There is always a photograph, and so naturally there is a photograph. This one was taken during the summer of 2008, on a golf course owned by President Donald Trump in New York’s Westchester County. Despite whatever accidental prescience the image might since seem to have acquired, the photo itself was and remains just what it is: artless proof that some wealthy and powerful men—in this case Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Clinton—had at some point posed together on a golf course with their respective Big Bertha drivers out.
It’s the sort of photo that the principal figures have had taken thousands of times over the course of their public lives and equally public retirements. For people of this stature, taking pictures like this with other members of their micro-caste of puffy swells—variously seared pink or golden brown, buzzcut and triangular or pillowy and spheroid, foreign or domestic—is something like their job. There’s no aesthetic merit to these photos, which invariably involve three or four or more pairs of golf shoes and varying shades of incipient sunburn—and sometimes, as this one does, multiple pairs of centimillionaire knees. Aesthetic merit of course plays no role in the staging of such photos; rather, they serve to document a convergence of egos and interests. In functional terms, they mark a random historical moment in roughly the same way and for roughly the same reasons that hostage-takers photograph their captives holding up the front page of a given day’s newspaper. Everyone in the shot can point to it as proof of themselves being in the proper company and the correct milieu. Images like this do not exist to be looked at so much as they exist to be seen, or noticed.
And that’s what we have here. Giuliani, far left, looks as ever as if he has somehow been spilled into his clothes; he is turned such that he is grimacing towards a camera that no one else is facing. Trump is halfway into or out of a grin, and sagging to leeward like a butter sculpture left out in the sun. A head shorter and directly to Trump’s left, Bloomberg is trim, mirthless, and more deeply tan than any public official has a right to be. Bill Clinton had not at this point embarked on his vegan glow-up, and so looks jocular and fluffy in shorts and a pastel golf shirt with implausibly girthsome sleeves. Most versions of this photo that have circulated over the days since Bloomberg announced his interest in joining the field of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination crop former Yankees Manager Joe Torre and professional Yankees fan Billy Crystal out of the photo entirely, even though the picture was taken at Torre’s own charity golf event.
That is rude, but it fits. Characters like Torre and Crystal are incidental to photos like this, or anyway useful mostly as local color, or a spritz of local flavor atop the expensive lobes of foie gras at the center of the image. The photos are proof that various powerful people once stood next to each other, more or less as peers, and they are to be hung up like a diploma—something for guests to see on the wall of a long corridor in some cold and fancified house, or notice in an office in which, as a matter of course, no actual work gets done. A bunch of rich old men, together, their respective pendulous drivers arrayed before them such that their identical heads are nearly touching, but not quite. Well, doesn’t that beat all?
In a better world, such photos might still exist. The people in them would not have become nearly as rich or unaccountable or powerful as they are in this one, but there’s no reason to think that they would not have found each other in some refrigerated clubhouse or hotel dining room or breakout session or cigar bar. In that world, these men would not be any better than they are in this one, because they are what they are by nature—mutants of appetite and ego, and outliers from the rest of humanity in terms of both the depth and the breadth of their need. But in that other world, in which they are merely rich and terrible, they would threaten only the good times of the other people sharing those spaces with them.
In this one, though, these vainglorious eternals somehow shamble on atop the culture even in their curdling dotage. From that commanding position they do what they do—pursue their endless blowsy feuds, scheme and carp, watch television and go on television and, where the opportunity presents itself, blithely commit various high crimes and misdemeanors. Far above the struggle and insecurity of everyday life, these brittle titans squabble and gossip and go through acrimonious and highly public divorces; for all the ways in which the toxic runoff of inequality can currently be felt in the culture, the fact that the cheesy churn of rich and petty men drifting into and pissily out of each other’s good graces now so distorts our politics is among the most enervating. It is one thing to see so much of our popular culture narrowing and flattening to suit various billionaires’ crude and idle whims, but it’s something else to realize that the political life of the richest and most powerful country on earth is in large part determined by the spats and obsessions of a super-class of aged and lazy lords, all of whom consider themselves peers of each other and virtually no one else.
