Leaders take the stage after horror
On Tuesday, a small platoon of politicians and law-enforcement officials squeezed around a podium at the Westin Copley Place and faced the post-disaster media horde.
It was a show of civic unity, after two explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line blew up bodies and a city's sense of security. But the large cast of press conference participants — numbering at least 17 — also showcased a natural political instinct to seize the moment and present the optics of tragedy as positively as possible.
The fiery blast tore apart lives and limbs, and with them the ordinary agendas of Bay State leaders. After Monday's Marathon horror, there were new responsibilities to accept — and uncharted avenues of blame to avoid. As always in crisis, there is also opportunity.
The victims and the first responder heroes are, rightly, the initial media focus after a disaster. In the immediate aftermath, Bostonians rallied in the face of adversity, and the city's prickly resilience is now an internationally admired virtue.
But the story will shift, as it always does, from raw emotion to a less sentimental demand for accountability. For elected officials and law-enforcement personnel, that means finding the people who did it, figuring out how they pulled it off, and identifying any security weaknesses that may have made it possible.
On Tuesday, the media's hunger for any crumb of information twice brought out the governor, mayor, police commissioner, and lead FBI investigator — along with a host of others whose roles are less obvious. Senator Elizabeth Warren was on the stage, along with interim Senator Mo Cowan. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, who is running for mayor, were part of the pack. So was US Representative Stephen Lynch, who is running in a special Senate primary election. Lynch said nothing at the briefings, but positioned himself in close, camera-friendly proximity to Governor Deval Patrick.
At a morning press briefing, there were few answers, but eight mini-speeches, including statements from Ortiz and Conley. Later that day, preliminary remarks were briefer and limited to a smaller circle. The answers were still spare, but more specific information was offered about the bombs used in the attack. The public was again asked for any tips or photos.
For key players, it's important to project the right balance of calm, competence, and urgency. This is a high-pressure test of leadership, played out in a world of suddenly altered priorities.
Last week, Patrick was jousting over the terms of a tax package with cranky lawmakers. This week, he is comforting the wounded, calling upon citizens to avoid conclusions about possible perpetrators, and getting ready to welcome President Obama to an interfaith prayer service.
After announcing that he wouldn't seek reelection, Mayor Thomas M. Menino was basking in the mostly positive reviews of his 20-year tenure. Last week, he suffered a new medical setback when he broke his leg; this week, he's rallying the city from a wheelchair, after a disaster that will shadow his last year in office. His police commissioner, Edward Davis, is facing media questions about the extent of pre-Marathon bomb sweeps in the finish line area and other security-related issues.
A few weeks ago, Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office, was looking for tips to solve the 23-year-old art heist at the Gardner Museum. Now, DesLauriers is in charge of a fresh criminal investigation into explosions that so far have killed three spectators, including an 8-year-old boy, and injured 176.
The hard, behind-the-scenes work of investigators is paying off. First, they found evidence of bombs fashioned from pressure cookers, the remnants of black nylon bags that held them, and the timing devices used to detonate them. Then came reports about the image of someone carrying a black bag and possibly dropping it at the site of the second explosion. The painstaking work that led to those developments deserves praise and appreciation.
Identifying who did this and why is critical. But when it comes to prevention, so is accountability for the overall security plan. The crowd anxious to take the stage to address that issue is likely to winnow down.