I was no great supporter of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral bid. His cookie-cutter
style of management (all news stories have the same structure, all bureaus
have the same fishtank) might work with people who are self-selected
for the organisation, but couldn’t work in the much more anarchic world
of city politics. Worse, who was this billionaire with no political
experience to waltz in with the chutzpah to think that he could
run New York City? I’m opposed to individuals buying elections, which
is exactly what Bloomberg did, at a cost of about $80 a vote.
Eight months after Bloomberg took office, however, I have to say I’m
pleasantly surprised at the job he’s doing. Here’s a short profile of
him I’ve written.
* * *
Michael Bloomberg has placed himself in charge of coordinating the
memorials and ceremonies on the first anniversary of the attacks on
September 11, despite the fact that he is pretty much the only person
involved who played no significant role on the day itself. Hes
displaying no timidity, either: he says it was totally my decision
not to allow any original speeches during the memorial service. There
will only be readings the governor of New York will read Lincolns
Gettysburg Address, while the governor of New Jersey will read excerpts
from the Declaration of Independence.
Bloomberg has yet again demonstrated his ability to take control of
proceedings without getting anybodys back up. Like his predecessor,
hes an authority figure; unlike him, Bloomberg is well-liked.
Rudolph Giuliani was a feisty former prosecutor who loved to pick
fights and micromanage everything in his control. Bloomberg, on the
other hand, is a former CEO who prides himself on his ability to find
the best people to run large areas of the municipal government, and
then delegate responsibility to them. He also has no discernible chips
on his shoulder, which certainly helps in negotiations. There was a
long list of politicians Giuliani refused to meet, while Bloomberg will
reach out to anybody. A recent press conference for foreign journalists
was the second such event Bloomberg has had in one year; Giuliani did
none in his eight years as mayor.
Nine months after he took office, Bloomberg is enjoying the longest
honeymoon period in New York mayoral history. New Yorkers, after eight
years of the autocratic Giuliani, dont seem to mind Bloombergs
paternalism, so long as it comes without Giulianis abrasiveness.
Bloombergs ability to hop back and forth across political lines
no New York politician would dare cross enabled him to take control
of the citys school system something every previous mayor
tried, and failed, to do. And he is now moving on from the welfare of
the citys children to that of its adults: he slapped a $1.50-a-pack
city tax on cigarettes, and wants to ban smoking in all bars and restaurants.
He looks likely to succeed: New Yorkers loved to fight all of Giulianis
proposals, but have lost all their appetite for adversarial politics
in the Bloomberg era.
New Yorks new mayor, a former Salomon Brothers bond trader,
is comfortable with numbers and statistics. He boasts of the fact that
crime in Times Square is so low that it sometimes becomes hard to measure;
when he wants to make a point, hell cite the residential occupancy
rate in Battery Park City (95%) or the number of different nationalities
lost on September 11 (91).
And when asked about the risk of another terrorist attack on New York
City, this time using weapons of mass destruction, Bloomberg gives a
wholly characteristic response, a combination of his disdain for the
incalculable and his determination to make New Yorkers better off, whether
they like it or not. People die because they dont wear seatbelts,
he says, because they drive while under the influence of drink,
because they smoke. Better to concentrate on real risks which
we know how to deal with, than to obsess over hypothetical attacks which
by their very nature will be unexpected.
Bloomberg says the next emergency in New York probably wont
be a terrorist attack, its much more likely to be an accident.
The danger is that we let the terrorists win by letting the press
sensationalise risks that have always been there and will always be
Bloombergs is a hyper-rational view of what happened on September
11. Unpacked, the argument goes something like this: There was always
a chance that New York would be targeted by terrorists, as demonstrated
by the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and its destruction
eight years later. New York had, more or less, a degree of preparation
for such an attack commensurate with its likelihood. The city remains
a potential target, but the fact that a major attack happened quite
recently does not in itself increase the probability that another is
going to happen any time soon. We are now better informed as to the
risk of a terrorist threat, and the police and fire departments in New
York are better coordinated and better prepared. But the best way to
save lives is still to get people to stop smoking, rather than, say,
investing in radiation pills for all 8 million New Yorkers.
This line of argument is not the type of thing youre likely
to hear from a professional politician any time soon. Most politicians
dont understand probabilistic reasoning; the general public certainly
doesnt. But Bloomberg doesnt care about being understood
so much as he cares about doing the right thing. And weirdly, even when
New Yorkers dont understand the rationale behind his actions,
they trust him to be doing the right thing in any case. Thats
far from typical for this most loudmouthed and opinionated of cities.
In fact, it could be the one area in which New York really has changed
since September 11.