President Bloomberg?

The richest joke is on us: Wherever it is he stands, he's running

Michael Bloomberg thinks he hears America calling. He alone hears this call, but that doesn't matter. Unfortunately for us, he is eager to answer.

Fresh from his confab in Oklahoma where he consulted with grizzled wise men, Bloomberg can be expected to announce any day now that he sees no alternative except to bow to this people's draft and place his own name before them on the November ballot.

He needs no stinking caucuses to do this, no treading through New Hampshire snows, no forced smiles through endless living-room chats, no stadium rallies only half-filled with supporters, no late-night flights over frozen cornfields, no town-hall meetings that so easily go awry with one little misspoken word. He need engage in none of these tedious democratic exercises. He will simply buy himself a place on the ballot, just as he did here in New York in 2001.

Billions for offense
photo: Richard B Levine
Billions for offense

Through the miracle of the Internet and all the television and mail advertising that a billion expendable dollars or more will buy, he will run his campaign chiefly from the safety and comfort of his East Side mansion, New York City cops standing guard outside.

It doesn't matter that this candidacy will be a project of the utmost vanity, a billionaire's conceit. This kind of self-indulgence of the affluent is a phenomenon that we have no choice but to get used to, like warming oceans and the ceaseless chatter on cell phones. What's worse is that he could even win.

His candidacy was a dead certainty as soon as his picture went onto the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines, honored for accomplishments that stood out mainly because he is fabulously wealthy. Look, said the stories, rich men can do more than make fools of themselves on TV game shows: They can speak seriously about the environment, about guns that shouldn't be sold, and about schools that don't teach. His solutions for these ailments are only modest and of the most pedestrian variety. But he has been elected mayor of New York twice and he is hugely wealthy, so he must be taken very seriously.

His platform, so far, consists of a vacuous rhetoric that lets listeners read into it whatever they want. He would end "the tired debate between the left and the right, between Democrats and Republicans." Oh really? He would pull Washington out of its "swamp of dysfunction." How grand!

Michael Bloomberg, who couldn't get a crowd to stand on its feet and cheer with real enthusiasm to save his life; Michael Bloomberg, who raises the temperature in the room only when he reaches for his wallet; Michael Bloomberg, who has managed to duck every tough question about the direst issues confronting our country, from Iraq to Iran. Michael Bloomberg will run for president because he hears America calling for change. He alone hears his own name in that same wind, but no matter. He can do so because he can afford to. And that's that.

The only hitch in his game plan would be if the Republicans, in a moment of unlikely sanity, nominate John McCain, who is both a war hero and preaches the same kind of ideology of reform. That might steal a little too much of the Bloomberg thunder. The same difficulty could arise if the Democrats pick Barack Obama, who has spent his entire life grappling with our most hideous ailment, race, and who talks about hope, change, and bipartisan leadership in a manner that actually convinces people he means it. That, too, could be a little too close for Bloombergian comfort.

A Rudy Giuliani candidacy would also present problems, but these are not insurmountable, Bloomberg's handlers now believe. There is so much blood in the water now around Giuliani that, even if nominated, he arrives badly wounded. And where did that last wound come from anyway? Wasn't it Bloomberg's City Hall that finally released those old records that showed how Giuliani's people disgracefully hid the security expenses when he was shacking up with his girlfriend? Isn't there more where that came from?

But if it's Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney for the GOP, or Hillary Clinton or John Edwards for the Democrats, then it is full Bloomberg speed ahead. Already he has his people traipsing through the states, lining up the support of all those post-Perotian grouplets left over from 1992 that still control little parties scattered around the country. Last June, he changed his party registration from Republican to nonaffiliated, a move that came just before an obscure election-law deadline in Colorado that required candidates wishing to run as independents to be nonaffiliated.

