Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Extraordinary Indignation of Michael Bloomberg

It’s hard to remember a major politician, other than John F. Kennedy and John McCain (for a few months in 2000, anyway), actually enjoying and thriving off of the question-and-answer sessions with reporters that are a part of the business.

In this sense, the fact that Michael Bloomberg takes a generally contemptuous view of the press corps assigned to cover him isn’t really significant. But what is exceptional and noteworthy is Mr. Bloomberg’s regular failure to rein in his contempt in public, something that has spawned a series of petty blowups that have left the mayor looking like a bully with an unhealthy sense of entitlement.

The most recent incident involved a reporter from this paper, who attempted to ask Mr. Bloomberg last week whether the mayor’s own claims to see signs of an improving economy didn’t conflict with his recession-justified claim for overhauling term limits. Mr. Bloomberg responded by cutting him off, declaring the question insufficiently “serious.” He followed up by calling the reporter “a disgrace.”

Mr. Bloomberg, who is assembling and deploying one of the fiercest and best-funded political machines in modern New York history, prefers to think of himself as a man above politics—someone who, by virtue of his decades of private sector success and resultant ability to self-finance, has earned immunity from the suspicion he himself has sought to sow about politicians from more conventional backgrounds. This explains, for instance, his equally peevish response when reporters recently quizzed him on his campaign’s record-smashing spending.

The combination of Mr. Bloomberg’s low opinion of the press, short fuse, and near-hysterical resistance to suggestions of political calculation actually calls to mind a politician of considerably humbler financial means: Bill Clinton.

The former president, like the mayor, couldn’t (and probably still can’t) help exploding at reporters who violated his precisely defined sensibilities. In fact, the scene at the mayor’s Queens press conference last week looked and sounded jarringly similar to the scene in the Rose Garden back in June 1993, when Mr. Clinton suffered the most memorable public meltdown of his presidency.

The occasion was Mr. Clinton’s announcement of his decision to nominate Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Supreme Court. The process had been long and messy, with the White House twice leaking to the press the names of Mr. Clinton’s supposed choice—first Bruce Babbitt and then Stephen Breyer—only to pull back when those potential nominees were met with resistance. Just weeks earlier, Lani Guinier had been similarly hung out to dry when Mr. Clinton reneged on his selection of her to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department.

It was against this backdrop that Brit Hume, then ABC News’ White House correspondent, rose to ask Mr. Clinton the first question after Ms. Ginsburg delivered a rather poignant personal statement. The unwieldy selection process, Mr. Hume told the president, had created “an impression, perhaps unfair, of a certain zigzag quality in the decision-making process here. I wonder, sir, if you could kind of walk us through it and perhaps disabuse us of any notion that we might have along those lines.”

His voice full of anger, Clinton replied: “I have long since given up the thought that I could disabuse some of you turning any substantive decision into anything but political process. How you could ask a question like that after the statement [Ginsburg] just made is beyond me.” Then his aides and a few cabinet officials applauded.

As with Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Clinton’s self-pity was hard to square with reality. His administration, with his full consent, had used the press for months to float the names of prospective court nominees. But faced with a question from the press about that process, he replied with scornful self-righteousness.

Certainly, the roots of Mr. Clinton’s press contempt differ from Mr. Bloomberg’s. The former president, who launched his first campaign at the age of 26, was hardly a stranger to unfriendly questions by the time he became president. His resentment, it seemed, stemmed more from his desire to be seen by Americans as a policy wonk and not a political animal. (In reality, he was both.) So he’d angrily lash out at any suggestion of political motive, an effort to convince the public, and maybe himself, that there was nothing to the charge.

Until he ran for mayor at the age of 59, Mr. Bloomberg’s only relationship to the press came as the owner of a media company. He may actually see himself as being above politics, but what seems to exercise him when the press broaches the subject isn’t really fear that they might be onto something; it’s the idea that anyone would have the audacity to challenge his version of things, least of all a bunch of lowly reporters who would surely be off making real salaries if they were capable of it.

It’s not clear he really has to change that attitude, either. Mr. Clinton always won in the end. The overwhelming likelihood is that, despite himself, the mayor will, too.

Steve Kornacki can be reached via email at

No comments: