The most interesting—and most fearless—politician in America
In a year when Democrats became the party that dared not speak its name and Republicans would not shut up, one diminutive New York mayor stood tall. Once the GOP made a national issue of whether or not a mosque (actually part of an Islamic community center) should be allowed at Ground Zero (actually two long blocks away), Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the one politician who spoke to his city—and the country—in a way that made a citizen proud. He delivered a beautiful, and beautifully straightforward, speech that embraced the idea of the community center and dared to evoke the firefighters, police, and emergency workers who made the ultimate sacrifice on September 11: “We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights—and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”
Bloomberg is surely the most intriguing politician in America today, by turns earthy and high-minded, funny and dismissive, modest and self-congratulatory. Scorned by right-wingers for his social liberalism, reviled by some liberals for his avid support of developers, he is a one-man party of the “sensible middle” that so many voters and commentators claim to want.
They won’t get it, as American third parties never emerge from the middle. Instead, Mayor Mike, a Massachusetts native who speaks with fierce pride of his adopted city, a rich man who takes the subway twice a week (even if he takes an SUV to his stop), a leader who can see the practical benefits of the First Amendment, is likely to remain sui generis. And that’s fine by us.
Kevin Baker: First, as somebody who has lived in New York for almost thirty-five years, I have to say your stand on the non-mosque that’s not at Ground Zero marked the first time I’ve ever written a mayor to say thanks for doing the right thing.
Mayor Bloomberg: It’s a First Amendment issue. About a month ago, my girlfriend, [financial-services manager and public activist] Diana [Taylor], and I were at J.G. Melon, 74th and Third, great hamburgers, and a big hulking guy comes up to me. I have a rule with my security guys: Anybody can come up to me. Now, if you shoot me, you won’t get away, but I should be accessible to the people—that’s the job. You don’t want to run the risks, get out of the kitchen. Anyway, big guy comes up to me, says, “Can I talk to you?” I say, “Sure.” I’ve got a hamburger in one hand, I got a glass of beer in the other one, and I said, “Whaddya wanna talk about?” He says, “The mosque,” and I’m thinkin’, Ah shit, I don’t need this. But he said, “I just want to say, I just got back from two tours in Afghanistan, and a couple of my friends never came back. You get out there and keep reminding everybody why we’re fighting.”