Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bloomberg for Prez?

The rains came in a flash. 7:00 PM.
Warm sunny day in New York, turning July- muggy by mid-afternoon; and then the clouds came along. By five, the day was darkened almost to night and the rains swept in, along with the cooler temperatures.

The book that New Yorkers in the know, especially the Wall Street/hedge fund contingent and their legions of investors, society friends, and minions are gobbling up is the highly readable “The Last Tycoons; The Secret History of Lazard Freres & Co” (Doubleday) by William D. Cohan

I bought it out of curiosity to possibly learn more about some of the names involved, names which are still prominent to New Yorkers of the upper echelons: Frank Altschul, Michel David-Weill, Felix Rohatyn, Bruce Wasserstein, Steven Rattner and especially its longtime head partner, Andre Meyer.

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Mr. Meyer, a French native who lived for many years in Manhattan, was a figure of great prominence to the public in the late 1960s and 1970s because of his association with the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy when her every moment was front page news.  The public knew that he dined with her publicly from time to time, and occasionally escorted her to philanthropic events. Because of his age – older, and size – rounder, and looks – not pretty, it was accepted that his genius lay in increasing the widow’s net worth from small (in the millions), to substantial over the years. According to Mr. Cohan, this was so, although Meyer (who had more than one mistress, and always a wife), was not delighted that Jackie up and married Mr. Onassis, although he negotiated her marriage settlement for her.

Before I started to read it, however, I opened it randomly to a place where the author discusses in amusing/fascinating detail, the cigar acquiring and smoking habits of Michel David-Weill, the Lazard family descendant who succeeded Meyer as the head of the firm up until just a few years ago when Bruce Wasserstein moved into the realm and the helm.

M. David-Weill loved only the best (Cuban) cigars and his smoking habits, aped by many of the men in his firm – like boys wanting to be like their hero – were nothing short of amusingly eccentric as well as a psychological study. In fact the whole book is turning out to be (I’m far from finished) like a psychological study of the getting, keeping, and dominating with, Money.

Furthermore there is the firm’s history which is directly tied to the development of the United States as a continental and economic power. The firm was started as a dry goods business in New Orleans by three Jewish immigrant brothers from Alsace who then followed the horde of prospectors west to San Francisco with the Gold Rush. It was there that they shrewdly morphed into what a century later became one of the most prestigious and successful investment banking houses in the world.

The book is long, almost 700 pages of scrumptious anecdote, detail about the business, the brains and the foibles (strengths and weaknesses) of its partners and leaders. Its author, Mr. Cohan is an investigative journalist but also worked for Lazard for several years (before becoming Managing Director of JP Morgan). He has the ability to simplify many of the complexities of a business in which I, for one, have only a passing interest.

Interest in business, however, is secondary for this book, because as a psychologist friend of mine said the other day: it is a book every psychologist or would-be psychologist should read. Or novelist. I have only one regret, which is that I don’t have the time to sit down and read it in one sitting. And so it has become a compulsive pleasure to steal a few pages from it as often as possible.

Which brings me back to the subject of interesting tycoons, New York Style; specifically, Michael R. Bloomberg, mayor of our frenetic city that never sleeps. I’d thought about calling this: Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the next President of the United States, Michael R. Bloomberg.

Because: This is in no way an endorsement but simply, as a citizen, a consideration, to ruminate over What’s Going On in these here United States.

There has been increasing speculation that Mr. Bloomberg may run for President in 2008 as an Independent candidate. I wrote in these pages quite some time ago that I believed he would run, simply because he told a mutual friend of his and mine a number of years ago (in the mid-90s) that he wanted to be President. This “revelation” came when he was asked what he planned to do with himself since he’d built his company, made his billions and still had some youth on his side.

When our friend repeated the conversation, shortly after it took place, it struck me as typical, for a man who had realized great ambition. He’s certainly not the first person I’ve heard express that (what I thought of as a) fantasy.

