The last few days’ outpouring of affection for late Boston Mayor Tom Menino is more than deserving but tells us little, really, about why he was so effective as mayor. As hagiography eventually gives way to biography — and Menino’s life deserves close, dispassionate study — one thing we will learn, I believe, is that his success was not merely his love of people, dedication to Boston, tireless work ethic, or sharp intellect (and yes, it was quite sharp). It was his ability to accumulate power, wield it, and put it to good ends. Few politicians know how to do so. Menino was a master.
Today’s Election Day, and while we are preoccupied with the horse races here and around the nation — Charlie Baker or Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, Scott Brown or Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Republican US Senate or not — we don’t ask ourselves often enough what really makes for a good politician. How does one deliver and another not? It’s not enough just to represent the right values or policy positions. Politician face a thicket of opposition to accomplishing anything. Getting through that thicket requires deploying a set of tools that might make us uncomfortable. It means at times being manipulative, disingenuous, tough, and mean. It means forcing your will against the will of others.
It’s either that or fail.
“I’m just like a fox,” Lyndon Baines Johnson — another master in the art of power — once said. “I can see the jugular in any man and go for it.”
Menino was as good a fox, if not better. He had a reputation as thin-skinned and a holder of grudges. Much of that was manufactured. In his memoirs, for instance, the late mayor recounts “haranguing” recalcitrant state reps on an issue: “I put on my hot-under-the-collar act.” And it was an act — but scarily good. So too, people learned not to cross the mayor. “Fear is power,” he observed. He valued loyalty as a way to build his own strength while also tamping down opposition. Contribute money or time to an opponent — he tracked both carefully — and you’d be frozen out.
He built up a powerful political machine, and expected everyone to play a part. Those who didn’t were gone. The result was that in 2012 he was able to field, by his count, 2,289 volunteers for Elizabeth Warren’s Senate race. Candidates “drew a lesson from our wins,” Menino wrote. “‘Team Menino’ could make you or break you.”
Menino also believed a key to power was understanding exactly the mood of the electorate. He was constantly on the streets, meeting people and learning from them. “I’m a bad talker . . . but a good listener,” he said of himself. Because people knew him, they trusted him. But he also learned how far he could push on any issue — and when, sometimes, to reverse himself. Tagged as an “incrementalist,” he was wary of getting too far ahead of the public mood. “[C]hange is possible,” he wrote, “but in small pieces and in slow time.”
One can go on. He paid attention to the details, particularly when it came to development: “I never relaxed my grip.” He knew how to manipulate. Battling Robert Kraft over a football stadium in South Boston, he vowed, “I’d play the suburban card.” Even more, “I’d also play the class card.” And Menino also surrounded himself with advisers and staff — Robert “Skinner” Donohue, Edward F. Jesser, David Passafaro, Peter Welch, and many others — who understood as he did the importance of building and maintaining power.
But power without purpose is pointless.
Menino had an exceptionally well-developed sense of fairness and empathy for the downtrodden and outcast, gays and lesbians, minorities, women, and immigrants. He understood the need to mesh the new (such as explosive downtown development) with the old (including preservation and keeping Boston’s sense of its own history). He believed cities had to be safe, a necessary prerequisite to keeping and building their residential and business bases. He knew that education mattered most to the least well-off; it was their path out of poverty.
He used the power he had accumulated to make progress on all these fronts and more. It wasn’t only his caring that Menino leaves as a legacy. It was his ability to get things done.