The handshake and chat between President Bush and Mayor Michael Bloomberg on an airport tarmac Monday might have looked like any other chummy moment between two elected officials, but it was far from ordinary.
It was a surprise move for the Republican mayor, who has been delivering an unrelenting series of attacks on the federal government _ often aimed at the Bush administration and national Republicans. Bloomberg also spent much of his first term skipping public appearances with the president.
Now six months into his second term, Bloomberg has grown increasingly confident to do as he pleases, and say when he disagrees with anyone. The billionaire former Democrat _ sometimes described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal _ has issue-hopped from abortion rights to gun control to scientific research, taking shots at the Bush administration and national Republicans, and occasionally Democrats for good measure.
He has accused the federal government of being "asleep at the wheel" on dealing with illegal gun trafficking, and said some conservatives "simply disregard facts that don't happen to agree with their agenda" on evolution and global warming.
But in the shadow of Air Force One on Monday, the mayor looked downright affectionate with the president as they greeted each other, gripping hands one or two beats longer than a typical handshake. Bloomberg then began yakking away, gesturing animatedly before Bush grabbed his shoulder like an old fraternity buddy.
JFK photo op
Bush moved on to speak with someone else, but returned to Bloomberg to pose for more photos. As the president turned to leave, he stopped and leaned in from the side, squeezing Bloomberg's shoulders with both hands.
Bloomberg later said he went to welcome Bush at Kennedy Airport for several reasons _ including that the president is "going through a rough period" and might appreciate the gesture.
"It's a nice thing to do," Bloomberg said. "There's no question that I disagree with this administration on a lot of things _ I've never been reticent to say that _ but I still respect the government and I think all New Yorkers do and we will always be civil."
Bloomberg said they exchanged pleasantries and that he also thanked Bush for supporting the idea of distributing Homeland Security funds based on threat.
Their time together lasted less than two minutes, but was also significant because the mayor mostly avoided such public opportunities throughout his first term.
Why the change?
The two Republicans have met several times but were rarely photographed together _ perhaps because the mayor's advisers had an eye on his upcoming re-election race in 2005. Bush has never been popular in this overwhelmingly Democratic town, and Bloomberg's opponents were salivating over every chance to link him to the national GOP.
When Republicans held their presidential convention here in 2004, Bloomberg steered clear of public events with the president and spent time playing host at parties for gay Republicans and abortion rights supporters.
Weeks later, he did not attend a Bush fundraiser in Manhattan because of what he said were scheduling conflicts. Explaining his dodges that fall, Bloomberg told reporters that he was busy being mayor.
"I can't be at every place the president goes," he said.
But now, with re-election safely behind him, Bloomberg was happy to make time for Bush, in full view of the cameras. Aides said Bloomberg's staff rescheduled a ribbon-cutting event at a cheesecake restaurant in Times Square for later in the day to accommodate the event, and that he flew back to City Hall in a helicopter to make it to a bill-signing ceremony.
"You can't go every time the president comes to the city, and then rush out there," the mayor said. "I have a job to do as well."