It’s not a constitutionally enumerated power of the office, but presidents invariably shape the culture in ways that reflect their own values or anti-values, politics, and vibe. Clinton’s America applauded itself from the apex of boomer self-assurance; Bush’s was gilded and blustering and fragile, both strident and utterly bereft of ideas; Obama’s was cosmopolitan and smart from afar and naively inclined to assume facts not in evidence about the trajectories of various important things. It makes sense that Donald Trump’s America would be just the country for these old men—that the machinations and endless feuds of the tabloid undead would crowd and then devour everything else.
If Trump has values beyond the protection and promotion of his hideous and hungry self, they are these tabloid-driven rules of engagement. If Trump has peers—if there are people that matter to him beyond those who might be instrumentalized to advance his pursuit of more of everything—these are those people. Bloomberg will not be the next president of the United States, because virtually no one alive wants him to serve in that role. And yet he and his untouchable peers, who have been allowed through various long-standing failures to have so much more than any person ever should, will spend millions of dollars not in pursuit of any particular set of policies or even the office itself, but out of habit. Look at that photo again, and it is clear that none of the people in it are really friends—but just as important, they’re not enemies in any meaningful way, either. If you know the roles they play in our politics, the people in the photo seem like an unlikely foursome—the lumpy blowhards who backed into fascism for lack of any conviction deeper than a distaste for those with less than them, grinning alongside the savviest and most state-of-the-art ur-moderates. Someone who didn’t understand how weak everything around them had become, or how high these duffers had been allowed to rise as a result, might just look at the photo and see some old guys heading out to play some golf, and maybe bet a little something on the outcome to make things interesting.
After spending over $400 million promoting himself, Michael Bloomberg faces the scrutiny of a debate for the first time.
On Wednesday, the leading Democratic candidates for president will take the debate stage in Las Vegas, three days ahead of the Nevada caucuses. This will be the race’s ninth debate, and many voters may be tempted to skip the show. That would be a mistake.
While many of the candidates and their sales pitches are by now familiar — in some cases painfully so — this will be the debate debut of Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire business mogul and former mayor of New York who has been promoting himself, with the help of his personal fortune, as the one player with “the record & the resources” to topple President Trump.
Despite not competing in the first four voting contests, Mr. Bloomberg has emerged as a top-tier contender, sowing anxiety and uncertainty among his rivals. A national poll released Tuesday showed him at 19 percent among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, second only to Bernie Sanders. Other recent polls show him leading the field in Florida and tied for first in Virginia.
Rarely has a candidate come so far while revealing so little of himself, making Wednesday’s debate — the first time Mr. Bloomberg will face his primary competitors live and in person — far more significant, and interesting, than most.
Mr. Bloomberg sauntered into the race in late November, long after most of the field, and has run an unconventional campaign. He didn’t enter the early primaries and caucuses, and he has focused his energies — and his spending — on the diverse, delegate-rich states scheduled to vote on March 3, a.k.a. Super Tuesday.
It is a strategy made possible by the $61.8 billion fortune with which he is self-funding his run. That kind of money can buy an essentially unlimited number of campaign ads — including a $11 million Super Bowl spot — along with a boatload of strategists, staffers and support from local politicians and other influencers. It can also help build vital infrastructure, from local campaign offices to national databases. In less than three months, Mr. Bloomberg has dropped over $400 million.
Even as he has overwhelmed the field with his spending, Mr. Bloomberg has avoided many of the traditional hoops presidential hopefuls are expected to jump through. He skipped the endless retail politicking — the diner stops, county fairs and pancake breakfasts — that comes with wooing voters in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
He is not much for media sitdowns. (He declined an invitation by The Times’s editorial board to participate in our endorsement process.) He has not been involved in the televised town halls at which candidates have been detailing their policy positions. And, of course, he missed the first eight debates, letting him avoid much of the early bloodletting.
