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Mike Bloomberg awoke in the morning feeling great, although he wasn't sure why. He had been in a funk all summer. Every day brought a reminder that his national star had already set and that his local time in the sun was ending as well. But now he lay there with a warm, hopeful glow inside. It was the way he felt after waking up from the delightful dreams he'd had where Salma Hayek declared eternal love for him. Except this feeling seemed much more real, something doable. Whatever it was.
He listened to the early traffic noises outside his bedroom window as he worked his way back through the night before, trying to track down the source of his good vibe. He'd hosted one of his long, crowded dinners in the big dining room downstairs in his East Side townhouse: a few business tycoons, a couple of artists, a famous sports figure, the usual retinue of aides. Miserably, he recalled the nonstop conversation: Obama, Obama, Obama. McCain, McCain, McCain. It drove him nuts. Someone had even asked him: "Who do you think their VP picks should be, Mike?" He had wanted to scream: Who the hell do you think? Who's a perfect fit for either one? Who's better than a brilliant, self-made billionaire? Who's got seven years running the biggest, toughest city in America? Who does that outside-the-Beltway-nonpolitician dance like he was Fred Astaire?
One guest had feebly tried to throw him a bone: "Mr. Mayor, if Obama was smart, he'd pick you in a New York minute." This met with a smattering of polite applause. He flashed a tight-lipped grin. Inside, he seethed. They all knew he was a loser, ignored now by both candidates. It was pathetic. He'd wanted to toss the lot of them right into the street.
For as long as he could, he'd kept his name out there as a legitimate contender. Back in March, when Obama came to town to give his economic speech at Cooper Union, Bloomberg sat up front, listening attentively, legs crossed, finger to his chin. That had worked nicely: CNN ran a piece saying that an Obama-Bloomberg ticket was a real possibility. "Political tongues were wagging," they said. Now that was sweet music.
In late May, he'd done even better when New York magazine said he'd give the GOP instant economic credibility if McCain picked him. Of course, the only one quoted saying this was Doug Schoen, his own pollster, but that was OK.
Schoen had been marvelous. He'd put Bloomberg's presidential bid right into orbit. Back in January, he'd made the mayor so red-hot that every network sent someone out to Norman, Oklahoma—of all places!—to cover his "bipartisan panel." It was mostly washed-up old geezers—Sam Nunn, Dave Boren—fulminating about nasty politics. But the coverage was huge: Time, Newsweek, Fox, ABC, CBS, MSNBC. And they were there for him: Mike Bloomberg, the independent outsider who might run for president and—with all his dough—beat all comers.
Bloomberg and his preppy little genius, Kevin Sheekey, had stoked that fire every chance they got. They had the websites, the front groups, the Washington speeches. They'd kept it going right up until—stunningly—Obama and McCain both emerged as winners. Instantly, all the air went out of his beautiful trial balloons. Even Schoen couldn't figure out a way to win that three-way race. "The 'outsider' message gets a little diluted," the pollster had glumly admitted.
After that, the VP stakes had kept his spirits up. But by early summer, he knew he was headed nowhere. It was all over. It was back to being a lame-duck mayor, watching the petty crew of hacks that wanted his job connive for coverage.
Bloomberg looked at the daylight seeping past the drawn curtains in the shrouded bedroom. He wondered if he should fly the jet down to the Bahamas this weekend or just hang out at the horse farm in North Salem.
And then the feeling returned in a rush. His pulse leaped as it hit him: Term limits! He had decided to crush them!
At the end of the dinner, Steve Rattner and Jerry Speyer—Bloomberg considered them both solid guys who understood politics the way only successful businessmen can—had taken him aside and pushed him hard about a third term. The city needs him, they insisted. He had plans to finish. Most of all, the wannabe mayors waiting in the wings were second-rate. Nobody can handle this city like you, they said.
"Aren't you forgetting a little something?" he said. "Like the two-term limit and the two referendums that approved it?"
Not a problem, they responded. What he needed to do was to get Quinn to pass a bill adding one more term.
"Oh, I don't think so," Bloomberg shot back. "I thought the Council Speaker was pretty definite back in December when she announced she wouldn't change the rules. I think she said it was her 'firm and final position.' "
Rattner looked at him queerly. "Are you kidding?" he asked. "She'd jump at it. She knows her City Hall hopes went down the drain with that funding probe. She'd love to just get another term as Speaker, maybe give people time to forget her little problem."
Bloomberg had listened, nodding with feigned interest. Right, he thought to himself, just what I need. Everyone knows third terms are a curse. Ask Ed Koch. He still goes pale when he talks about his last four years in office, the scandals, the investigations. Bloomberg shuddered. With my luck, I win a third term as mayor and 10 more cranes collapse, along with the grade point average of every high school in the city.
But the more the businessmen talked, the more he listened. And then it hit him: Hey, schmuck, think about it. This doesn't have to be any more real than the whole presidential thing. It's just another way to stay in play. Instead of being shuffled out the door, you'll be center-stage again. Imagine the story lines: "The Man New York Can't Live Without," or "Too Good to Lose." Best of all, he could play the extend-term-limits game and still never have to commit to actually running again until next year. In the meantime, he'd know by December whether President Obama or President McCain had anything better for him to do. Not that he'd take any run-of-the-mill cabinet post. But White House economic czar? That could work. Kind of a new Bernard Baruch. But he'd have to play hard-to-get, show them he had alternatives. It was his first rule of good management: Never hire someone who needs the job.
"Well, how would the papers react?" said Bloomberg cautiously. "The last thing I need is to get hammered like I was when I tried to pass that nonpartisan-election nonsense."
"Not a problem," said Speyer. "Count on it. Hell, I bet Rupert will put you on the Post's front page every day, like he did for Koch in '82 when he got him to run for governor. And I've spoken to Mort Zuckerman. He loves the idea. He says he'll have his hitmen on the News editorial page rip to shreds anyone who gets in your way. Sulzberger won't say it outright, but talk to him. He's for it."
Bloomberg nodded. "Well, gentlemen, you are very persuasive. Let me sleep on it. I'll let you know." And he did. It felt almost as good as Salma Hayek.