Rudy Giuliani volunteered to pull the switch on Osama bin Laden himself. But Mike Bloomberg has barely mentioned him, referring to him once in four years, and even then, in a joking aside. Asked a week before the first anniversary of 9-11 in 2002 where a missing iconic flag raised over the Trade Center wreckage might be, Bloomberg said he didn’t have any idea. “I don’t know where Osama bin Laden is either,” he quipped. That was it. The same for Al Qaeda itself.
It has become a veritable axiom that the Bush administration’s Iraq fixation has diverted it from apprehending bin Laden, but the mayor of the city Osama savaged has yet to utter an encouraging word about the half-hearted pursuit, much less critique it. In fact, he recently tweaked Fernando Ferrer as a death penalty flip-flopper when Ferrer, very much unlike Mike Bloomberg, raised the specter himself, saying he’d make bin Laden an exception to his “moratorium” on executions. Bill Cunningham, senior adviser to Bloomberg’s campaign, says he “can’t think of the circumstances where the subject of bin Laden would come up,” an echo of the startling Bush declaration that he doesn’t “spend much time on bin Laden, to be honest with ya.”
Democrats like John Kerry in 2004 had no trouble figuring out Osama’s continuing relevance. Ferrer told the Voice: “Bush has largely changed the subject. I said during the 2004 campaign that we had more cops at Madison Square Garden for the convention than we had troops in Afghanistan looking for this guy. Bloomberg has pulled his punches on Bush and everybody who’s hurt this city.”
What New Yorker in 2001 would’ve imagined that the mayor we then elected would neither act to restore what we lost at ground zero, nor press the president to make good on his “wanted dead or alive” threat or bullhorn promise that “the people who knocked down these towers” would “hear from all of us soon”? Don’t we expect the mayor to be our badgering lobbyist in Washington for more than homeland security dollars? Don’t we want him asking just what the “smoke ’em out” president meant by “soon”? Don’t we all, in fact, think bin Laden still represents a threat, particularly to New York? And isn’t Mike Bloomberg’s silence a measure of his partisan softness on Bush, one of a plethora of indications that our politically deferential mayor prefers to push the mute button when our memories and our fears demand he turn up the volume?
Bloomberg also recently rebuffed press questions about his position on Iraq, insisting that “it’s not a local issue and I don’t have anything to say.”
Thirty-three dead New Yorkers, a potential trillion dollars in resources diverted from homeland defense, a breeding ground for the subway attack he warned us about a few days ago—none of that makes Mute Mike speak out. Maybe he feels the same way about the linked question of the elusive Osama as he does about the war. Maybe, to Bloomberg, Bush’s bin Laden blunder is merely another “foreign policy” matter unrelated to garbage pickup, making it one more pass he’s giving a president who traded beards on us, cynically substituting Saddam for the man who killed thousands of our brothers and sisters.
Actually, as quiet as the mayor and his media allies would now like to keep it, Bloomberg has been quite willing to address these issues on and off over his mayoral years, invariably rallying to George Bush’s side.
When Laura Bush came to New York in May 2004 to dedicate a public park to those who died on 9-11, Bloomberg followed her defense of the Iraq war with his own. “Let me add something to that,” he said. “Don’t forget that the war started not very many blocks from here.” The Times reported that the mayor was “promoting one of the notions that is central” to the war’s rationale, namely that it’s “justified by what happened on Sept. 11.”
In September 2004, he said to applause from a small Staten Island organization: “I’m voting for George W. Bush and it’s mainly because I think we have to strike back at terrorists. To argue that Saddam Hussein wasn’t a terrorist is ridiculous. He used mustard gas or some kind of gas against his own people.”
When Bloomberg appeared before the annual Lincoln Day dinner of the Staten Island GOP in April 2003, he declared: “We are going to get George W. Bush re-elected as president of the United States. We are going to carry New York city and state. Everybody thinks I’m crazy, but I think we can do it.” Newsday reported that he “was as boosterish of the Iraqi war effort as he had been so far,” quoting him as saying: “It’s not only to protect Americans. It’s America’s responsibility to protect people around the world who want to be free.” In this midwar salute, Bloomberg concluded that Bush was “standing up, doing the tough things, and that’s what we need for the city.”
Similarly, on March 24, 2003, Bloomberg told a Brooklyn church: “If you take out a tyrant who clearly gassed tens of thousands of his own people, if you stabilize a part of the world where, tragically, terrorism goes on every day, then it will have been the right de
cision.” Even though the City Council passed a resolution opposing the war, Bloomberg called an old friend, Paul Wolfowitz, to express his desire to host a ticker tape parade “to say thank you,” apparently as unaware as the “Mission Accomplished” president that the troops would not be coming home for years. Bloomberg actually contributed $5 million to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs in the late ’90s, when war architect Wolfowitz was dean.
Even before the war, Bloomberg brought his mother and daughter to the United Nations, where he addressed the General Assembly a day after Bush did in September 2002. Echoing Bush’s warnings that the U.S. would go it alone if the U.N. didn’t act, Bloomberg “praised” Bush’s war on terror “and offered support for an attack on Iraq,” according to the Daily News. “Freedom comes at a price, and tragically, sometimes that price is the commitment to defend freedom by arms,” said the mayor whose claim of flat feet kept him out of the Vietnam War. “America has been, is, and always will be willing to do its duty—to sacrifice even its own blood, so that people everywhere can live as individuals responsible for their own destinies.” The News reported that he “never mentioned Iraq by name, but sources later confirmed that was the nation he was referring to.”
Shortly after the successful invasion, on June 1, 2003, Bloomberg appeared at the breakfast before the Salute to Israel Parade and told an audience of hundreds that Bush was “the best president for Israel in history,” a comment that went unreported in the press. He reiterated this implicit linkage between the war and Israel during the 2004 convention, when the Times reported that “the mayor said he backs Bush’s approach to terrorism and Israel,” and then quoted a Bloomberg aide who’d told the Bushies: “Don’t put us on Crossfire to talk about Iraq.” Of course, Bloomberg greeted Bush in the convention’s opening speech by declaring: “The president deserves our support. We are here to support him, and I am here to support him.”
Every time Bloomberg speaks at the funeral of a fallen soldier from New York, he can’t find a way to salute the sacrifice without saluting the war itself. “He died bringing the blessings of liberty to the people of Iraq” is a virtually standard line, with early add-ons like: “Every New Yorker knows how important it is to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists and terrorist states.” When pressed in August about his overall stance, he finally said: “I think everybody has very mixed emotions about the war that was started to find weapons of mass destruction and then they were not found.” In this first and only indication that his feelings were mixed, he also suggested again the invidious linkage he’d offered at Laura Bush’s side: “I do know that we were attacked here and I do know it is a dangerous part of the world.” Asked if Bush was “dishonest” about weapons of mass destruction, Bloomberg said: “I don’t have any idea.”
This track record on Iraq is a far better indicator of his acquiescence to the White House than his recent breaks on the John Roberts nomination and Bush’s waiving of prevailing wage requirements in the Katrina cleanup. In fact, he’s been as meticulously uncritical about the president’s handling of the Katrina disaster as he has been about bin Laden and Iraq, merely repeating Bush’s admission that the initial response was “inadequate.” He was even silent when Bush and the Republicans in Congress froze transit-security funding and slashed first-responder aid in the middle of the recent subway terror alert.
He prefers, as the Times reported, “slipping in and out of a service entrance” while attending a February 2004 fundraiser with Karl Rove. He prefers sitting “in the shadows” in a limo with the president outside Madison Square Garden, the Times again noted, rather than joining the Bush family in its on-camera convention box. It’s only when he thinks no one in the press is listening—like at a Manhattan GOP event this March—that he says the GOP is the party of “honesty, efficiency, compassion, and inclusiveness,” turning political reality, at least as much of his city sees it, on its head. His mountain of GOP donations is as much a pittance to him as his calculated and inconsequential disagreements with them are a sham to us.
We have thousands fewer cops because of Bush’s 90 percent slashing of Clinton’s COPS programs. We had to reprogram FDNY radios because Bush blanched at the $120 million cost of replacing them, even after 9-11’s communication breakdown. Not only has Bloomberg never complained about these security breaches, he’s publicly excused the president for ignoring all the “blinking red” signs of attack that George Tenet described, and refused to criticize him when he defied and undercut the 9-11 Commission, forcing subpoenas and deleting its funding.
He even rushed to Bush’s defense when the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general blasted the White House for doctoring press releases after 9-11 to portray “hazardous” air quality findings as safe, a distortion that’s led to lung damage for thousands of firefighters and others at ground zero. “I know the president,” Bloomberg said when confronted with the shocking findings. “I think he’s a very honest guy. It would never occur to me not to trust him.” Over 2,000 ground zero workers have already settled with the Victim Compensation Board, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars for respiratory and other damages at the site, while hundreds are still suing the city.
The mayor’s rationale for this get-along policy with Bush is that it’s helped him win additional federal help for the city, and he can make a case that he was able to prod the president to alter the formula for distributing homeland security funding to benefit the city. But the formula change he won was temporary, and only partially changed a pattern of discrimination championed for years by Bush and congressional Republicans.
There are other plausible motives: Bloomberg appears to agree with the president on Iraq; a more popular Bush did targeted phone messages for him to Republicans and independents in 2001; and the mayor may have secretly coveted, at least up to 2005, a presidential appointment. Bloomberg’s name appeared periodically in news accounts as a possible new president of the World Bank, a position that became vacant this year when lifelong Bloomberg friend James Wolfensohn finished his second five-year term. Bill Cunningham says Bloomberg did nothing “to actively pursue the post,” acknowledging that it continued to be a genuine ambition of his that the mayor publicly discussed only once. While it’s impossible to get inside the mayor’s head, his desire to take over the bank when Clinton appointee Wolfensohn left might have tempered his approach to the White House.
It is, perhaps, the culminating irony of this unbalanced mayoral contest that the very polls revealing the mayor as invincible suggest that many voters are troubled by his myriad Bush ties, but will not let those concerns intrude on their measure of the man. It is as if we’ve unconsciously bought into the implicit Bloomberg presumption that the very Bush policies that have made 80 percent of New Yorkers oppose him are bizarrely irrelevant to our lives here. It is a disconnect that tens of millions in advertising about Bloomberg’s housing, schools, and other achievements can apparently buy. The mayor who presents himself as the ultimate accountable leader has somehow managed, abetted by a convenient media amnesia, to escape accountability for his own profoundly political choices.
Research assistance: Jessica Bennett, K. Emily Bond, Ben James, Lee Norsworthy, Xana O’Neill, and Nicholas Powers
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 11, 2005