New York’s Not-So-Indispensable Man

November 29, 2010 Current Commentary Comments Off
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The late French Gen. Charles de Gaulle is credited with one of my favorite sayings: “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

New York City has functioned, sometimes better and sometimes worse, for around 400 years. In addition to a handful of Dutch directors, the city has had 108 mayors, many of whom are now in the ground. Yet the current mayor has become convinced that he is indispensable.

Indispensable Man Syndrome is common among successful entrepreneurs and politicians. These leaders create visions, get others to buy into those visions, and then turn them into reality. But, once they’ve done all that, they fail to accomplish the final step: understanding that the vision can survive without them.

The latest sign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s affliction is the way he handled the selection of the city’s new schools chancellor. Bloomberg is surrounded by people who could have helped vet candidates to head the nation’s largest school system. One of these people is Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents and the mayor’s longtime friend. Yet Tisch told The New York Times that she didn’t even know the previous chancellor, Joel I. Klein, was leaving until minutes before the mayor publicly announced his selection of Cathleen P. Black as Klein’s replacement. Tisch wasn’t the only one out of the loop; almost no one in City Hall knew what the mayor was up to.

Howard Wolfson, the deputy mayor for intergovernmental affairs, defended the mayor’s approach. “The mayor felt strongly that had Joel [Klein] announced he was leaving and engaged in a search at that point, the school system would have been destabilized,” Wolfson said, “He doesn’t think you find the best people, when they are paraded in for interviews.”

Rather than parading in top education officials for interviews, Bloomberg chose someone from his personal circle of acquaintances. Black is a fellow media mogul, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, and has no education experience. In fact, her lack of education credentials threatened to overturn the appointment when David Steiner, the state’s education commissioner, balked at granting a waiver of some of the state’s legal requirements for chancellor candidates. The New York Times reported over the weekend that Steiner ultimately agreed to grant the waiver, perhaps as early as today, but only after Bloomberg and Black agreed to appoint a deputy chancellor who is a professional educator. That prospect must have galled Bloomberg, who clearly wants Black to bring private-sector management skills into the hidebound world of public education.

Steiner, incidentally, was appointed to his post by none other than the mayor’s out-of-the-loop friend, Ms. Tisch.

I have nothing against Black and don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing that her background is in corporate management rather than education. I also was a supporter of Bloomberg’s long and ultimately successful battle to allow the mayor to appoint the schools chancellor, making the city’s top executive more accountable for schools’ performance.

But the mayor should not have made his choice in isolation. The schools belong to the city’s residents. New Yorkers have a right to be aware of, and to participate in, the selection process. Yet the mayor’s view of himself as an indispensable man led him to believe that only he has what it takes to choose a new chancellor. He confused accountability, which is his alone, with ability, which in any good organization is widespread.

The mayor will soon have to learn that the city can manage without him. City voters made sure of that on Election Day when they overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that limits new city officials to two terms in office and prevents the City Council from changing term limits for officials currently in office.

This was the third time since 1993 that voters backed a two-term limit, yet Bloomberg is in his third term. In 2008, the mayor successfully pressed the Council to increase the number of terms officials could serve from two to three, allowing him to run in 2009. New Yorkers were so frustrated by the mayor’s maneuvering that he was barely able to win reelection, despite spending 14 times more than his opponent, William C. Thompson Jr.

If the city were Bloomberg’s private company, his insistence on acting as an indispensable man would be acceptable, though still unwise. Were he not selecting an official who will oversee the use of public funds, his selection criteria would be his own business. He could choose to appoint friends, relatives or strangers. But while owners of private companies do not err ethically by making decisions unilaterally, they do err economically, since they deprive themselves of valuable advice. They also deprive those around them of valuable experience, turning their delusions of indispensability into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Being mayor of the Big Apple seems to predispose the officeholder to Indispensable Man Syndrome. Bloomberg’s predecessor also had a bad case. In the weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed that his term be extended by three months, arguing that the city needed him to get itself through the trauma. Giuliani’s request was rebuffed and Bloomberg was sworn in on schedule. Amazingly, life went on pretty much as it would have with Giuliani, only with less shouting and less arrogance.

But now Bloomberg has reached Giulianian levels of self-absorption. If he doesn’t learn his lesson quickly, the remainder of his final term may be marred by ill-considered decisions. He has generally been a good mayor, and it will be a shame if the sheen of his legacy is dulled because of his outsized ego.

In 2013 New York City will elect its 109th mayor, proving that the first 108 were not, in fact, indispensable. Hopefully the 109th will realize that, when his or her time ends, the city will be able to do without him or her, too.


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