Snowmaggedon shut down public transit and brought out the two sides of Governor Charlie Baker — nice and not so nice.
The nice Baker picked up his office phone and talked a random, frustrated Bay Stater through the intricacies of the MBTA’s modified bus schedule. The caller was rightly thrilled by his patience and kindness.
The not-so-nice Baker refused to pick up the phone to call T General Manager Beverly Scott, as her agency struggled to keep creaky equipment running after record snowfall. His official explanation had something to do with the chain of command, but given the circumstances, he just came across as mean.
Baker’s split personality should be no surprise. When he ran for governor in 2010, he exuded whiny irritation. That attitude turned off voters, especially in contrast to Governor Deval Patrick, the mellow incumbent. When he ran again in 2014, Baker shed his tie and most of his snark. His campaign themes were cheerfulness and competence. He even made a stab at compassion, once shedding tears over a mysterious fisherman who has never been located or identified.
The reinvention worked. Now the new Charlie gets to duke it out with the old one in the governor’s office. Depending on the day and crisis, which one will make an appearance?
During past weeks of nearly non-stop snow, Baker came across as a highly regarded surgeon with a slightly testy bedside manner. You want to believe he knows what he’s doing, because everyone else says he does, not because he makes you feel that good about his approach.
With Scott, however, Baker crossed the line into political malpractice. In crisis, public officials should act like they are on the same team. Remember Boston Strong? Baker made it clear Scott was not part of his team. It was only when the headlines turned against him that he changed his tune to diplomatic. By then, it was too late. Scott resigned.
In the long run, that’s good for Baker, since he gets to put his own person in the job sooner rather than later. But now, he owns the current transit disaster.
He’s certainly not the first politician to reinvent himself. Richard Nixon did it successfully enough to win the presidency; Mitt Romney did not. Nor is Baker the first to flash conflicting personalities. In the 1960s, Jules Feiffer, the celebrated cartoonist and political satirist, lampooned Robert F. Kennedy with drawings of the “Bobby Twins,” “Good Bobby” and “Bad Bobby.” The cartoon’s caption ended with the line: “If you want one Bobby to be your president you will have to take both.”
People are complicated and so, too, are politicians. Baker’s transformation from 2010 to 2014 was a gentle facelift, not a drastic Nixonian makeover. And he’s not the only governor to have a peevish side. Patrick also had such an edge, which he often showed to journalists.
His successor is a rookie governor, still figuring out how to communicate with the citizens who elected him while carrying out the agenda he believes they support. But now Baker has to view that agenda through the piles of snow and ice that crippled the T. The Pioneer Institute, a think tank that generally reflects Baker’s fiscal conservatism, put out a statement that shows the extent of the challenge.
“The MBTA is broke and broken,” it declared. “It is structurally insolvent. Breakdowns and late arrivals are, indeed, unacceptable, but the bulk of the T’s troubles are not about Dr. Beverly Scott. They are, in fact, the fault of multiple administrations and legislatures, as well as advocates who pushed the MBTA to expand faster than is reasonable.”
Massachusetts needs a disciplined manager. But it also needs a wise leader who knows how to get people working together. Imagine if Baker had picked up that phone, called Scott, and asked her to meet with him and the rest of his storm crew. Sure, the GM reports to a board, not to the governor, and Baker has only one appointee on that board. But don’t unprecedented times call for unprecedented responses?
That isn’t about being nice or not. It’s about being smart and nimble.