More specifically, Mr. Bloomberg was not eligible for the earlier debates, which required candidates to show a certain level of fund-raising support. The Democratic National Committee jettisoned that rule last month, enabling him to participate if he met the threshold of scoring 10 percent in four qualifying polls, which he did.
Already, there is much buzz about which of Mr. Bloomberg’s anxious competitors will hit him the hardest, and how he will respond. If this week’s skirmish with the Sanders campaign is any indication, the evening could get bumpy. Mr. Bloomberg has a reputation for not taking criticism or unwelcome queries particularly well, once calling a reporter whose question he disliked “a disgrace.” During his mayoral runs, he participated in at least eight debates. He tended to come prepared, data at hand, although he could be prickly and awkward at times. His last turn on a debate stage was in 2009.
Beyond the candidate clashes, this will be debate moderators’ first opportunity to kick the tires on Mr. Bloomberg’s candidacy. They owe it to the public to do a thorough and vigorous job.
Presumably, he will come ready to answer the most overarching criticism: that he is trying to buy the presidency. And he can expect a grilling over his controversial use of stop-and-frisk policing — largely with young black and Hispanic men — while mayor. His apologizing for the practice as he began his campaign struck many as a tad cynical. At the very least, he’ll most likely face some follow-up queries, such as: What took you so long?
There is so much more to explore, both promising — like his new plan to address the cost and quality of college — and troubling — for instance, the widespread surveillance of Muslims by local law enforcement during his time as mayor.
In case the moderators are stuck for material, here are a few lines of inquiry to consider:
Mr. Bloomberg used to be a Republican and, over the years, supported numerous Republican candidates at the state and federal levels. Why should Democrats trust him to champion their values as president?
He once linked the financial collapse to measures taken to deal with the damages of redlining, the practice of banks denying home loans in minority neighborhoods. Does he still believe that?
He has been a longtime champion of gun control. How would he pursue reform if Republicans retain control of the Senate?
Once upon a time he opposed increasing the minimum wage, a move he now supports. What changed his mind?
Homelessness in New York surged on his watch. What lessons did he learn from this, and what would his housing policy be as president?
Considering all that we don’t know about Mr. Bloomberg, his grilling could run for the entire debate. And maybe it should. He is, after all, looking to disrupt not only this Democratic field but the entire nominating process. This debate and the one in South Carolina next Tuesday may be the only two opportunities for the broader public to get a real sense of him before Super Tuesday.
Compelling arguments can be, and have been, marshaled for and against Mr. Bloomberg. Is he a narcissistic ex-Republican with Big Brotherish tendencies and a sketchy record on race who is trying to buy the presidency? Is he the battle-tested, successful leader of the nation’s largest city whose business savvy and personal fortune make him especially well suited to dismantle Mr. Trump? Perhaps he is a bit of both.
No one really knows yet. But if he is to move even a step closer to the White House, voters deserve a clearer picture of his candidacy. That process begins Wednesday night.
Disparaging comments. Demeaning jokes. As the mogul reportedly considers a 2020 presidential run, it remains an open question whether his long-alleged history of undermining women will affect his chances.
If you find yourself seeking, in these turbulent times, evidence of steadiness among the chaos—proof that even as the seas rise and the winds whip and the world that was gives way to the world that will be, some things will remain the same—here is a fact that seems always to be true: Mike Bloomberg is considering a run for president.
The newest version of the old truth comes from an article published this week in The New York Times: The billionaire former mayor, the paper announces, validating the rumors, is again considering a presidential run—this time, however, as a Democrat. It would not be an easy candidacy. “Mr. Bloomberg,” the Times points out, “is plainly an uncomfortable match for a progressive coalition passionately animated by concern for economic inequality and the civil rights of women and minorities.” Indeed: In an interview with the paper, Bloomberg defends stop-and-frisk. And, voicing “doubt” about some of the revelations that have been made in the course of #MeToo, Bloomberg mentions as an example Charlie Rose, who had broadcast his show from a space in Bloomberg’s corporate offices. He declined to say, specifically, whether he believed the many allegations against Rose. “Let the court system decide,” the former mayor said.
