This week, New York magazine’s John Heilemann reports on what he dubs the “[Michael] Bloomberg 2008 boomlet,” contributing to said boomlet with a cover story pronouncing that Bloomberg is “serious” about a presidential run in ‘08 (he sure looks serious on the cover’s corny mock-up campaign poster).
And to think it was just six months ago that Hielemann was telling readers all about “the [Al] Gore boomlet” — or “burst of enthusiasm for Gore” and, specifically, a Gore candidacy in ‘08 — in a cover story with the subhead, “President Al Gore?”
How does one craft seven thousand words out of thin, speculative air? If there is a formula to the Heilemann “boomlet” stories, it looks something like this (should any politician contemplating a go in 2008 wish to angle for his or her own):
1) Observe an up-tick in speculative chatter surrounding a politician, the odds that he or she is running for president, and the perceived enthusiasm for such a run. Call it a “boomlet.”
2) Fuel the fire with a cover story in which you rely largely on bullish quotes from the politician’s friends and former colleagues (i.e., the people behind the “boomlet”).
In this week’s piece, for example, Heilemann confesses that the Bloomberg “boomlet” “owes much” to glowing “assessments” from “Bloomberg’s City Hall coterie” (from which Heilemann quotes liberally) and their “consistent refrain: that their boss has emerged as more than a competent, steady, managerial steward; that he is, in the words of Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, ‘a great, visionary mayor.’ … a sentiment … echoed … not surprisingly, by [Bloomberg’s] friends” (whom Heilemann also quotes liberally). No mention, of course, of how much the “boomlet” “owes” to the media.
In his Gore profile, Heilemann quotes folks like Gore’s former vice-presidential chief of staff declaring, “If [Gore] runs, he’s certainly the front-runner or the co-front-runner with Mrs. Clinton. And, in the end, he would probably win the nomination.” According to Heilemann, one “force” “driv[ing]” the Gore “boomlet” was “the creeping sense of foreboding about the prospect of Hillary Clinton’s march to her party’s nomination.” Again, no mention of how the media might have been “driving” the “boomlet.”
3) Show the reader how you really tried to pin the subject down (will he or won’t he run?) and, after you failed to get anything beyond a non-denial denial, talk about how the subject is leaving the “door ajar.”
Bloomberg piece: “Bloomberg has steadfastly insisted that he has no intention of hurling himself at the White House … And yet, in ways conspicuous and subtle, he is keeping the door ajar. ‘Oh, I don’t know, that’s a hypothetical thing,’ Bloomberg says when I ask him if he’s ready to rule out a presidential run. ‘It’s like, “Read my lips, no new taxes” — you can’t say that.’ Actually, you can — unless there’s a chance that you’ll do the opposite …”
Gore story: “What Gore has said about 2008, repeatedly, is that he does not intend to run, that he does not expect to run, that he has no plans to run. All of which, as every politically sentient being knows, is thoroughly meaningless. What Gore has not said — the magic words — is that he will not run … So let’s clear this up: Why don’t you say right now, unequivocally, that you will not run? Then no one will have the impression that you’re leaving the door ajar. Gore puts his left elbow on the table, cups his cheek in his hand, and audibly exhales … ‘When I say I’m not at a point where I’m willing to say, “Never, never, never again under any circumstances,” I’m just not at the point where I want to say that.’”
4) Continue to play up the uncertainty, teasing the reader with vivid analogies (emphasis ours): “Bloomberg’s answer is reasoned, measured, and blessedly wink-free — but it’s also riddled with elisions and escape clauses wide enough to drive a Hummer through.” And: “Yet Gore’s statements about 2008 are as precise and elusive as a Basho haiku: Saying that politics is behind him doesn’t foreclose the possibility that it might also be in front of him.”
Throw in at least one unimaginative New York-centric analogy — this is New York, after all. From the Gore piece (emphasis ours): Among Gore’s “failures as a candidate,” Heilemann mused, was his “failure to present a consistent or coherent image of himself, instead offering an incessant series of self-reinventions that made him seem about as authentic as a Prada bag on Canal Street.” And, from Heilemann’s Bloomberg story (emphasis ours): “[Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor Kevin] Sheekey ignited speculation that would soon be blazing like a Bronx tenement circa 1977. By the summer, rarely a week would go by without another story about Bloomberg 2008 — most of them the handiwork of Sheekey …” (unlike this story).
5) Elevate your subject’s profile by setting him up as the opposite of some other, perhaps better-positioned potential candidate. Back in May, Heilemann dubbed Gore the “Un-Hillary.” This week he describes Bloomberg in passing as “un-Giuliani-like” (the “Un-Giuliani?”) for the way Bloomberg handled the recent post-bachelor-party shooting in Queens.
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.
So what does a reporter get out of writing such pieces? A chance, perhaps, to fantasize? Heilemann writes that Bloomberg’s decision (to run or not to run) “may yield a result that makes 2008 even more interesting than it’s already guaranteed to be” for me, the New York-based reporter with a Rolodex full of close Bloomberg contacts (and good will).