In a different world – or arguably even in the existing world, which is supposedly obsessed these days with all manner of corporate high jinks – the fact that Joel I. Klein, Mayor Bloomberg’s choice for schools chancellor, comes to us from the halls of media giant Bertelsmann AG might have raised a municipal eyebrow or two. After all, it was only the day before the mayor announced Klein’s appointment that the front page of the Times heralded the news of the ouster of Bertelsmann chief executive Thomas Middelhoff, who ran afoul of the Mohn family, the company’s controlling shareholders.
Klein, it turns out, was hired by Middelhoff in 2001 and was his high-level adviser and chief negotiator. And while Bertelsmann is no WorldCom (as far as we know) and neither Middelhoff nor Klein has been accused of any wrongdoing, the timing suggests at the very least that maybe Klein knew he had reason to be on the job market.
But the papers hardly batted an eye about Klein’s Middelhoff connection. What they zoomed in on instead was the fact that Klein’s experience in the education field seems to consist chiefly of – well, of having gone to school. But even on this point, skepticism was expressed in a whisper instead of a roar. “Mr. Klein must assure the education community that he is qualified to take control of the troubled system,” the Times editorialized, before going on to assert that the state’s Board of Regents, which must grant a waiver to chancellor nominees who are not educators, “should try to accommodate the mayor and his choice.”
So, with a nonpolitician mayor whose performance so far has been quite competent and a non-educator chancellor-to-be whom nearly everyone wishes well, we have reached a point in New York where “qualifications,” in the normally understood sense, are in fact a hindrance. Indeed, if a high-level job in the Bloomberg administration is what you’re after, you could evidently do far worse than to demonstrate to the mayor that you have utterly no expertise in the field. And why not? So far, Bloomberg’s lack of qualifications has been more boon than bane; it has enabled him, for example, to hire more explicitly on competence than did his predecessors, all of whom came to office with ten or twenty years of debts that had to be repaid in the hiring of this assemblyman’s sister or that district leader’s cousin. Clearly, the mayor hopes that Klein’s own lack of knowledge – specifically, his lack of ties to this district superintendent or that principal – will permit him to see the system with a fresh, and unsparing, set of eyes.
In 1969, David Garth, then consulting for John Lindsay’s campaign, famously coined the phrase “the second-toughest job in America” about the mayoralty. Garth, of course, also worked on Bloomberg’s campaign, and it seems his new client is putting his old maxim to the test. The way Bloomberg does it – keeping his head down, avoiding instead of picking fights, skipping off to Bermuda (or wherever he goes) for his Garbo-esque golf weekends – this job just doesn’t look all that hard anymore. One hopes against hope that we’ll be able to say the same of Klein eighteen months hence.