Could Bloomberg be the man?

By Monica Porter, August 19, 2011

As we near the 2012 American presidential elections, once again there are rumours that the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, might enter the race, thereby making himself potentially the country's first Jewish president.

The Committee to Draft Michael Bloomberg, which unsuccessfully urged him to run in the 2008 elections, has announced that it will try to persuade him to wage a campaign next year.

As for the 69-year-old media mogul himself - with an $18 billion fortune, the 13th richest person in the United States - he denies that he has any plans to run. But, as we all know, the denials of politicians are never carved in stone.

Personally, I had never found him a very attractive figure. For a start, I'm not sure a billionaire can possibly understand the plight of the common man. This impression was reinforced for me a few years ago when someone who had regular dealings with him described Bloomberg as "lacking the empathy gene". Not ideal for a President.

I had also been vaguely aware of newspaper stories about his alleged sexual harassment of some of his female employees. These may well have been completely unfair and certainly Bloomberg himself denied the allegations, but any kind of negative coverage is not exactly going to shift an already established, negative view.

Tough times call for a hard-nosed realist not an idealist like Obama

So, all in all, Michael Rubens Bloomberg was not my cup of tea. But, following a recent stay in Manhattan - my first in many years - I have revised my opinion of the man.

I met up with my old high-school chum Jeremy, a journalist who now works as an editor at Bloomberg News. He related two surprisingly positive anecdotes about his billionaire boss.

Firstly, Jeremy recently wrote some articles about dissident Cuban journalist Normando Gonzalez's years of abuse and imprisonment by the Cuban government. When the Cuban authorities threatened to close Bloomberg's Havana office if they published any more articles about Gonzalez, Bloomberg told them to "get lost". He would run the stories even if they shut it down. Which they did.

On another occasion, Jeremy was somewhat anxious when asked to review a snobby Manhattan restaurant which he disliked, because he was aware that Bloomberg sometimes ate there and was friendly with the owner.

Nevertheless, he gritted his teeth and wrote an honest, critical review. On the morning it appeared, Jeremy's phone rang. It was Bloomberg. Uh-oh. But he was calling to say that he'd enjoyed the slating. "Apparently they always fawn over him at that restaurant," said Jeremy, "and he can't stand it."

So, not such a bad fellow. But a candidate for the White House? Well, let's think about it. The US is in the thick of a monumental fiscal crisis. Surely the country needs a President who is good with money. These tough financial times call for a hard-nosed businessman like Bloomberg, not an idealist like Obama.

And there's something else. Although he was initially a Democrat and then a Republican, since 2007 Bloomberg has been an Independent. He's politically unaffiliated. After the recent spectacle of the tooth-and-claw battle between the Democrats and the Republicans to reach agreement over the "debt ceiling", it could be refreshing to have a non-partisan leader in power.

If Bloomberg does run for the presidency, it will be to his advantage that he's seen to have just the right degree of Jewishness. He was brought up near Boston in a kosher home, but didn't raise his own daughters religiously. He puts in an occasional appearance at his Reform synagogue but lives a largely secular life.

He is a supporter of Israel and of Jewish causes but once remarked that, while he was happy to be a Jew, it didn't make him better or worse than anyone else: "You are what you are". He rarely discusses his faith.

In other words, he's comfortably assimilated. And he personifies the American dream - the ordinary Joe, grandson of immigrants, who became a successful, self-made man.

He can be inspirational, too. "We've shown the world that New York can never be defeated", he declared in relation to the 9/11 attacks, "because of its dynamic and diverse population and because it embodies the spirit of enterprise and the love of liberty."

Whether or not he has the makings of a President, there is a lot to admire about Michael Bloomberg. Just don't fawn over him. He doesn't like it.

Monica Porter's latest book is 'Long Lost: The Story of the Newspaper Column that Started the Reunion Industry'.

Last updated: 10:17am, August 19 2011