Someday a book will be written that is worthy of Tom Menino’s long and consequential tenure as mayor of Boston. And Jack Beatty may well be the person who writes it.
“Mayor for a New America” is not that book. The autobiography, which Menino wrote in collaboration with Beatty, offers a short, punchy look at the former mayor’s life and career, focusing on his 20 years as Boston’s top elected official. Together they offer an entertaining overview of the Menino era but not a comprehensive examination.
Menino and Beatty describe the mayor’s challenges in attempting to remake the city’s school system, reform the police and fire departments, and ride herd on development from the neighborhoods to the downtown. Their approach is long on anecdote and short on detailed analysis, leading us to wonder what, exactly, transformed an undistinguished political operator and city councilor into one of the more successful big-city mayors of his time and among the best in Boston’s history.
The book is not without virtues, chief among them Beatty’s success in capturing Menino’s authentic voice — no easy thing given that Menino himself pokes fun at his tongue-tied ways.
Despite his fractured syntax, Menino reminds us that he rarely had any trouble getting his point across. Take, for instance, his recollection of leaning hard on a state legislator in order to persuade him to support charter schools: “I put on my hot-under-the-collar act. Hanging up on one rep, I told my press secretary Dot Joyce, ‘I’ll bet I gave him brown pants!’ ”
Menino opens with the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. He recalls thinking that he and his family might have been victims if he hadn’t been in the hospital recovering from a broken leg. He worries about his son, Tommy, a police officer who was on duty. We see the mayor cutting through red tape by badgering Vice President Joe Biden to ease regulations on how the One Fund could be used. We feel the pain as he struggles to his feet at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where he, President Obama, and other officials spoke several days after the attack.
If an overall message of how to run a city emerges from the pages of “Mayor for a New America,” it is through the accumulation of details. In Menino’s case, they add up to a philosophy that political power should be wielded forcefully and unapologetically on behalf of the public and that the ballot box confers a legitimacy upon elected officials that appointed bureaucrats can’t match.
We see this philosophy at work in his answer to critics who said an appointed school committee wasn’t democratic: “I trusted the people to hold the mayor accountable for the schools. What was undemocratic about that?” He freely admits to controlling the Boston Redevelopment Authority with an iron hand, not because he was afraid its director might run against him, but because “I thought city planning was too important to be left to the city planners.” And he says he waited until the last minute before announcing he would not run for a sixth term because “[f]ear is power. I owed it to my city to keep fear alive.”
It’s no secret that Menino has a thin skin, and in “Mayor for a New America” he gets even with (among others) Secretary of State John Kerry, former mayor Ray Flynn, former governor Bill Weld, current mayor Marty Walsh (mildly, though the two men are not known to be close), and the police, firefighter, and teachers unions.
What comes through repeatedly, though, is Menino’s fundamental decency and the lessons he drew from difficulties in his own life. His miserable experience in school, he writes, provided the inspiration for him to hand out School Spirit Awards to kids who were not top achievers. A teacher who mocked his Italian heritage led to his view that he would “never tolerate people being discriminated against.” He criticizes politicians who demagogue against crime and says some of the money President Clinton allocated for new police officers could have been better spent on youth programs. And he writes with passion about his support for the rights of lesbians and gay men, and of his decision not to march in South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Beatty, who had to endure seemingly bottomless venality in researching his well-regarded biography of James Michael Curley, “The Rascal King,” must have felt ennobled to work with someone whose heart is as large as Menino’s.
Menino suffered from ill health during his final years in office and is now being treated for advanced cancer. “Mayor for a New America” amounts to a well-deserved victory lap that should tide us over until a more substantive assessment of the Menino era comes along.
Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and
a panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press.” His blog, Media Nation, is online at www.dankennedy.net.