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Boston Strong Man

The underwhelming, ineloquent, triumphant reign of Thomas Menino

Boston Globe/Getty; Bloomberg/Getty

Boston has historically been a fractious place, down to its marrow: white against black, Irish against WASP, Italian against Irish, Dorchester against Brighton, us against them, us against us if them weren’t around. A political culture rooted in an actual revolution and an actual tea party later produced characters like James Michael Curley, who, according to lore, threatened to use his authority as mayor to open the sewer mains under Brahmin banks if the bankers didn’t loan money to city projects. Firebrand busing opponent Louise Day Hicks campaigned for City Hall, and nearly won, under the barely coded slogan “Neighborhood schools for neighborhood kids.” (“A large part of my vote probably does come from bigoted people,” she said, with some understatement.) In one typical episode, a state legislator stumping for his preferred mayoral candidate in enemy territory was assailed by “an unidentified vegetable that I suspect was a tomato.”

By contrast, the most striking thing about the Boston of Mayor Tom Menino, right until the bombs went off on Boylston Street, is how quiet it was. He has run the city for a record five terms, and if he hadn’t announced in March that he was finally ready to step down, voters would likely have waved him on to a sixth. But unlike his predecessors, his has been a reign without flamboyance, because for Menino that kind of power was not an option. He is physically awkward, with a froggy mien. His only flair is one for mangling English: “Alcatraz around my neck,” “Martha Luther King,” and the immortal “three or more people conjugating on the Public Garden over the next few weeks will be banned” stand among the local favorites. He was never going to rouse his city to action. Instead, he split the difference between blustering pugilists like Rudy Giuliani and clammy technocrats like Michael Bloomberg, forging a third way of urban boss-hood.

To understand how Menino ruled—and he ruled utterly—you have to appreciate how he rose. Much of it happened behind closed doors. A former insurance salesman with a high school diploma and a shrewd mind for organizing, Menino became a city councilor when the state senator he worked for had a seat created in Menino’s Hyde Park neighborhood and used his machine to install Menino in it. Once on the council, Menino, considered by his colleagues to be a good guy, hardworking but small-time, cozied up with Mayor Ray Flynn. Just as Flynn’s administration began to falter, Menino saw his opportunity and got Flynn to back him in a bid for city council president. Then, when Flynn stepped down in 1993 to become the ambassador to the Vatican under Bill Clinton, Menino became acting mayor.

At the time, the consensus was that this was a nice little caretaker job, Tommy getting to play dress up. But Menino saw it differently, shocking the political class by acting like, well, the mayor. As the election approached, he announced a slew of page-one anti-crime initiatives and millions of dollars in funding for teen and senior programs, even as he refused to openly engage in the campaign, citing “city business.” It wasn’t until August that Menino announced he was running; come November, he walked away with the race. It was like that for every cycle for the next two decades: Menino declining to engage challengers in sunlight, while working behind the scenes to mangle a parade of ham-and-eggers who either did not understand that the rules had changed or were essentially committing the political equivalent of suicide-by-cop. The best any of his four challengers did was get croaked by 15 points.

Between elections, Menino knuckled down (his jam-packed schedules are a thing of legend), avoided scandal and general farce (no small thing in the Hub), and largely abstained from picking the kind of high-profile fights that might get voters thinking that they’d like to see the other side win. He managed to remain ethnic without being too ethnic, a townie who didn’t scare off the developers, a progressive who townies could live with. In a business of noisy, messy men who set passions aflame by their words only to be engulfed by them later, Menino made himself a model of competence and control.

If the approach reflected Menino’s awareness of his own limitations, it was also well timed. Boston transformed during his tenure, as the once provincial, somewhat gritty burgh sprouted biotech start-ups and million-dollar condos. The local economy grew by 58 percent and average incomes jumped 38 percent; the city’s high school dropout rate fell by more than 25 percent, and its decline in violent crimes outpaced the national average. In 2011, a think tank named Boston the sixth most economically powerful city on Earth, ahead of Hong Kong.

With all the money flowing in, the old hurly-burly lost favor, once-tight neighborhood and ethnic ties attenuated. The working class found itself pushed out by the higher home prices and rents, and the young advanced-degree-holders who replaced them figured that a government overseen by this mush-mouthed oddity wasn’t worthy of their concern. The new bloodlessness of the city’s civic life simplified Menino’s turnout efforts, at least. When he ran for a fifth term in 2009, he won with a little more than 63,000 votes in a city of more than 600,000—and that qualified as high turnout. His approval rating sat in the seventies, but for supporters, there wasn’t much point in actually voting for him. It would be like voting for winter in January.

By then already Boston’s longest-serving mayor, Menino promised big changes—an end to his low flame and careful incrementalism and a turn toward the boldness he’d always eschewed. But almost immediately, the decades of 16-hour days took their toll. He severed a tendon in his knee. He came down with a skin infection. He broke a toe. While hospitalized with a blood clot and a respiratory infection, he suffered a compression fracture to his spine and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, on top of the Crohn’s disease that had bedeviled him for years. A few weeks after he announced he wasn’t seeking reelection, he wound up in the hospital again, this time with a broken leg.

And there he lay when the Tsarnaev brothers attacked the marathon. The modern crisis-response playbook was written by Giuliani and Chris Christie, politicians with naturally antic styles, and calls for barreling into the aftermath in a government-issued windbreaker, taking charge, embodying resilience. It’s unkind, but not unfair, to wonder how well Menino’s “urban mechanic” approach would have fit the moment had he been at full strength. As it was, he checked himself out of the hospital to work, but he was badly hobbled. The press briefings were handled mostly by Governor Deval Patrick and Police Chief Ed Davis. And the people of Boston, now trained to trust that City Hall had a handle on things, galvanized just fine on their own.

Then, on April 18, Menino went to Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral to attend an interfaith service, entering the church in a wheelchair pushed by his son, Tom Jr., a cop. Reaching the podium, Menino rose, with agonizing effort, and spoke. “Even with the smell of smoke in the air ... and blood on the streets ... tears in our eyes ... we triumphed over that hateful act on Monday afternoon,” he said, with a clarity and power he had not before demonstrated during his two decades in the job. “It’s a glorious thing, the love and the strength that covers our city. It will push us forward, it will push thousands and thousands and thousands of people across the finish line next year. Because this is Boston, a city with the courage, compassion, and strength that knows no bounds.” Then Menino sat down and let his son wheel him away from the rostrum. He had made Boston a place that does not need big speeches. But diminished in a way he’d never experienced, he had for the first time needed to give one, and so he did.

Joe Keohane is a writer and editor in Brooklyn.