Blogs > HNN > Paul Moses: Review of Joyce Purnick's Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics (Public Affairs, 2009)

Nov 29, 2009 9:31 pm

Paul Moses: Review of Joyce Purnick's Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics (Public Affairs, 2009)

Paul Moses is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009). He is a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

There are scenes in Joyce Purnick’s biography of Michael Bloomberg that could have come straight out of New York in the Gilded Age: titans of commerce plotting in private to change the law so that the wealthiest resident of their city would remain mayor, warding off a takeover by Tammany Hall.

As Purnick, a veteran New York newspaper reporter, tells the story in Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics, the scheme to undo New York City’s term-limits law so that the billionaire media mogul could retain his mayoral seat in this year’s election relied on a hoax of sorts. Wall Street’s flop in September, 2008 created the crisis that Bloomberg used to justify tampering with a law voters had supported in two referenda. But in fact, Purnick notes, Bloomberg had conducted polling months earlier to see how the public would view his attempt to get around the two-term limit. The financial crisis provided a pretext.

Supported by a coterie of wealthy business leaders – including owners of New York’s three major daily newspapers - Bloomberg moved with a sureness that would have impressed New York’s 19th-century robber barons. After gathering up the backing of the city’s newspaper editorial boards, he circumvented the referendum process by getting the City Council to change the term limits law.

“Pressure from business barons,” Purnick writes, cleared away one last obstacle: the wealthy businessman Ronald Lauder, who had bankrolled the term-limits referenda in the past.

The term-limits caper gently marks a turning point in the story Purnick tells about Bloomberg and “his detour to the dark side.” To New Yorkers, it meant he could be “a dreaded selfish pol,” she writes. “He had surrendered to the seduction of politics, the lure of power.”

Still, Bloomberg comes across more Horatio Alger than Charles Foster Kane in this telling. Purnick starts with a breezy account of Bloomberg’s youth in Medford, Mass., where he was an Eagle Scout. (No “rosebud” here.) With clarity and conciseness, she explains how he came into his fortune by renting out computer terminals that provided financial data.

Purnick is particularly good at describing Bloomberg’s days as a social climber in the years following his divorce – “the social reinvention of Mike Bloomberg.” During his Mr. Big phase, Bloomberg sought to be seen with the likes of Barbara Walters, Beverly Sills, Liv Ullman, Marisa Berenson and Diana Ross.
Purnick, however, skewers Bloomberg over his apparent habit of speaking crudely about women. She goes beyond the widely reported allegations in a sex discrimination lawsuit against Bloomberg’s media company to include the perturbed reaction of men who had heard him unfiltered on boys’ nights out.

Still, Purnick portrays a kind of nobility in Bloomberg, detailing his philanthropy, his sense of honesty, his impatience with the phoniness of political discourse, his willingness to take unpopular stands. And, like many New Yorkers, she seems simply happy that he is not Rudolph Giuliani – that he took such basic steps as re-connecting City Hall’s severed lines of communication with African-American leaders after he was elected mayor.

“He is probably the most unusual and perplexing mayor New York has ever seen: diffident, unemotional, hard to like, yet so grounded that he is even harder to disrespect,” Purnick writes, presenting Bloomberg as a paradox.

Purnick makes some stinging observations along the way, but this is not an investigative work. For the most part, she avoids issuing judgments of her subject and seems content to let the readers decide what to make of Bloomberg, who is presented as an effective manager who has improved even New York City’s schools (although not to the extent he claims). At the same time, there is a disturbing undercurrent as Purnick recounts how Bloomberg has used his fortune to buy up politically influential non-profit groups, Republican leaders in the state Senate, members of Congress, and entire elections.

Purnick doesn’t put it this way, but what she describes amounts to a subversion of democracy. And, as the book makes clear, Bloomberg had harbored a deep desire to use his fortune in an even bigger way - to run for president in 2008.

Purnick’s even-handedness is welcome at a time when much political discussion is anything but. It is a strength of the book because it makes her tougher observations very credible. At the same time, it is a frustration that she tends to report what Bloomberg’s friends and critics say without offering her own conclusion. If any writer has earned a right to express such a judgment, it is Purnick. She has long experience in covering New York City politics, having served at The New York Times as a columnist, metropolitan editor and City Hall bureau chief (I was a reporter for the competing New York Newsday when we both covered the Koch administration.).

Mike Bloomberg is an important book because heretofore, Bloomberg has been able to define his own story mostly unchallenged, whether through his profligate campaign advertising or his boastful 2001 memoir, Bloomberg by Bloomberg. Purnick’s well-written, knowledgeable, fair-minded account provides much-needed perspective on a man of enormous influence in the interlocked worlds of business, politics and philanthropy.
This book arrives just as Bloomberg is running for election to a third term and, as Purnick notes, third terms usually go badly for New York mayors. So there will be room for more books about Bloomberg.

One will most likely be by Bloomberg – he reportedly ( a new memoir, but held it back from publication because he is said to have feared its boasting might turn off voters in the 2009 mayoral race. Presumably, it will be issued after the election – he is not one to let others take control of his story.

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