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The Many Lives of Michael Bloomberg review: not quite a presidential read

At the 2016 Democratic national convention in Philadelphia, Michael Bloomberg, former New York mayor and the ninth richest man in the world, savaged Donald Trump with a primetime verbal beatdown: “Trump says he wants to run the nation like he’s run his business. God help us.”

Looking back, Bloomberg got it right. But his speech wooed few beyond the convention site or the precincts of upper-income America. Instead, he reminded viewers of the ineptitude of Bill de Blasio, his successor as mayor and a 2020 presidential wannabe, and that Wall Street liked Hillary Clinton. On election day 2016, Pennsylvania, the convention’s host state, went Republican for the first time in nearly 30 years. Not exactly “mission accomplished”.

Eleanor Randolph, a veteran New York Times writer, attempts to encapsulate Bloomberg’s legacy. She has written a well-sourced, informative and breezy biography of one New York’s greatest mayors. Indeed, it is an essential read in an era where high-end urban centers and their immediate environs are pulling away from the rest of the country. It is a tale of two Americas.

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Said differently, New York and Washington DC have more in common with Palo Alto, Mountain View and Seattle than with relatively nearby Harrisburg and Scranton, Pennsylvania. In large measure, the US economy is driven by technology and finance. Bloomberg, with his computer terminals and eponymous news service, crystallizes this simultaneously dynamic and destructive force.

Randolph succeeds in describing Bloomberg’s successes, which are many, lasting and significant. But she comes up short in capturing the distance between him and large swathes of the citizenry. She records but does not fully delve into the cultural fissures that pockmarked the New York landscape throughout Bloomberg’s time in office and became all too clear at its conclusion.

Bloomberg won re-election a second time in 2009 by beating Bill Thompson, a career politician and the city’s comptroller, by fewer than five points and with 50.7% of the vote. In other words, it was time to go. On 1 January 2013 he did, and with him went 20 years of mayoral competence.

Bloomberg was well-respected but neither loved nor hated. He engendered little passion among supporters or detractors and remained culturally disconnected from middle- and working-class voters.

During a transit strike, he told residents of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, a scrappy outer-borough neighborhood, they ought to cycle to work. He did so standing next to a $500 bicycle, a fact recorded by Randolph. That their places of work were miles and miles away was lost on the mayor, a Johns Hopkins-trained engineer and Harvard Business School alumnus.

By contrast, the late Ed Koch, another truly great mayor, greeted pedestrians crossing the Brooklyn Bridge during an earlier strike and shamelessly asked: “How’m I doing?” Koch was either loved or reviled. He demanded to be buried at Trinity church – right there with Alexander Hamilton – because the churchyard contained one of the last open burial plots on Manhattan and Koch never wanted to leave.

Bloomberg did some very heavy lifting. He oversaw the rebuilding of the city and its economy after 9/11. Significantly, he reached into his pocket to boost such efforts. In marked contrast to Trump, he did not profiteer from the calamity and his family charity wasn’t a scam filled with “other people’s money”.

Bloomberg also helped forge the city’s anti-terror efforts by relying upon law enforcement, data and a multilingual and multi-ethnic population. He built on Rudy Giuliani’s legacy of safe streets.

Crime continued to drop but he accomplished that with far less racial rancor than Rudy, even as the “stop and frisk” program came under attack. Bloomberg’s first re-election margin handily surpassed that of Giuliani. Bloomberg beat Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president, by almost 20 points.

Unlike his predecessor, Bloomberg was not the Doberman you let out at night but never let near your children. While he could be profane and ribald in private, as Randolph tells us, he endeavored to maintain a decorous veneer in public. It’s no coincidence Giuliani is a Trump TV lawyer.

Randolph also examines Bloomberg’s efforts to raise the performance of New York public schools (mixed), attract a hi-tech campus to the city spearheaded by Cornell and Israel’s Technion (an unvarnished hit) and reach out to minority communities by rightly giving a green light to charter schools. Unlike De Blasio, Bloomberg never saw virtue in sacrificing the possibility of excellence in education on the altar of political correctness. Then again, Bloomberg didn’t come within a whisker of being indicted on corruption and campaign finance charges.

At times, The Many Lives of Michael Bloomberg can come close to hagiography. Randolph writes of Bloomberg looking “particularly fit” even after he pulled a muscle skiing on a “black diamond” course after his 75th birthday. In the next breath, she describes how he “tackled” golf “with a passion”.

Bloomberg has yearned to be president. But unlike another plutocrat, Tom Steyer, he wisely recognizes his own limitations. In the age of Trump, there is nothing like a pillar of the establishment to get people to trudge out in the dead of winter, to hang out for hours at the Iowa caucuses.

Still, out of office does not mean out of power. In case Trump and the GOP missed it, Bloomberg was the second-largest donor in the 2018 election cycle, bested only by Sheldon Adelson, casino magnate, Trump-booster and patron of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Alongside his determination to fund action to meet the climate crisis, Bloomberg is reportedly ready to spend $500m to ensure that the 45th president lives at the White House for only four years. As Politico framed things: “The sum represents a floor, not a ceiling, on the billionaire’s potential spending to defeat the president in 2020.”

Randolph lets us know Bloomberg is not easily deterred. As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed.

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