This is how the routine goes.
Michael Bloomberg holds a press conference on some issue—say, the perennial “score card” he presents to track his progress on fulfilling campaign promises.
He talks about it. Then he gets asked about running for President.
“Not that you are or plan to, but if you were to run for President,” asked longtime WCBS radio man Rich Lamb recently at just such an event, “would you put out a list of these—”
“I didn’t, but if—” replied Mr. Bloomberg, laughing. “Judith—where’s Judith Regan now that we need her?” (He was referring to the former HarperCollins publisher who had planned to publish O.J. Simpson’s fictionalized account of his ex-wife’s murder, entitled If I Did It.)
Mr. Bloomberg began again: “Look, I’m not running for President, but I do think every Presidential candidate should put out a list of every single one of the key issues.”
A denial, but not a denial. And so the press continues to write about the Mayor’s every move in the context of his talked-about billion-dollar run for President in 2008 as an independent.
It’s a great story. It’s also purely hypothetical. And, to boot, it’s a highly convenient one for a lame-duck Mayor who, however popular at the moment, would not be drawing nearly the attention he has on local and national issues from the national and international press.
So at what point should the press stop playing along?
“There’s a certain amount of skepticism that he’s actually going to run,” said the New York Post’s veteran City Hall bureau chief, David Seifman. “At the same time, people have to pay attention when the Mayor is traveling around the country and giving speeches that you could very easily read as national campaign speeches.
“It takes a lot of energy for a guy to travel around the country—even for a guy who has his own jet,” he added. And even for the super rich, there’s only so much time in a day. “There’s advance work, there’s planning, and whatever you got scheduled here, you’re not here.”
Robert Polner, a former City Hall reporter for Newsday and editor of a book about Rudolph Giuliani entitled America’s Mayor, America’s President?, suggested that reporters should try to restrain themselves to some extent.
“I think you have to do the story, and you have to do it more than once, but I think there should be a limit on it,” he said. “I would hope there would be.
“You know, there are many stories where it looks like he’s running; he hasn’t denied that he’s running,” he continued. “It gets kind of ludicrous after a while to read them, don’t you think?”
(Back in 2006, this publication was among the first to publish stories about the possibility of a Bloomberg Presidential campaign, and has written about it regularly since then.)
Wayne Barrett, the crusading investigative journalist from The Village Voice who has covered City Hall politics since the Koch administration, said that the Bloomberg-for-President story is worth covering whether it’s real or not.
“Do I think it might all be show? Yes,” said Mr. Barrett. “He’s trying to create the illusion; that’s perfectly possible to me. If he’s trying to create the illusion, then we have to report at least the things he does to create the illusion. It’s possible these stories need to say higher up and clearer what the issues are that strongly suggest he won’t do this. That’s certainly possible.”
But, Mr. Barrett added, “when this first started happening, I was so dubious about it. I’m not so dubious about it anymore.”
The buzz about Mr. Bloomberg’s Presidential bid started the day after he won his second term in office. That night, his campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, appeared on NY1 News and, unsolicited, broached the possibility. Reporter Ben Smith followed that with a front-page story in this newspaper, which asked in February 2006 if Mr. Bloomberg would run as an independent candidate—a “sane Ross Perot.” By that point, it was out there—where it remains, tantalizingly, to this day.
Of course, as good as the story is, reporters who have been around long enough to remember other Mayoral meta-narratives see the whole thing as a natural progression for Mr. Bloomberg—and for the press.
“There comes a point in every Mayor’s political life where they start to get bored with the city and start to kind of look around at what’s next,” said New York Times reporter Michael Powell.
“There’s no advantage to him in definitively coming out and stomping his feet and saying, ‘Absolutely will not, never, ever, ever!’,” Mr. Powell said. “Why do that?”
Another reporter who covered Mr. Bloomberg and his predecessor described the phenomenon this way: “If you’re in your second term and you’re not running for something, you just sink. You need to have something compelling you forward, or people will actually start paying attention to the way you’re governing, which is a bad problem for a Mayor in his second term.”
And yet, because of Mr. Bloomberg’s high poll numbers, bottomless personal war chest and—perhaps most importantly—his term-limited tenure, the story is just a little too credible to let go of, no matter how often the Mayor denies it.
“If he didn’t have the money, you’d have to say, ‘It’s really too late for him—let’s move on,’” Mr. Polner said. “But he does have the money to start it up.”
Or, as Mr. Seifman put it: “At the end of the day, it’s hard to see an independent candidacy by a guy from New York City. But it’s going to be a pretty wild year.”