WASHINGTON - In 2004, the two men addressed the Democratic National Convention in Boston, but they couldn’t have been more different.
One spoke eloquently, the other mumbled. One was on the political ascent, the other was in a job he never wanted to leave.
But over the years, those two men – then-candidate for US Senate Barack Obama and then-Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino – shared the political gene of empathy.
Nine years later, when the two men appeared together in the dark hours after the Marathon bombing, they spoke as one in extolling Boston’s heroes and the city’s virtues.
Menino arrived in a wheelchair and pulled himself up on his broken leg to address a crowd in mourning.
“This is Boston,” Menino said. “A city with courage, compassion, and strength that knows no bounds.”
Menino was the emblem of a wounded city trying to heal, as President Obama reminded the nation on Thursday.
“Bold, big-hearted, and Boston strong, Tom was the embodiment of the city he loved and led for more than two decades,” Obama said in a statement on Thursday afternoon upon learning that Menino had died. “As Boston’s longest-serving mayor, Tom helped make his hometown the vibrant, welcoming, world-class place it is today. His legacy lives on in every neighborhood he helped revitalize, every school he helped turn around, and every community he helped make a safer, better place to live.”
Obama revealed in the statement that he spoken on Wednesday with Menino’s wife, Angela, shortly before the former mayor died. A White House official said Obama was aware of Menino’s declining health and wanted to convey his thoughts and prayers.
As a politician, Menino was vastly different from Obama. They clashed at times. Menino endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, and sent some of his campaign workers up to New Hampshire to help her win the state.
But a month after Obama’s inauguration, Menino was at the White House with other mayors, bragging to the president about Boston. Menino later became more accepting of charter schools in part because of Obama administration education policies. Menino would also call upon Obama for help in his city.
After the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, Menino helped establish One Fund Boston, a non-profit that would provide assistance to the victims of the attack. But organizers were having trouble with IRS lawyers about allowing donors to the fund to claim their contributions as a tax deduction.
Obama had offered to help in the wake of the Marathon bombings, so Menino asked him and Vice President Joe Biden for their assistance in dealing with the IRS. But in this case, Menino wrote in his memoir, Mayor for a New America, the request came with a veiled threat.
“It would be a shame if someone leaked the news that IRS bureaucrats were blocking help to the victims of the deadliest terrorist bombing since 9/11…” Menino recalled saying in his book. “The problem went away,” he wrote.
Menino, who as mayor was always on the move, became increasingly frustrated with the political paralysis he saw in Washington, and the inability of national leaders to do basic tasks. To him, it may have been the national equivalent of a snowstorm without city plows getting on the streets.
In December 2012, as Congress tried to figure out several financial issues, Menino was in the hospital. He sat down and wrote a letter to Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
“In Washington, “winning the 24-hour news cycle” is victory,” he wrote on Dec. 1, 2012. “You know what victory is for patients down the hall from me? Walking.”
“Outside of Washington, we don’t spend all day on your potential ‘Grand Bargain,’” he added. “Here, the term sounds like the frozen smoothie Brian offers me in exchange for another go at the stair machine. But if it means you’ll come together for the American people, do that. We’ve had enough Democrat and Republican speak for a while.”
When Obama made a visit to Boston in October 2013, on the same day that the Red Sox were playing the Cardinals at Fenway Park in Game Six of the World Series, Menino met Obama at the airport and presented him with a Sox cap (of the Red Sox variety, not the president’s beloved White Sox).
A few months later, Menino was at the White House – celebrating the Red Sox championship. He stood in the Oval Office, leaning on a cane molded from a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, as he and his wife, Angela, talked with the president. He ambled onto the South Lawn with Biden, serenaded by a favorite Fenway song, Sweet Caroline, and its tale of good times that “never seemed so good.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.