Political and fiscal commentary is practically a competitive sport in the U.S. Lest anyone have doubted, Michael Bloomberg and Diane von Furstenberg are masters of the genre.
On Monday morning, the two friends, together with Emily Rafferty, hosted an intimate breakfast for fashion press at the The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Rafferty, is a board member, and Bloomberg, chairman of the museum. Timed to the museum’s second anniversary, the mic-free discussion touched on the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, lower Manhattan’s subsequent resurgence, the U.K.’s looming Brexit vote, global struggles for freedom, the polarizing left-right climate in the U.S., and the need for greater tolerance. That was a lot to consider fresh-out-of-the-gate on a Monday, but first and foremost, the message was to encourage New Yorkers to beat a path to the museum.
Bloomberg said the museum itself “really tells the story. I thought, if you can tell the story and really educate our kids as to what happened there and maybe reason as to why, the next generation won’t let it happen again. We tend not to remember history very well, particularly in the world of social media where Oliver Stone is a historian, and every problem can be solved in 140 characters.”
Bloomberg has led the effort to raise $450 million from individuals, companies and foundations including his own. Twenty-six million people have visited the memorial since its September 2011 opening, and nearly six million have walked through the museum in two years since it was unveiled. But, whether based on anecdotal information or hard facts, the institution’s administration has concluded that city residents are not visiting in significant enough numbers, according to Bloomberg.
After her first visit, von Furstenberg decided to encourage others to do the same. She asked the fashion journalists present to spread the word via their professional outlets, and to return with friends and fellow New Yorkers. She cited the museum’s dual impact, “to make people come here to remember, and it’s not just sadness. It’s also the resiliency and that is what this country is about. That’s why I love this country.”
Bloomberg, too waxed patriotic. “I can’t think of any problem that America has that you won’t find in all other countries,” he said. “When you want to whip yourself that things are wrong in America, well, there’s still more right in America. And when people vote with their feet, they still come to America. So we’re not as bad as we want to think we are.”
However turbulent today’s global landscape is, he said the museum stands to potentially unify discordant voices. “This is where you can get the message out in terms of threats that we face everyday,” he said. “Those threats unfortunately seem to be growing, if you see both left and right populism and demagoguery in political process and elections all over the world. In a world of social media and technological change, it’s difficult to put yourself in the middle of all of it. But we’re all in this together.”
A major Bloomberg talking point was the resurgence of lower Manhattan. The city’s former mayor recalled that, when he took office shortly after the attacks, “the general zeitgeist was that every company in New York was going to move at least half of its people outside of New York for security reasons, that nobody would ever want to live downtown again, that it was all over,” adding there are now some 25 hotels there compared to four or five in 2001.
Also unimaginable at that time was the likelihood that Donald Trump would be this year’s presumptive Republican presidential nominee. When told recently that Trump wanted to pay a visit to the museum, Bloomberg said he advised, “You treat him like every other celebrity. You give him a tour, which we would typically do for celebrities.” Afterward, Trump donated a $100,000 check, “which I saw in the paper the other day, so I’m not talking out-of-school. I think the paper wrote it because it’s the only documented charitable giving he’s made. But at least we got it, and the check cleared.”
At times, Bloomberg, who had his own exploratory committee for the presidency, sounded highly political. As historical perspective on the attacks has evolved over the past 15 years, Bloomberg said, “It will evolve over time, and that is very healthy for a democracy. It’s the democracy that 25 people [the 9/11 terrorists] wanted to take away from us. And the other side of that democracy is, if you remember, this country wanted vengeance. Everybody goes and blames George W. Bush for the Iraqi war, but my recollection is the major newspapers in this city wanted to go to war. The public wanted to go to war. We don’t remember it that way, but go back and read the papers. There was a feeling we got struck by terrorists and we should fight back. If you look at what’s happened today, all of the terrorism around the world, it just puts it in perspective that we have a major problem in society and we have to deal with it.”
Despite our current political climate, von Furstenberg sees in the 9/11 Memorial & Museum a major manifestation of hope, which is why she’s launched her unofficial campaign to get New Yorkers to visit. “I think the victory about what happened to this neighborhood through the museum and everything,” she said, “the true essence of that victory [is that] even though we were attacked, instead of becoming more narrow-minded, hopefully we are more open-minded.”