Of all the controversies Mike Bloomberg does not need, Bermudagate has got to top the list. It must boil his blood, the relentless focus on where he travels when. Problem is, he has nobody to blame but himself.
Since he took office, Bloomberg has refused to let the public in on his whereabouts when he leaves the city. It is an old story. Two weeks after he moved into City Hall, he disappeared on a Monday. Here he is, the new boy in town, everyone focused on and fascinated by him, and he’s gone? Turns out he went to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore. When he realized that a New York Post reporter had trailed him, he threatened to call the campus police and told the reporter, "I have no interest in talking to you."
That was nine years ago -- and nothing seems to have changed.
Bloomberg’s travel secrecy, on the back burner for awhile, was a disaster waiting to happen, and it did: the botched cleanup after the blizzard of 2010. To this day it is not fully clear who was in charge of the city right after Christmas, if anybody was. But there is no doubt that the failure – of someone – to declare a snow emergency in the early hours of the storm triggered a chain reaction that had dire consequences. Some people could not get the emergency medical help they needed, businesses suffered and New Yorkers, resilient as they are, had a tough time for days.
The mayor will not say where he was or who was running things, insisting he always is in charge. Usually he can be, thanks to cell phones and other forms of communication. But nature can get in the way of sophisticated equipment, it would seem.
Several newspapers have investigated, trying to figure out where the mayor was, and have pretty well confirmed that Bloomberg was in Bermuda overnight between Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and the day of the storm, Dec. 26th. The Wall Street Journal learned from records of the Federal Aviation Administration that Bloomberg’s private plane left LaGuardia Airport at 9:02 a.m. on Christmas Day and returned the next day in the storm, at 2:49 p.m. Presumably, the mayor was on that plane, traveling to and from Bermuda, where he has a house and plays golf.
Why won’t he say where he's going when he leaves town? "The problem is, the mayor would have no private life, couldn’t be with his kids when you have the press following you around all the time," Bloomberg said recently when asked.
Really? That is demonstrably wrong. Mayor Edward Koch welcomed press coverage, often took reporters with him on overseas trips, even conducted trans-ocean press conferences. Reporters who stayed home will never forget listening to that inimitable voice, located in Paris or Israel or Rome or wherever, coming over a speaker on his desk. But when Koch wanted privacy, he got it. He rarely did, but when his father died, or when he had medical problems, the press was interested but respected his privacy. I always felt this was, in part, because he was generally so accessible. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was hardly press shy but even before he publicly acknowledged that his marriage to Donna Hanover was in shambles, he managed for some time to conduct an affair with his future wife, Judith Nathan, out of the gaze of the media.
Bloomberg’s wealth is an added dimension, no question. People are fascinated with money, with how the rich live. So they and the media are curious about Bloomberg, his mansions, houses, private plane and all the rest.
But here is a bet I will surely never get to make: If Bloomberg opened up and shared even a sketchy version of his private schedule, reporters would respect his wishes, let him visit with his daughters out of their gaze, or have a quiet dinner with Diana Taylor. It’s the forbidden fruit aspect of his privacy obsession that gets journalists, as well as the public. It is also the merits of the issue: Don’t 8 million people have a right to know who is running their city?
Lighten up, Mr. Mayor! Three years to go – there is time.
And happy birthday (Mike Bloomberg is 69 today, Valentine’s Day.)
Joyce Purnick, political writer and biographer of Michael Bloomberg, is WNYC’s political analyst.