What is not fully addressed in the Times article, however—and what is not fully explored in the many similar pieces that consider the current iteration of Mike Bloomberg’s presidential ambitions—is a series of stories about him, accumulated over decades, that suggests in the aggregate a distinct pattern when it comes to his treatment of women:
- reports of disparaging comments made about women’s bodies and appearances.
- Allegations of a deeply sexist work environment at the company that Bloomberg founded and, for many years, ran. Stories that linger like exhaust in the air every time Mike Bloomberg is mentioned as, potentially, the next president of the United States.
This is a time in America of accountabilities that are—this is the most generous way to put it—unevenly distributed. Some people bear the heaviest and cruelest of burdens; others move through the world with easy indemnity. Christine Blasey Ford makes an allegation of sexual violence against the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; she is attacked as a victimizer. The man who last sought the presidency of the United States admitted to—bragged about—his own history of assaulting women; he won the office nonetheless. Exhaust, exhausting: The impunities form their own kind of fog.
The stories about Mike Bloomberg, though—stories, told through lawsuits and journalistic accounts, that involve allegations not of physical abuse but of more insidious manifestations of misogyny—ask broader questions about the ways electoral politics and basic morality will continue to tangle with each other as #MeToo marches onward. Will the stories (many of which Bloomberg has publicly denied as the inventions of money-hungry opportunists) have any bearing on his potential presidential candidacy? Will the Americans (and specifically now, apparently, the Democrats) of the current moment consider allegations involving casual misogyny, on the personal level and at the institutional, to be politically disqualifying? Will they consider those claims, indeed, to be worth discussing at all? Or will they dismiss them as the predicable collateral of the thing Americans are conditioned, still, to value above all: the successful accumulation of power and wealth?
From 1996 to 1997, four women filed sexual-harassment or discrimination suits against Bloomberg the company. One of the suits included the following allegation: When Sekiko Sakai Garrison, a sales representative at the company, told Mike Bloomberg she was pregnant, he replied, “Kill it!” (Bloomberg went on, she alleged, to mutter, “Great, No. 16”—a reference, her complaint said, to the 16 women at the company who were then pregnant.) To these allegations, Garrison added another one: Even prior to her pregnancy, she claimed, Bloomberg had antagonized her by making disparaging comments about her appearance and sexual desirability. “What, is the guy dumb and blind?” he is alleged to have said upon seeing her wearing an engagement ring. “What the hell is he marrying you for?”
Bloomberg denied having made those comments, claiming that he passed a lie-detector test validating the denial but declining to release the results. (He also reportedly left Garrison a voicemail upon hearing that she’d been upset by the comments about her pregnancy: “I didn’t say it, but if I said it, I didn’t mean it.”) What Bloomberg reportedly did concede is that he had said of Garrison and other women, “I’d do her.” In making the concession, however, he insisted that he had believed that to “do” someone meant merely “to have a personal relationship” with them.
That suit was settled in 2000; its terms were not disclosed. Other suits made similar claims. In a 1998 filing, Mary Ann Olszewski reported that “male employees from Mr. Bloomberg on down” routinely belittled women at the company—a pattern of harassment, she said, that culminated in her being raped in a Chicago hotel room by a Bloomberg executive who was also her direct superior. The case was dismissed (not, apparently, on its merits, but rather because Olszewski’s attorney had missed the deadlines to respond to a motion to end the case). Before it was, though, in a deposition relating to the suit, Bloomberg testified that he wouldn’t consider Olszewski’s rape allegation to be genuine unless there were “an unimpeachable third-party witness” to corroborate her claims. (Asked by a lawyer how such a person might happen to witness a rape, Bloomberg replied, “There are times when three people are together.”)
