Not too many politicians are tough and beloved at the same time.
Tom Menino walked that line.
Behind the scenes, he was the undisputed boss of Boston, with a well-documented zeal for pulling the levers of power. Indeed, in his just-released book, “Mayor for a New America,” he documented the extent of that zeal.
He wanted “the boys in boardroom whispering: ‘This guy might be mayor for life. We can’t afford to tick him off. ’ ” Why? “Fear is power,” he wrote. “I owed it to my city to keep fear alive.”
But unlike others, Menino was humble enough to understand that power lies with the office, not the person. Once Boston’s leaders knew that Menino, the most powerful of them all, was leaving City Hall, they knew he could be ignored. In the book, he cites the decision by Partners HealthCare to move 4,000 employees out of Boston. The official announcement came after the election of a new mayor, Marty Walsh. It was “timed to the political sweet spot between Menino and Walsh,” he wrote, when power was being handed off between the two.
Over the years, the press revealed some of Menino’s tough side and how crossing him could be the kiss of death for anyone who wanted to do business in Boston. So why doesn’t that dominate the picture of the man? How does someone who believed fear is power get to be beloved?
Part of it was his 24/7 commitment to the only job he ever wanted. “I was the opposite of Kevin White,” he wrote; unlike White, who sought higher office, the title “mayor” satisfied Menino’s ambition. Part of it was his embrace of his “not a fancy talker” limitations.
Finally, a big part of his beloved status was about accessibility, not just to average citizens, but especially to the media.
The tendency for most politicians today is to go into the bunker and send out the press secretary to handle unpleasant situations. Menino always kept the channels of communication open — and often brought cookies along to make his case. For 20 years as mayor he got his story out, in his words. It offset conflicting narratives.