His full-time Deputy Mayor for Presidential Politics, Kevin Sheekey, keeps track of these small but vital things. Sheekey did such a good job for Bloomberg's re-election that Bloomberg paid him a $400,000 bonus. Back on the city payroll, Bloomberg hiked Sheekey's salary to almost $200,000 a year, this time with our money. Successful businessmen understand nothing if not the motivation of money.

And give credit where credit is due. Bloomberg himself has grown immensely, personally and politically. He now runs toward the people's draft, embracing it. The last time he heard the word was during the Vietnam War. If he opposed the war, as so many in our generation did, he kept it a secret to himself—back then, as well as now. Instead, when the military draft came his way, he ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction, pounding the pavement with the flat feet that came to his rescue when he faced his pre-induction physical.

A few years before he ran for mayor, his employees at Bloomberg LP put together a book of great quotations from their Chairman Mike. It included this one: "I had a great agreement with the draft board—they never called me and I never called them."

Today, he speaks boldly about sacrifice, and he lectures those who criticize the war in Iraq, lest they somehow offend the patriotism of soldiers overseas. Back in the Vietnam days, such attitudes made his blood boil, he told a wonderfully friendly audience at Cooper Union in September, where he sat—leg bouncing on his knee, hands waving in the air—as Tom Brokaw interviewed him. Brokaw tried to get him to say whether he believed that President Bush had asked enough of the rest of the country during a time of war. Bloomberg couldn't, or wouldn't, respond. "One of the most despicable things this country has done," he said by way of non-answer, "is the way we treated our veterans when they came back from Vietnam."

In the same interview, he grew tongue-tied when Brokaw gently asked him if Bush had gone to war without a "Plan B" for Iraq. Up until then, the man who would lead the free world had been voluble and glib. But this question clearly terrified him. If you don't believe me, go to his own website, mikebloomberg.com.

"You'll have to ask the president," he says at first with a smirk that's clearly visible on the site's video. "I think that, ummm, you have to . . . uhhh . . . be willing to talk to everybody, listen to everybody, try things. At the same time you have to have the courage of your convictions. You cannot everyday, uhhh, look at one number and change foreign policy. Some of these decisions, there is no right answer. I don't want to get involved in how we got there, I wasn't party to the intelligence. I don't know what I would have done. And anybody that says other than the president and his inner staff you're just taking, you know, a cheap shot."

This is the kind of off-English nonsense that buries candidates who have to earn their nominations. But Bloomberg's money makes him exempt from such early screenings, and he insists that he needs no such preliminary warm-ups. No qualifying heats for this man. He is ready to go straight to the starting gate.

Perhaps one reason for this cocksure attitude is that he has been consulting with the best minds, a stellar cast of experienced leaders.

This weekend, Bloomberg sat with David Boren, the former Oklahoma senator who convened the meeting of middle-of-the-road types designed to launch Bloomberg's candidacy. One of Boren's most enduring gifts to America was George Tenet, who served as Boren's chief of staff before going on to become director of the CIA. There, Tenet famously assured George Bush that finding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk."

Also present at the meeting and mentioned as a possible Bloomberg running mate was Sam Nunn, the ex-senator from Georgia who, as head of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, never met a weapons system he didn't want to buy.

And then there is Bloomberg's most famous adviser, a man we never seem able to get away from, that old warmonger Henry Kissinger. Kissinger brought us the illegal bombing of Cambodia and the bloody coup in Chile, and here is the wise man on the Iraq War: "Under present conditions, withdrawal is not an option."

Funny, here is Bloomberg in that same interview with Brokaw last September: "Everyone wants to get the troops out. Nobody is in favor of not doing that. But to pull them out quickly would lead to a massacre, lead to destabilization of a part of the world that there is enough problems already. [It] would embolden terrorists in other parts of the world. I don't think that's a good answer here."

Great minds think alike, of course. But the biggest joke on the country since the Supreme Court halted the Florida recount could be this one: Mike Bloomberg wins the White House as a reform candidate. The morning after his election celebration, he announces the head of his transition advisory team: Henry Alfred Kissinger.

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