When my departure from the Village Voice after nearly four decades became news on Tuesday, I got a surprise call at my home office overlooking Windsor Place in Brooklyn from Mike Bloomberg. At first I thought it was a high tech robo-call to an imaginary enemies list.
I had done a phone interview with Chris Matthews just a few days earlier from the same window, detailing every unplowed flake still covering my block. I expected Mayor Mike to blast me as just another outer-borough whiner.
But the "get-over-it" mayor was solicitous. He told me he'd heard about the sudden and involuntary end of my Voice career. He recalled how he remembered the name of everyone who called him the day he was fired at Salomon Brothers, but couldn't recall anyone's name that called him when he was elected mayor. It's the people who call you when you're down, he said, that really matter. I wanted to remind him that Salomon gave him the $10 million severance that financed the creation of Bloomberg LP, a sure antidote to despondency, but I kept my tongue.
Bloomberg made it clear a couple of times during the conversation that he didn't agree with everything I wrote, a gentle understatement. But he added that I would be missed.
What's odd is that, even when the mayor is doing a caring and intimate thing like his call to me, he sounds uncomfortable and terse. He reminds me of the uncle who arrives at the 6-year-old's birthday party with the biggest present and the smallest smile.
We have found with the CityTime scandal and the blizzard bungle that Bloomberg has brought less of the corporate management style that made him a billionaire to government than we thought. But he does appear to have transferred to the public sphere the imperiousness of the corporate personality, a resolute and awkward distancing designed to insulate the boss from charges of soft-touch favoritism.
Bloomberg is just so much more able to empathize one-on-one than he is to connect with a suffering mass, unless you consider Wall Street bankers a beleaguered underclass. It's not just the unplowed that can be dismissed as clatter by our crisp and sometimes contemptuous mayor — he has harrumphed over the complaints of transit riders, pothole pleaders, Con Ed customers without power, and even those who lost their subprime homes to foreclosure.
"You can also blame the people that took out the mortgages," he said, though later noting how "very sorry" he felt for Dick Fuld and Lehman Brothers, subprime sewer plunderers finally foreclosed on by their own bankers. The polled public, which is apparently now giving him record-low favorability numbers, undoubtedly can't recall the specifics, but there is a collective subconscious memory about Bloomberg's double-standard boosterism, which extends beyond bankers to other class heroes. "Last time I checked, the pharmaceutical industry doesn't make a lot of money, its executives don't make a lot of money," was one gem. Cable companies seeking rate hikes: "They don't make a lot of money." And when taxpayer-aided bonuses became the hot issue in 2008, it was Bloomberg who declared that city workers, including cops and firefighters, "should be down there demanding, 'Pay Wall Street people more.' That's where their salaries come from."
Topping them all was the mayor's Great Recession jewel that "the rich aren't making any money" either. "We love the rich people" was a Bloombergism that never made it onto the big screen of his endless spool of 2009 re-election commercials, but it does encapsulate the anger people feel now, when his let-them-eat-ice chilliness during the storm left many who aren't rich feeling very unloved.
It is hard to remember at these moments that this is the same mayor who sat in his office day after day calling the homes of every family that lost a cop or firefighter on September 11 and bleeding with them, even though it occurred months before he took office. This is the man who has quietly financed the legal defense of a dockworker and a horse trainer he believed were falsely accused of a crime, and was vindicated both times by the courts. When my mentor and onetime Post columnist Jack Newfield died in 2004, Bloomberg went to the memorial and stayed for the entire two-hour series of eulogies even though he wasn't on the speaker list and was denounced by Jimmy Breslin from the pulpit for his supposed complicity in the Iraq War.
We seldom see this grace at his Blue Room press conferences, where he is more likely to carry a chip on his shoulder than let anyone cry on it.
I was at Bloomberg's victory party at the Sheraton last year, one of a hundred political celebrations I've covered. It was the oddest. He came out on the stage alone. He saluted the women in his life, though none were standing beside him. The coalition that had just re-elected him was invisible. As was the administration he led. Behind him on a platform were multi-racial layers of anonymous and paid extras to lead the cheers. The ballroom itself was packed with the best-dressed assemblage of young professionals with free booze in their hands I'd ever seen at a victory gala, barely listening to his speech. The theme song might as well have been "Can't Buy Me Love."
Our other recent three-term mayor, Ed Koch, was a loner, too, in some ways. But he had an electric connection to people. If they keep a television camera in the operating room, he will never die. New Yorkers would willingly trade charisma for efficiency but we've discovered in recent days that we're getting neither.
In a recent "Meet the Press" appearance, Bloomberg closed the door on a presidential campaign and said he just wanted to be the greatest mayor in the history of the city. Putting a GPS device on sanitation trucks for the next snowstorm won't make him that. With three years to go, Mike Bloomberg has to open his heart to us, climb out of his cautious and caustic bag, and share himself with his city.
We don't just miss him when he's in Bermuda. We miss him, as strange as it sounds, when he is here.