At that time Mr. Bloomberg was already a highly admired (by business and social people) man in New York because of the business achievements. He was also a very active participant in the world of philanthropy where many a fund-raising committee member knew that if they could get to Michael Bloomberg, there was a pretty good chance that he’d open up his checkbook and write a check, even a big fat check. And generally that’s true: Mr. Bloomberg has been very liberal and very generous in dispensing much of his personal fortune to charity on an annual basis.

Ten years ago, Mr. Bloomberg’s only other career appeared to be mainly social. Divorced, now a bachelor, and very rich, he was regarded as a big catch, and there were quite a few women in town who had their eyes, nets (and sometimes hooks) out for him. He also was known to have an amiable relationship with his ex-wife as well as being an involved, even doting, father to his two daughters.

For several years, Mary Jane Salk, the widow of Lee Salk (brother of Jonas) was his frequent companion at social events and private parties. After that relationship ended, and after he was first elected mayor,  he then took up with his current companion, Diana Taylor, a very pretty divorcee, thirteen years his junior; a graduate of Dartmouth and Columbia Business who has worked both in Wall Street and in public service.

When Mr. Bloomberg first announced his decision to run for mayor of the city of New York, there were many who knew him who doubted his chances for success. Although they believed he might just be what the city needed: a good manager whose wealth might make him immune to the natural corruptive obstacles  that confront our politicians, his lack of political experience and his personable, yet somewhat brittle personality did not have the easy appeal of a Giuliani or a Clinton. The charm was there but it was a distinctly private affair, not necessarily available to the man on the street. A man of means and an independent thinker, Mr. Bloomberg was wont to say what he thought, and with all the authority – wise or otherwise -- that riches often endow on their possessor.

Those who doubted his chances of being elected to  the office in which the very political animal Rudy Giuliani had loomed large (and even larger after 9/11), had failed to perceive Mr. Bloomberg’s natural political abilities to maneuver. Previously a Democrat he seamlessly switched parties to avoid competing with the favored Democratic candidate, the seasoned politico, Mark Green. The doubters  also had not anticipated Mark Green’s inept campaigning; as they had also not realized, naively perhaps, Michael Bloomberg’s economic power as a candidate: he had the dough and as willing to spend it. In the end New Yorkers liked the idea because it meant (whether it was true or not) that he wouldn’t, as mayor, owe anybody.

Diana Taylor
Once elected he made a few superficial moves which appealed to the general population: he foreswore the official mayoral salary, taking only $1 a year instead, he decided not to live in the mayor’s house (Gracie Mansion on East End Avenue overlooking the East River) but remain in his own East 79th townhouse; and he chose to take the subway to work (the 77th Street station) every morning. A billionaire taking the subway (just like the rest of us working stiffs) is an excellent marketing device, not to mention the fact that it’s a much quicker way to get to City Hall from where he lives.

The new mayor brought his working style to City Hall: he works in a large room of open cubicles, communal style, within easy access). He has remained a major donor to philanthropies, contributing on average more than $100 million annually to a wide and broad variety of organizations in need of funding.

We all have personal relationships with our politicians, whether we know them or not. I, for example, do not have any kind personal relationship with our mayor. Although I’ve been present in his company many many times, I have never had a conversation with him. When he first took office and decided to live at home, I was personally concerned that his official residence would constantly tie up traffic on 79th Street, a thoroughfare I use daily. Previous mayoral administrations had already demonstrated a “droit de seigneur” in my neighborhood when it came to use of the public roadways. However, after almost seven years and thousands of times of traveling by Mayor Bloomberg’s residence, there has never been an impassable lane due to his official presence – an amazing achievement for the car-glutted, overly doubled-parked city, and one I don’t doubt is a result of his sensitivity to the issue.

Since he’s become mayor, I continue to see him not infrequently at social/ philanthropically oriented events where instead spending the evening, he makes an appearance to give an always short speech, and usually departs right after. And, unlike his earlier non-official days, he never appears in black tie, which used to be as much as a uniform for him as it is for the rest of us on that circuit.

