This was a taxing week for former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. He was unprepared when advance copies of his upcoming autobiography — “Mayor for a New America” — landed in reporters’ mailboxes. Globe columnist Adrian Walker quickly and accurately observed that Menino’s memoir reads like “a book-length State of the City speech.” The book project was meant to serve, in part, as a pleasant distraction for Menino while he dealt with the side effects of his treatment for advanced cancer. Suddenly it felt like another headache.
So, does Menino mope around at home? No. Does he curse the fact that advanced medicine — the flower of the modern age — has only so much hope to offer him. Nope. Instead, he hits the roof because one of his six grandchildren — Olivia — got cropped out of a family photo that appears in the memoir. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that this problem gets straightened out by the publisher during any additional printing.
Menino, Boston’s longest serving mayor at 20 years, did a good job of providing high quality city services while keeping a lid on residential property taxes. But that’s not the main reason why he left office with a 74 percent approval rating. He is beloved in Boston because he’s the kind of man who puts his granddaughter's feelings — and the well-being of others, in general — above his own needs. If the book tanks, Menino won’t lose an ounce of popularity in Boston.
Writing a memoir, even with the help of author Jack Beatty, had to be a stretch for Menino. No one would describe the 71-year-old former mayor as self-revelatory. He’s a lot better at doing things than describing why he does things. Surgeons have a saying: You can name it and cut it. Or just cut it. Menino is in the latter category.
Still, Menino worried during the writing stage that his “voice” was missing from the memoir — not his signature mumbling, but the voice that pertains to a writer’s distinctive way of looking at the world. It was a valid concern. The reader gets a good sense of the growth of the city under Menino as he reshaped the city’s skyline, revitalized outlying neighborhoods, invested in successful crime fighting tactics, and gathered in political exiles, including new immigrants. Missing is a sense of Menino’s personal passage from an inconspicuous political aide to a great urban mayor.
Menino comes closest to finding his voice in the sections on the April 2013 terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon. Though exhausted and hoarse from a succession of illnesses, Menino struggled out of his wheelchair and offered stirring words to a crowd of 2,000 gathered at an interfaith service to honor the three people killed and scores wounded near the finish line.
“We are one Boston,” he said. “No adversity, no challenge, nothing can tear down the resilience in the heart of this city and its people.”
Literarily, Menino loses his voice in an overlong chapter on his efforts to overhaul Boston’s school system. There is too much about mayorally-appointed school boards and superintendent searches and too little about the lives and challenges of Boston’s schoolchildren. Like so many of them, he struggled in school and received painful messages at an early age that he wasn’t destined for success. Menino has maintained contact with many Boston students over the years. It would have been nice to get to know some of them in his autobiography.
Menino reveals a lot about the values of his father, a member of the Machinists Union, and his mother, who ran an unofficial settlement house for new immigrants. In a brief but poignant passage, Menino describes how his mother passed away while holding his 6-year-old-brother, David, in her arms. But other than a brief reference to this “challenged” younger brother, readers don’t get any sense of the sibling relationship, or whether it had any impact on Menino’s later efforts to shape city policies for people with special needs.
In a section on his successful efforts to block the New England Patriots from building a new stadium in South Boston, Menino calls forth images of out-of-control fans “filling the bars” and “peeing in the streets.” Menino didn’t touch alcohol during his time in office. Had he seen the ravages of alcoholism in his own extended family? The reader has no clue.
“People know who I am,” said Menino during a telephone interview this week. “I never hid behind my desk at City Hall.”
That’s true. But some of the best stories of his two decades in office — and his own deepest impressions — remain hidden from view.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com