“Bloomberg’s Sexual Blind Spot” is how The Village Voice summed it up in 2001. “Anti-woman obnoxiousness,” Cord Jefferson, then at Gawker, called it in 2013. Part of that obnoxiousness involves the many reports related to what Bloomberg once told a reporter: “I like theater, dining, and chasing women.” (He elaborated: “Let me put it this way: I am a single, straight billionaire in Manhattan. What do you think? It’s a wet dream.”) In his 1997 autobiography, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, the mogul bragged about keeping “a girlfriend in every city” during his years working as a Wall Street stock trader in the 1960s and ’70s. He is reported to have said, of the computer terminal that made his fortune, “It will do everything, including give you [oral sex]. I guess that puts a lot of you girls out of business.”
There’s more: Bloomberg reportedly saying to a journalist and the journalist’s friend, as he gazed at a woman at a holiday party, “Look at the ass on her.” (He denied having made that comment.) Bloomberg, according to a top aide, seeing attractive women and reflexively remarking, “Nice tits.” Bloomberg, mocking Christine Quinn, the then-speaker of New York’s City Council, for going too long between hair colorings. (“The couple of days a week before I need to get my hair colored,” Quinn once said, “he’ll say, ‘Do you pay a lot to make your hair be two colors? Because now it’s three with the gray.’”) Bloomberg mocking Quinn again, she said, for failing to wear heels at public events. (“I was at a parade with him once and he said, ‘What are those?’ and I said, ‘They’re comfortable,’ and he said, ‘I never want to hear those words out of your mouth again.’”) Bloomberg, quoted by colleagues as saying, “If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale’s.” Bloomberg being asked in a deposition, “Have you ever made a comment to the effect that you would like to ‘do that piece of meat,’ or I’d ‘do her in a second’?” Bloomberg replying, “I don’t recall ever using the term meat at all.”
These reports suggest the extent of the blind spot. They also suggest, however, the expansive underbelly of #MeToo: the easy entitlements by which men come to see women as existing in part for their pleasure. The stories told of Bloomberg paint a picture of self-centric power, of moral tautologies, of limited empathies. (Joyce Purnick, in her 2009 biography, Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics, describes a man who is “curt, profane, cranky, and willful,” and, relatedly, “allergic to introspection.”) And, set as they are in the towers of the American corporation, places where power is assumed to justify itself, they suggest precisely the kind of trickle-down inequalities that politicians in particular might be in a position to combat. Sexism, for one, converted into a system: There is so much that is summoned—of hateful history, of the way that the past insinuates itself on the present—when a powerful man sizes up a less powerful woman in his employ and says, “I’d do her.”
Earlier this month, another suit involving Mike Bloomberg was (very briefly) in the news. The mogul was reinstated as a defendant in a 2016 civil suit brought against Bloomberg the company by a former employee: She claims that in addition to the hostile work environment and sexual discrimination she experienced at the company, she was raped by a manager at Bloomberg when she was 22. (Lawyers for Bloomberg and the now-terminated manager deny her allegations.) The suit also holds the majority owner of Bloomberg liable for the woman’s claims. The judge in the case, who had previously ruled that Mike Bloomberg had no immediate connection to the woman’s claims, reconsidered his ruling; the case will move forward with Bloomberg listed as a defendant.
Bloomberg has traditionally dismissed the lawsuits filed against him and his company as publicity stunts and money grabs and, in the fullest sense, nuisances. (“What’s happening,” he explained of one such case, “is that because I’m so visible, that obviously I’m a target.”) To run for office, however, is to make oneself a different kind of target; that is the exchange that is made when a person seeks such direct power over other people’s lives. The story published in the Times this week is a trial balloon for a potential presidential candidacy; it is also testing, however, another thing. What are voters willing to tolerate, at this point, in those who propose to lead them? What are they willing to ignore? What has changed since the last time Mike Bloomberg ran for public office? And what—the world being, in the end, full of truths that remain so stubbornly true—hasn’t changed at all?