He has proved to be a very popular mayor. He has also held office, it should be noted, at a most auspicious time when the tax revenue generated by his former business – finance and investment banking – has lifted receipts to an all time high. It is also true that he has not solved many of the problems of the city, such as education (not to mention the growing paralysis of daily traffic). Furthermore his edict against people’s right to smoke or ingesting trans-fats seem more like paltry diversions from the massive public health dangers of pollution of air and water caused by fossil fuels and toxins that are profoundly affecting our whole planet.  There is also the barely touched upon issue of the instant incarceration of allegedly “suspicious” citizens, including senior citizens and even tourists, in and around the Republican Convention confines in 2004. While not necessarily the Mayor’s choice, these injustices occurred under his watch. Politicians in a democracy always run serious risks in maintaining the thin line between exercising fair authority and what could easily be perceived as dictatorial.

When that I first heard that thought, reported by our mutual friend, of his running for President, I frankly, from the little I knew, and the frequent exposure I had to the man, could not imagine him in the Presidency. It was during the Presidency of the very charismatic, tall and handsome, easily charming and articulate Bill Clinton. And although the New York elite may have been impressed by the great Bloomberg business success, I wondered if the American people would be as impressed since it had no bearing whatsoever on their lives.

However, what we have witnessed in the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg is a man who is not only smart and clever, but has a politician’s acumen for timing. His “unlikelihood” as a Presidential candidate is seriously diminished by the present field of prominent candidates such as 1. a woman, 2. an African-American man, 3. and a national campaign that is sucking up millions that will have to be translated into political debt for any candidate. On top of that, the popular media comparison to Ross Perot who had no previous political experience whatsoever, and demonstrated only a cleverness for sound bites rather than substantial policy ideas is just dumb.
Michael Bloomberg, unlike all other candidates, can pay his own way (some might call it buying the office, but ...). He has already demonstrated an ability to grow and adapt very successfully as a leader of his large, loud and very diverse constituency (the citizens of New York). His charm factor has been nurtured by his growing ease in the position of Public Figure; and his original appeal as a man who Doesn’t Need/Isn’t Corruptible because of Other People’s Money remains intact (at least with many of his constituency).

Politicians in America today, maybe more than ever, seem to run the very real risk, after being elected to office, of transmogrifying into members of the power elite who paid their way to the top. We see it all the time in New York when politicians, national and otherwise, move around in the heavy traffic in entourages of large black tinted windowed vans with swirling red-lights and sirens that order the rest of us to “move aside” and let them through. The self-importance factor is rampant and disgusting to view in what many of us still regard as a democratic society.

From this vantage point as a social reporter, it is easy to see how so many of our politicians, enamored by the trappings of our wealthier citizens, lose complete contact with reality and the rest of us. Watching national politicians on Sunday network news shows proclaiming their “common-man-ness” with anecdotes about where they “came from” is nothing but rank hypocrisy because political life in America today tantalizes with its access to privilege, economic and otherwise. Anyone and everyone running for office nowadays is potentially susceptible or vulnerable to this scourge in our society. Those politicians who are most aware of their obligation to the needs and rights of all citizens, and not just the economically anointed few, have the greatest opportunity to succeed in governing, no matter who they are and where they come from.

Michael Bloomberg is smart; that we are certain of, and equipped with the ability to manage and solve community problems. Despite any personal discomfort he may have in glad-handing and kissing the babies along the campaign trail, he has demonstrated the willingness to make a valiant effort. Furthermore he remains quite accessible, or so I have been told many times, to those whence he came. His years in public office so far have been witness to what seems like a real desire to improve our lot in life. His chances of succeeding to that office he is said to have desired long ago, now seem like other objectives in his past: achievable. This opinion is not in any way related to my own personal choice of a candidate, but simply my observation of a man’s progress in public life.

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