Which is so odd. Stephen Schwarzman, a co-founder of private-equity giant Blackstone, has a new book out, “What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence.” It has a lot to offer the non-Wall-Street-addicted, including an interesting portrait of Bloomberg etched by a peer before Bloomberg’s decision to run. In Schwarzman’s book, Bloomberg appears as a dogged, successful entrepreneur, a relentless innovator and brilliant business executive.
That was then, it seems, and this is now.
One-time Washington Redskins president Edward Bennett Williams famously complained that he’d given coach George Allen an unlimited budget and that Allen had exceeded it. Bloomberg gave himself an unlimited budget to win the Democratic presidential nomination and failed to include a line item for a debate preparation coach. There are scores of them around. Most work free. When preparing for debates in 2016, my CNN colleagues and I spent dozens of hours rehearsing the questions. How could the former mayor be so unprepared for such obvious questions as those about the nondisclosure agreements he signed during decades as captain of his corporate ship?
Should that debate performance disqualify Bloomberg? No, but the hubris behind his disregard of debate prep might. Bloomberg has disdained invitations for extended interviews, including mine. Recall that in 2016, Donald Trump went everywhere, talked to everyone. Again and again and again. It was batting practice, and if Trump got hit by a few pitches he adapted to getting thrown at. Meanwhile, voters learned that he kept getting up after knock-down tosses. That mattered in 2016. That lesson was lost this time around on candidates Cory Booker, Kamala D. Harris and Michael F. Bennet, who cocooned early in the comfortable confines of MSNBC and some Sunday shows and rarely went in harm’s way of a tough question.
Pete Buttigieg originally did, then cut back, then stopped. They were all playing for the narrow slice of the cable television audience that watches MSNBC and CNN. What a disastrous mistake.
Bloomberg should have known better. He should have gone on every television and radio show and begged for longer formats to discuss more complicated subjects. You can’t explain the evolution of “stop and frisk,” or a parade of nondisclosure agreements, in 45 seconds. Bloomberg needed practice and time. He needed to be able to refer to testimonies already in the record.
It’s striking how the Republicans of 2016 and the Democrats of 2020 — basically all the would-be nominees not named Trump — have allowed themselves to be "managed.” They have piled comms directors atop press secretaries atop speechwriters; they have scheduling teams and charts of minute-by-minute media encounters and back channels.
What utter nonsense. When a Democrat decides to win, he or she will take the message on the road and talk to everyone. Bernie Sanders has come closest, but he still remains cloistered apart from center-right media, which will eventually savage his economics. Candidates and their advisers never learn. Bloomberg certainly didn’t. Half of Americans may not like Trump, but only a self-deluding fraction of voters thinks he’s afraid of the media. Do you want a president who is?
The biggest story on the planet right now is the spread of the coronavirus. Which candidate has demonstrated even a passing grasp of the scale of this potential pandemic? Who appears to have read a book on the subject, even a popular history such as “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” by John Barry? Then-President George W. Bush was once photographed carrying that book during a virus scare to help encourage reporters specifically and citizens generally to get smart. Bush was a reader, though not the most eloquent speaker.
Sitting down and talking at length with serious, prepared journalists, and not merely time-limited talking heads, could give candidates a real advantage. Bloomberg ought to give it a try. He’s not like Joe Biden, who appears incapable of surviving any sort of interview. A Buttigieg-Bloomberg tour would be newsworthy and attract cameras. The Rhodes scholar and the business genius would be a billboard for the charisma of intelligence, if they picked venues where serious questions were asked and serious answers given.