When he walked into the Capital Grille on Newbury Street the night after his 1993 election, every well-dressed diner rose to shower this relatively obscure politician with applause. But even then, as they celebrated his elevation to the mayoralty, the city had no idea what was to come.
Some 20 years and a record-setting five mayoral terms later, Boston knows. It knows that a mayor who is hardly book-smart has effectively led a city famous for its institutions of higher learning. It knows that a mayor in constant battle with the English language has accomplished unimaginable things through force of personality and ferocious work. It knows that a mayor who was derided by some as lacking vision has presided over a city that exudes it.
And Thursday afternoon, after weeks of sometimes tortuous self-reflection and a couple of years of rampant public speculation, Tom Menino will answer the question of the day. He will stand at a podium in Faneuil Hall and attempt to summon strength that he’s not entirely sure he has to keep his emotions in check.
Expect him to announce that he will not seek another term as mayor.
Menino didn’t say that when I stopped by City Hall to see him Wednesday. He wouldn’t, and in truth, until he informs his staff members and other advisers Thursday morning, many of whom have been with him for 30 years, he can’t. But as he sat in his hard-backed chair at the head of the oval table of his fifth-floor office, he didn’t have to put words to his decision. His wistful tone, his subdued demeanor, even the position of his shoulders and his chin, forward and down, said it all.
“I love this city,” Menino said softly, his hands absently pressed against his lips as if he was saying a prayer. “I’ve loved it for the past 20 years.
“This is a decision that has torn me apart for a while,” he added. “I’ll tell you something, when you love something, you don’t want to walk away. The people in the neighborhoods” — his voice trailed off here — “they know I’ve never walked away from a fight in my career.”
But after an eight-week hospital stay resulting from a viral infection that was more serious than he ever let on, he seems to have decided that, yes, he could still be mayor, but, no, not in the same frenetic way he has always been. He is, given a stubbornly bad leg, incapable of maintaining the trademark pace that has brought him from neighborhood group to store opening to nighttime event, day upon day, year after year. He would rather leave on his terms than govern under doctor’s orders.
Which means, assuming he doesn’t change his mind, that the departure will be as unorthodox as his arrival in 1993, when Mayor Ray Flynn resigned to become ambassador to the Vatican and Menino, a district city councilor, ascended to acting mayor, quickly dubbed “the accidental mayor.”
He has, over two decades, redefined the meaning of power in this city, his imprint quite literally on every street, along every block, in every neighborhood. And because of that, Menino will be retiring with a virtually unimaginable 74 percent approval rating in a Globe poll from this week. A full 72 percent of respondents believe the city is headed in the right direction, and Menino has a 29 percentage point lead over his only declared opponent, a city councilor as unknown to Boston as Menino was in the weeks before he became mayor. Bob Cousy might have been the last prominent Bostonian to go out this far on top.
There are many good reasons for these numbers, one more important than the rest. This newspaper, no newspaper, publishes stories with any regularity headlined, “Still no corruption in City Hall.” But that’s the way it’s been. There have been no shady birthday parties, no grand jury investigations, no federal agents on his tail.
Menino’s biggest luxury might be the Barcalounger he hauled from his small Hyde Park home to the city-owned Parkman House where he recently convalesced. His biggest vice might have been the occasional third-party-funded “trade shows” to far-flung destinations, from which he would sometimes return sick or injured. If his close relationships with a small cadre of developers raised eyebrows in some quarters, perhaps for good reasons, well, 65 percent of respondents in the Globe poll said development has made Boston a better city.
Mercurial? Yes. Occasionally thin-skinned? A hall-of-famer. But honest as well, and in that honesty is a sense of unimpeachable decency, the valve for a city’s affection.
Crime is down on Menino’s watch, sharply so, mirroring but outpacing a national trend. Population is up. Cranes reach for the sky all across the city, often in unlikely places, from Dudley Square to the long-forgotten Boylston Street corridor near Fenway Park, suddenly fashionable. The Seaport is rising from old piers and gravelly lots. South End sidewalks are crowded with diners and revelers, even on weekday nights. Back Bay is a destination. Longwood is the most interesting medical neighborhood in the nation. Downtown Crossing, finally, really, is poised for a comeback.
And there is Menino, weighing, wrestling, tormenting himself with the question that has dominated his life since he left the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital at the end of December: Should he go again?
He was asked Wednesday how the city has changed under his watch. “It’s much more diverse,” he replied, “younger than it’s ever been before. There’s more vitality, more jobs. There’s a different attitude about Boston. They feel positive. How’s that happen? It’s being honest with the public, being out there, being available and upfront.
“Sometimes people don’t like what you have to say, but they elected me for my judgment. It’s not magic, it’s about people, and that’s what government isn’t about enough these days.”
As he spoke, he pointed out the picture window at a pair of city councilors walking across the street toward City Hall. “After every meeting, they have lunch together at an Irish bar,” he said, laughing, a mayor who knows his city.
He talked then of the many evenings he spends alone in his office with the cement walls and the soaring ceiling — the door pulled shut, staff long gone, and lights from Quincy Market gleaming outside his window.
“And you think, I’m the mayor of this city,” he said. “It sends chills up your spine.”
And he’s now started thinking about life without it.
“There’s always a time,” Menino said, hands to his face again. “I’ve had to keep thinking, is Boston ready? Am I?”
He paused here one final time before he bade his visitor farewell.
“I’ve done it my way the whole time,” he said.
Brian McGrory is the editor of The Boston Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.