Washington has long been a magnet for wealthy people who thought they'd make enlightened officeholders. H. Ross Perot ran his campaigns for president, Donald Trump mouths off from time to time about running, and David Koch blew a bundle running as the Libertarian Party's vice presidential candidate in 1980. For millionaires who haven't known what to do with all of their free time, the Senate has operated as a faux social club for people like Jon Corzine, Jay Rockefeller, Elizabeth Dole, Edward Kennedy, Howard Metzenbaum, Frank Lautenberg, Dianne Feinstein, and Herbert Kohl. * Bloomberg has sensibly avoided joining this band of losers. He's an imperial club of one, and he likes it like that.
Bloomberg spent $108 million on his 2009 mayoral campaign and has spent freely on the campaigns of others, giving at least $740,000 over the years, splitting the money evenly between Republicans and Democrats and tossing in a few farthings for independents. Money makes the business of politics work, but having a bunch of your own money doesn't generally make you a good politician. The wealthy—especially successful businessmen who made their own money—grow accustomed to having their way without argument or resistance. They'll gladly trample or fire anybody who gets in the way. But politics doesn't lend itself to that sort of military-command structure, nor does being the president. What fun is it to have your finger on the nuclear trigger if you never get to pull it? Joseph Pulitzer's New York World bureau chief got it right when he endorsed the idea that Pulitzer resigned from Congress because he had "a much better position as editor of the World than any official in Washington."
Although Bloomberg has attempted to make New York City a nanny-municipality with his crusades against calories, tobacco, trans-fat, salt, sugar, and noise, he hasn't generated the negatives that kept Hearst from compiling a winning political record. Journalism scholar W. Joseph Campbell, who has written extensively on Hearst (see Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacy and The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms) *, calls Hearst "a lightning rod for contempt in New York and beyond. Many people despised him for the way he burst on the newspaper scene in New York, disliking him for his self-promoting ways, his flamboyance in spending money, and his disdain for journalistic convention of the late of the 19th century."
Bloomberg has avoided scorn by playing political small-ball, unlike Hearst, who was given to calling for either war or the dismantling of the trusts. By grooming himself as a sensible yet iron-fisted ruler who doesn't want to transform your life—just to nudge you for your betterment—Bloomberg excites no negative passions. In fact, he excites few passions at all. Even taking a stand for a stern and all-embracing speech, he could pass for the world's wealthiest elementary-school principal.
As my Slate colleague David Weigel put it in a 2007 Reasonpiece, Bloomberg doesn't think government exists to keep people safe or to guard their property. He think it exists to make them better people.
And isn't that all God wants for his children?
Correction, Dec. 16, 2010: This article originally misspelled Dianne Feinstein's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Dec. 17, 2010: This article originally misstated the title of one of W. Joseph Campbell's books. It is The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms—not 1896. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) Also, it misstated Nancy Soderberg's title. She held the rank of ambassador at the United Nations but was not the ambassador. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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