By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 21, 2007
It was clear that New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was enjoying himself yesterday as he toyed with the press corps there, taking 20 minutes of questions about the city's 311 telephone information system at a news conference just a day after he bolted the Republican Party, but offering not a clue about his intentions.
So goes the long tease.
Following in the grand tradition of Hollywood, which painstakingly builds buzz for a summer blockbuster, Bloomberg is leading a field of would-be candidates whose presence on the political stage is either ephemeral or tantalizingly real. Call it the Art of the Non-Candidate.
Former vice president Al Gore hasn't ruled out another White House bid. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich says he will let the country know in November whether he'll run. Former senator Fred D. Thompson has formed a committee but has not officially joined the race. And Sen. Chuck Hagel invited everyone to Nebraska, only to tell them to return later for an announcement.
Bill Cunningham, Bloomberg's former communications director, said that the mayor's is the latest example of an act on the old "Ed Sullivan Show": spinning multiple platters on tall sticks.
"You have to keep the platters wobbling and keep them on the sticks spinning, otherwise the act is over. There is an art to it," Cunningham said. Regarding speculation about a President Bloomberg, he said: "However it started, it's now out there, growing like a weed."
At the news conference, Bloomberg did nothing to pull the weed.
He smiled broadly as reporters sought increasingly inventive ways to get him to talk about his rumored presidential ambitions. "Could you implement New York's 311 system at the federal level better than, say, Hillary Clinton?" one reporter asked. Bloomberg's answer said a lot about the federal bureaucracy and offered nothing about his plans.
Asked whether he would pledge to serve out his full term as mayor, Bloomberg said it is his "intention" to do so. But then he quickly began a critique of the current crop of national political leaders, who, he said, are not talking about the big issues confronting the nation.
"The more people that run for office, the better," he said. Later, he observed that pollsters who include him in presidential surveys are "wasting their time" but then added that he's "not sure" if the country needs another presidential candidate from New York.
What he did not do is violate Rule No. 1 for the professional non-candidate which is never, under any circumstances, answer the question "Are you running for president?" (The reporter who had the temerity to ask that yesterday got a complete brushoff.) To answer the question would be to reveal the secret behind the magic trick -- the "will-he-or-won't-he?" that captivates the public, frustrates the media and provides the practitioner national attention without any of the fuss of actually being a candidate.
"I always said the same thing," recalled former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo, who famously dithered in the early 1990s about whether to seek the White House. "I have no plans to run. And I have no plans to make plans to run."
"Does he say he's a candidate? No. Does he mean it? Yes. He's not being coy. He's not being cute. He's being totally honest," Cuomo said of Bloomberg. Then, stressing the next two words, he added: " Right now, I'm not running."
Gore, too, has become a master of the art.
"I don't plan to be a candidate again. I haven't completely ruled out that possibility, but I don't expect to be a candidate," he said at a conference last week, part of his globe-trotting, book-promoting and preaching about the dangers of global warming.
Those closest to the former vice president are split about whether they think the man who won the popular vote in 2000 wants to make another run at the job. Several agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because Gore has not authorized them to comment publicly about his non-candidacy.
"He can walk into this race in September and finance this race himself and be in the top tier of candidates immediately," said one former senior staffer. "I think that he is very deliberately keeping that option open."
Another, however, said he has "seen nothing, nothing in the orbit of Al Gore to indicate that anybody's exploring anything."
So if Gore has no interest in a campaign, why doesn't he just say so?
"By keeping the door ajar, he certainly helps magnify attention . . . on an issue that he really deeply cares about," said Chris Lehane, a former Gore spokesman, who said Gore is doing "a brilliant job" of stoking interest in himself and his causes.
Meanwhile, in the months since Thompson's name first bounced around Washington as a possible Republican candidate for president, the actor has slowly built interest with well-placed leaks about a growing political staff, developing campaign strategy and a $5 million fundraising target.
"Fred Thompson's carefully building the buzz and doing it much like you would roll out a big blockbuster," said Paul Dergarabedian, whose Los Angeles company tracks box-office numbers for movies. "It comes down to Marketing 101. It's about getting the marketplace in an anticipatory mood. Once you announce, it becomes a bigger deal than if you came out and just said, 'I'm going to be a candidate.' "
But Bloomberg, for now, has stolen the spotlight from the others -- announced and unannounced.
At the news conference, the mayor introduced the city employee who answered the 50 millionth citizen information call. "This will be the key story tomorrow in the paper," he told her, tongue clearly planted in cheek.
Then he asked her: "Do you have any aspirations for high office in government?"
She didn't answer either.