Saturday, June 23, 2007

JIM DWYER: A Mayor Often Ill at Ease, and Usually Muted on Iraq

The mayor’s lips are pursed. The tuxedo-and-gown dinner crowd in the Pierre hotel ballroom has fallen still, just a few spoons rattling along the rims of dessert plates. At the very front of the room, the spotlight has settled on Michael R. Bloomberg. Someone is reading an award citation for his work as mayor. Mr. Bloomberg oscillates. He bounces on his toes, nods his head. His eyes appear to be pinned open. Though he has not uttered a word, Mr. Bloomberg’s body seems to all but scream: Get me out of here.

It is easy to watch him going through the motions of the routine antics of public officialdom — the giving of plaques, the issuing of proclamations, the receiving of medals — and believe that he shows up only because, somehow, if just through body language, he can sneer at the ceremony. That the soul of a punk-rocker has been wrapped in custom-tailored suits.

By quitting the Republican Party, Mr. Bloomberg has made himself available for a presidential campaign, ready for voters who like their coffee strong. Yet for all his bluntness, Mr. Bloomberg has kept his lips pursed on the defining exercise of American power in the 21st century — the invasion of Iraq — except to offer quiet, unambiguous support.

At the Pierre on Thursday, as the gold medal of the Foreign Policy Association was draped around his neck in honor of his efforts at education reform, Mr. Bloomberg ducked his head and managed the barest of smiles.

Mr. Bloomberg combines frank indifference to ritual with what seems like a full-brained embrace of problems: Here are 158 pages on how the city can cut the amount of carbon fuels it burns. Here’s a new telephone number for all city services. Here’s a reorganized school system.

He raced through his speech Thursday evening without bothering much about the oratory, but still managed to offer a panoramic view on a few topics. He noted that in a global economy, a weak education meant second-class citizenship. Without 400,000 to 500,000 immigrants every year, he said, the country would not have enough people to pay for Social Security, to start new businesses, or to refresh the culture. And how, he asked, could the United States have visa rules that forced brilliant foreign graduate students who had gotten American degrees to leave the country?

“We just have to stop this craziness, and understand who we are, and not be so threatened by terrorism that the terrorists win without firing a shot,” he said.

Although he was speaking to a foreign policy group, Mr. Bloomberg barely mentioned Iraq or the central role that the city was assigned in the justification for the war.

In May 2004, a year after the invasion, Mr. Bloomberg served as host to Laura Bush, who had come to New York in an effort to rally support for the war effort. Mrs. Bush visited a memorial for Sept. 11th victims. Standing next to Mrs. Bush, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, Mr. Bloomberg, right, suggested that New Yorkers could find justification for the war at the World Trade Center site, even though no Iraqi is known to have had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Don’t forget that the war started not very many blocks from here,” he said that day in 2004.

Apart from these remarks and other comments about the cruel history of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bloomberg has said little about the war or other foreign affairs; to do so, he and his aides have said, would be a form of grandstanding for which he has no taste.

A few hours before the mayor gave his speech on Thursday night, American military officials announced that 14 more soldiers had been killed in two days. And for Iraqi civilians, the death toll of 9/11 is not a once-in-an-epoch moment, but often the monthly body count in the morgues. In his speech, Mr. Bloomberg remarked on the sacrifice of soldiers and what he implied was the ingratitude of people opposed to the war.

“We shouldn’t forget that we have young men and women overseas fighting and dying, sadly, so that we can protest,” he said. “I sometimes think young protesters don’t realize that their right to protest is not something that they would have elsewhere, and it’s a right that has to be fought for continuously.”

As for those who made the decision to go to war, Mr. Bloomberg’s lips remained firmly sealed.

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