Nearly 30 years ago, I was sitting in an office at Bloomberg News when Mike Bloomberg stopped by.
The room, I think, had windows to the outside, but no one looked. Instead, what kept everyone’s attention was the activity beyond the full glass wall that faced the bustling center of the headquarter’s atrium, where large shelves offered free food to employees.
When Bloomberg unexpectedly came in, he introduced himself with a handshake and a smile. Friendly, quick-witted, and irreverent, he fidgeted in a chair near the door facing me. With an engaging, large ego on display, he was clearly master of this world.
So, as he talked to me, holding court, and glancing distractedly and repeatedly through the glass wall, it came as small surprise when he suddenly perked up and, guiding all our attention to a pretty young woman wearing a fashionable, short skirt, said, “Somebody make sure she gets hired.” The three of us men chuckled.
At the moment it happened, I knew Bloomberg’s comment was inappropriate. He should not have said it. Looking back, I should not have laughed. But the unexpected tastelessness, and my desire to be considered one of the boys, prodded me on. And that, I am certain, is precisely why he said it.
Such are the stories that most men, and more importantly, most women of a certain age know all too well. How times have changed – a little anyway – and thank God for that.
Of course, this still happens. The #MeToo movement is needed. But if the movement is succeeding at all, it has to do with awareness and change. Because society cannot change if people don’t change.
And that, in a nutshell, is what’s so illuminating about a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late January. It found a full 53 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds supported Sanders for president, compared with just 7 percent of the Woodstock generation.
Yes, at first glance, it appears we’re a bunch of establishment fuddy-duddies who’ve lost our ideals as our hair turned grey. Although I’m not quite in that generation, I think I can speak for the former Summer of Lovers when I say we know well the appeal of certain platitudes, especially when you’ve not heard them before.
But we are not not progressive. We are not not idealistic. Some of us in our teens even absorbed the writings of Eugene Debs and admired Tom Hayden, if not Abbie Hoffman.
No, we’re not young, but that means we’re also not as susceptible to simplistic idealism, the type fueled more by passion than real-world solutions. And no matter how authentic the pitch, the more superpumpedness set before us – whether in Silicon Valley or Washington – the more skeptical we are of what’s underneath.
I know very well the culture in which Bloomberg flourished. And I know that behavior does not stop overnight when it is reinforced and encouraged by all those around you. Like me, sitting there, rewarding him with laughter.
As D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser remarked recently, she’s “pretty sure that all of us can imagine Wall Street 30 years ago, male-dominated. And I think we would all be very naive if we thought a lot of crude remarks didn’t happen.” And we know she is right.
From George McGovern and Millicent Fenwick to John McCain and Barack Obama, I’ve spent my life – like many others in my generation – hoping for leaders who will bring change. Most of us remember the assassinations and George Wallace, the Vietnam War and the first Earth Day, two-hour gas lines and 18-percent mortgages.
I’ve been lucky enough to live through the decades it has taken for much of society to finally recognize, address, oppose, and fix at least some of the rampant sexism, racism, antisemitism, and homophobia that was around me in childhood.
From middle school when our baseball coach publicly referred to my black teammates with unprintable epithets that did not include the N-word but were equally abhorrent. To the angry shout of “Jew” I would hear on the playground. To the parents’ obvious whispers as a young neighbor walked by after her abortion. To my friends sent to juvenile correction for smoking Mary Jane. To the fear of my friends when they had to “come out.” And to the world of chauvinism and racism I saw in the 70s growing up near New York.
These things are not gone, but our country is better (despite recent setbacks). Yes, there’s a long way to go. But society has changed because people have changed.
“I shall perhaps change soon, not accidentally but intentionally…,” Montaigne observed, “either because I myself have become different or because I grasp hold of different attributes or aspects of my subjects.”
So, as I watch the debates, I can’t help wondering why the moderators insist on questioning why, over so many years, some on that stage have changed their positions. And I wonder, very simply, how could they not?
Wouldn’t a more illuminating question be how any of them cling to positions that have barely budged for more than three decades? Haven’t things changed? I’d like them to ask, in the words of Montaigne, do you grasp nothing new?
We all know what happens when a person can’t change. We are watching a president incapable of learning, which means nothing less than he is incapable of change. Being unable or unwilling are effectively the same.
Whether Mike Bloomberg has changed, I do not know. Whether his charitable giving has been contrived for votes or is in genuine recognition of his current beliefs or his many past failings, again I don’t know. Will I vote for him? I’m decidedly undecided.
It’s not a matter of forgiveness. It’s a basic understanding – the type that comes as you climb up the levels of those survey demographics.
Because I, for one, know I’m not the same person I was when sitting in that chair in the early 1990s. My life has changed. My humor has changed. My understanding has changed. And I’m confident that my reaction today to Bloomberg’s comment back then most certainly has changed.
(Cover photo updated Feb. 20, 2020)