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Books

seven books about . . .

The good, the bad, the mayors

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley.

GLOBE FILE PHOTO/1930

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh will be sworn in tomorrow. And to mark the occasion, I’ve got some mayoral books we can also swear by. There’s a decent quorum out there, in fact, each chronicling other city leaders in other times: the good, the bad, the stolid, the flamboyant, the lionized, the ousted. They each have something to teach and, to extend the inaugural glow, I’ll start with the boosterish “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities” (Yale University, 2013). Author Benjamin R. Barber says this is one of the best times ever to manage a metropolis. Walsh has the wind at his back here: Only 18 percent of us approve of Congress, but approval rates for mayors often top 70 percent. Indeed, “If Mayors Ruled the World” is one of many recent urban-proselytizing titles that say nations are a stalled, stunted-by-ideology mess, while cities (where the majority of the world live) are seedbeds of innovation and momentum. Mayors are naturally bent to solve problems — fixing potholes knows no party — and this allows them to be “democracy’s original incubator.”

The book trundles between such brio, plus generalized advice, and colorful mayoral profiles. Here’s the boil-down: A successful mayor usually has “(1) a strong personality marked by both hubris and humor, (2) a pragmatic approach to governing, (3)personal engagement in city affairs, and (4) commitment to the city as a unique entity and a possible and even likely career terminus.”

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Mayor Walsh shouldn’t be discouraged. Barber’s point is that get-it-done mayoral personalities don’t transplant well to the slick politicking of the national scene. (Only two have become president: Grover Cleveland, mayor of Buffalo, and Calvin Coolidge, mayor of Northampton.) As a state rep for 16 years, Walsh may reach higher office than mayor. Right now, the good news is Walsh is a consensus builder. The bad is he’s short on flash. This book counsels that a little hokum goes a long way. Take Mayor Antanas Mockus of Bogotá, for example: to get his constituents to conserve water, he aired a TV ad of himself cheerfully taking a shower. To get them to obey traffic signals, he sent mimes into the streets to make fun of jaywalkers.

“The American Mayor: The Best and the Worst Big-City Leaders” (Pennsylvania State University, 1999), by Melvin Holli, can act as a sort of scouting report. Boston logs one best and one worst on the Top 10. No shocker that James Michael Curley is on the naughty list (he’s No. 4) for his legacy of corrupt patronage. If you’re interested in Boston and mayors, you’ve already read Jack Beatty’s fantastic “The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874-1958)” (Addison Wesley, 1992). But dip into it again, if only to be reminded that an Irish mayor of Boston must scrupulously avoid comparisons. Beatty has signed on to write a book on Mayor Menino, due out next fall. A challenging task, I think. He was a good mayor and a creative workhorse — but journalists know bad guys make better copy.

Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci.

Steven Senne/AP

Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci.

And so, for guilty pleasure — and unexpected lessons — read these two titles on questionable leaders. First up is Mike Stanton’s compelling “The Prince of Providence: The Rise and Fall of Buddy Cianci, America’s Most Notorious Mayor” (Random House, 2004). Go ahead, condemn the criminality and clownishness (I like when Cianci tries to create a Chinatown where there isn’t one and yells “I want pagodas!”). But realize that outsized ego can result in outsized success: He’s the guy who moved the railroad tracks and river to create one of the northeast’s loveliest downtowns, marshalling the city’s surfeit of artists to add further sheen.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.

Jeff Scheid/AP

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman.

Likewise, there’s “Being Oscar: From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas — Only in America” (Weinstein, 2013). Oscar Goodman (who wrote with George Anastasia) certainly lives up to Barber’s stipulation to honor your city as a “unique entity.” In Sin City, it makes sense for the mayor to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game alongside showgirls in sequined bikinis. And I bet there’s no other chief executive of a city who decreed that any show shot locally (“CSI,” “Rush Hour 2,” etc.) must include a cameo role for him. But there’s meat with the trimmings: Goodman also negotiated with Union Pacific to convert weedy lots into a renovated downtown, anchored by the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.

Let’s head back home, though. We may want Mayor Walsh to see Mayor Menino as a role model, but might I also suggest Josiah Quincy III? “The American Mayor” puts him 10th on the good list — his nickname, seriously, is “The Great Mayor” — and he wonderfully lived out Barber’s “personal engagement” edict. Presiding over Boston from 1823 to 1828, Quincy rode through the city on horseback each morning at 5 a.m. to check that streets were swept, sewers unclogged, and garbage collected. On his watch, Boston was stronger and safer than ever before, and the death rate declined dramatically.

The best mayors, unsurprisingly, also merit their own big books. Who was voted the very, very best? That would be New York’s endearing, tireless Fiorello LaGuardia. Barber said a mayor needs humor and the “Little Flower” had it: he read the funnies over the radio during a newspaper strike, but he also played Washington like a charm. Remember, the FDR Drive can take you to La Guardia Airport.

“City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York” (Norton, 2013) admires how the two men came from different worlds and different parties, but found common ground: They were born the same year, and both hated Tammany Hall. Author Mason B. Williams amusingly quotes Roosevelt on the mayor’s powers of persuasion: He “comes to Washington and tells me a sad story. The tears run down my cheeks and the tears run down his cheeks and the next thing I know, he has wangled another $50 million out of me.” Our new mayor might honor Obama’s empathy for Boston after the Marathon bombings, or note that he once lived in Cambridge, and how he modeled Obamacare after MassHealth. Beer summit? Why not?

Boston is more New York than Detroit (especially if Walsh gets the MBTA to run 24-7!) but this last book may speak to Walsh’s background and challenges the most. “Frank Murphy: The Detroit Years” (University of Michigan, 1975) by Sidney Fine gives us the highly pro-labor mayor (voted the 7th best ever) who steered the Motor City through the Depression. Indeed, one historian credits him with the idea of the New Deal before it went national. Another praised Murphy for acting “like a social worker with one hand and a banker with the other.” He also deepened his field of reference: Murphy founded the US Conference of Mayors.

With Walsh’s union president background and vast labor support, he’d do well to take Murphy’s words to heart: Labor must not just serve the needs of its members but “quicken the public’s conscience.” It’s a new era for Boston and, by my read, a fine time to be mayor.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.
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