O'Reilly: Michael Bloomberg, a true original

Greg Anagnostopoulos, right, the owner of Lucky's Restaurant

Greg Anagnostopoulos, right, the owner of Lucky's Restaurant reacts as Mayor Michael Bloomberg holds a 64-ounce beverage container during a press conference to discuss local businesses support of the sugary beverage ban. (March 12, 2013) (Credit: Charles Eckert)

William F. B. O'Reilly

Portrait of Newsday/amNY columnist Bill O'Reilly (March 28, William F. B. O'Reilly

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I still can't figure out what Mayor Michael Bloomberg was.

Was he a conservative liberal, a liberal conservative, an actual post-partisan? (I'm told they're an offshoot of the unicorn family).

Perhaps he was a pragmatic idealist . . . or the ideal pragmatist for a city whose reins he accepted some four months after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Whatever he was and however you labeled him during his 12 years in City Hall, Bloomberg was unmistakably one thing: The Mayor.

The first time I laid eyes on Bloomberg, I doubted he'd ever become mayor.

During the cocktail hour of a Manhattan Republican Lincoln Day dinner in May 2000, I was asked by then-Manhattan GOP chairman and former state Sen. Roy M. Goodman to walk the prospective candidate to the front of the room to say a few words.

There were media galore in attendance, and Goodman, who had been the first county chairman to endorse Rudy Giuliani in 1989, was hoping to make news.

Ever see a mule that refuses to be moved? Well that was Bloomberg that night. I hit him with everything I had, but he wouldn't budge. Embarrassed, I turned to Goodman's daughter, Leslie, who served as deputy director of communications for the 1992 Bush-Quayle re-election campaign, for help. It was a you-pull-the-bridle-and-I'll-push-him-from-the-rear effort, but the billionaire wouldn't move. Not an inch.

What I mistook for media shyness that evening, I later recognized as resolve.

When Bloomberg first hit the campaign trail, it looked even more doubtful that he was cut out for politics. It was painful to watch TV clips of his first day out, shaking hands at a subway stop in Jackson Heights. Whereas a Bill Clinton will step into a voter and give him the two-handed shake, Bloomberg would plant his feet as far away as possible from the voter and reach, reach, reach for the fingertips. I speculated with friends whether it was cooties or leprosy he feared.

Even after voters elected Bloomberg mayor in the wake of 9/11, the media mogul seemed out of place. I remember thinking two years into his first term that his power still derived more from his billions than from his mayoral pulpit. He was a powerful businessman who had been elected mayor, but he wasn't a political leader.

Somewhere along the line that changed. It coincided, perhaps, with the mayor becoming comfortable in front of the pugnacious New York City press corps, if comfortable is what you call it.

When Bloomberg was first elected, it ate him alive. He'd take the bait every time. Asked a random question by a reporter, he would wander off message and struggle to answer it. By his final term -- and I witnessed this exchange at a news conference in early 2013 -- it was:

Reporter: "Mayor, what do you think about . . .?"

Bloomberg: "Ridiculous question. Next!"

Not one member of the news media blinked at his response, so characteristic had the mayor's brashness become after three terms. Bloomberg was in charge.

I didn't always like the political leader Bloomberg became. The nanny-state decrees drove me nuts, even after the shame of having to smoke cigarettes outside of restaurants helped persuade me to quit the things in 2005. His attempted soda ban almost sent me into the hills as a guerrilla fighter for its overreach into personal liberties, and the bike lanes and mid-avenue crosswalks still have me befuddled.

But there can be no doubt that Bloomberg fights for what he believes best. He has become a unique and honest political force in American politics.

It's been quite a ride, these last 12 years. Businessman Michael Bloomberg became Mayor Michael Bloomberg who became political leader Michael Bloomberg. His resolve has grown stronger, and his voice remains his own. One gets the sense that Bloomberg's legacy is only just beginning.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a columnist and a Republican political consultant.