman-citizen – has lots of will but no ego.
“The way he’s different,” says John LoCicero, a former Koch aide, “is that his ego doesn’t get in the way. He’s going to do it his way, that’s true, but he doesn’t care if all the publicity doesn’t come his way. He’s very sure of himself.”
New Yorkers are used to equating will with ego, particularly when sizing up their mayors. Giuliani and Koch brought the city out of tough times, seemingly by force of will, and they had the egos to match. It’s the New York way. The town’s tabloid rhythms demand that public figures have throbbing egos, celebrate themselves – George Steinbrenner, the Donald, Sharpton.
Bloomberg has will; but in becoming a politician, he has suppressed most traces of the old private-sector ego. He delegates. He lets commissioners and deputy mayors talk, a lot, to the press (another dramatic change from Giuliani). He hires good people and tells them do to their jobs as they see fit.
Those who’ve dealt with him face-to-face say that he comes at you straight. “The mannerism and style is such that you want to do whatever you can for him,” says Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “He’s always ready to understand your problems.”
“I did point out to him that David Dinkins was my friend and neighbor and I didn’t give him control of the schools,” says Assemblyman Denny Farrell, who has met with Bloomberg in Albany. “He just smiled and said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll be able to talk you into it.’ “
“He seems the sort of person with whom reasonable disagreements won’t turn into personal nastiness,” says Council Speaker Gifford Miller.
That’s why he’s closer than other mayors have been – though not yet, really, that close – to gaining control of the schools. If he pulls that off, it will have happened, whatever the politics, because on an emotional level, he doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable.
And yet: there is such a thing in politics as too little ego.
Bloomberg’s approach to the public – the ego-driven – aspects of the job has been unenthusiastic. Down the road, this might present problems. Okay, grant him his weekends in Bermuda, but doesn’t it seem preposterous that the mayor of New York City did not feel compelled to poke his head into at least one church sanctuary on Easter Sunday? (He was again out of town.) Those ceremonial baptisms forge bonds between a mayor and his constituents, and Bloomberg’s lack of interest in them makes one wonder where his reservoir of support is going to come from once the honeymoon ends. For example, a showdown looms with Giuliani, who is no doubt keeping a ledger of every political reversal and personal slight. When it erupts, will Bloomberg be able to rally the city to his corner?
He’s a much better mayor so far than he was a candidate, because on one level, being the mayor means being the CEO, which he can do. But in time, he’ll see that, to build support for the thornier issues he wants to take on, he’ll need voters’ passion as well as their respect.
Right now, he has only the latter. But 100 days ago, it wasn’t even certain he’d have won that quite as quickly as he has. And he’s done it in his own, and very unexpected, way.