Recent events have dwarfed our indomitable mayor
BY SETH GITELL
HERE’S A political equation for Boston voters to ponder now that Tom Menino has scored a resounding victory over City Councilor Peggy Davis-Mullen and former state representative Althea Garrison in Tuesday’s preliminary mayoral election. Why is the mayor’s popularity directly disproportional to his effectiveness (or lack thereof) since September 11, when terrorists hijacked two planes from Logan Airport and crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center?
Everyone these days — from Peter Jennings to President George W. Bush to MTV’s John Norris — recognizes that September 11, a horrendous day that also saw a third hijacked jetliner slam into the Pentagon and a fourth crash in a field outside Pittsburgh, radically changed the world we’re living in. Everyone, that is, except Menino. Sure, Menino played a key role in organizing an interfaith vigil at City Hall Plaza on the Thursday evening following the attack. And he has remained active in the neighborhoods, making an appearance at a Roslindale Village ribbon-cutting ceremony last Sunday, September 23. But most of the notes he has sounded since the attack have fallen flat. The mayor didn’t even wait a week before using the tragedies as an excuse to criticize the plan for a third runway at Logan Airport — a political hot potato that has plagued every Boston pol from former congressman Joe Moakley to State Senator Stephen Lynch to all the at-large members of the Boston City Council. " With airlines cutting back 20 percent of services, is there still the need? That’s the real question, " Menino told the Boston Globe in story published September 18.
Menino would have looked smarter if he’d acknowledged the new reality Boston faces: namely, a slowing economy, worsened by heightened security fears, that’s sure to hit tourism — Boston’s fifth-largest industry — harder than it’s ever been hit before. He might also have talked about needing to look at whether the city can still afford (or even needs) the South Boston convention center. He might have asked whether the city should still commit $200 million to a new baseball park for the Red Sox. But he didn’t. Instead, he seized the calamity as an opportunity to push his narrow political agenda. That’s not leadership. Rather, it’s the political equivalent of price gouging — like that seen in New York, where hotels at LaGuardia Airport doubled their rates when travelers were grounded after the terrorist attacks.
A little more than two weeks after the most serious crisis the United States has faced since World War II, Menino has yet to demonstrate what Boston residents need: sober acknowledgment of our fear, tempered by words of reassurance. Take last week’s rumors, spread via e-mail, that the city would be attacked by terrorists on Saturday, September 22. The hysteria escalated when Attorney General John Ashcroft made separate phone calls to Menino and Governor Jane Swift on Thursday, September 20, warning them to be on alert for possible attacks. Both dailies reported the threats on their front pages the next day, though the danger was subsequently discounted by the Boston office of the FBI. Still, in a Boston.com poll conducted last Friday, September 21, 40 percent of 10,000 respondents said that the rumors would prompt them to stay out of Boston. Did Menino acknowledge the fear? Did he comfort nervous Bostonians? No. Instead, he acted as though people’s reluctance to gallivant on Newbury Street that weekend was the result of fevered imaginations rather than a valid response, just 10 days after the worst carnage on American soil since the Civil War, to rumors of an impending terrorist attack on the city. " We’ve received no credible threats, " the mayor said on Friday.
Menino cannot take refuge in the fact that the blood was shed hundreds of miles from here. Two of the planes used as bombs were hijacked from Logan, after all, and our region has perhaps lost the most lives after New York and Washington. The city is enveloped in fear. The Prudential building has received two bomb threats since September 11, and an electrical fire there on September 17 — just six days after the terrorist attack — sent the city into a frenzy. These days Bostonians know how New Jersey residents must have felt when Orson Welles produced the radio play War of the Worlds. Only there’s a key difference between Boston today and the New Jersey countryside of yesteryear: real terrorists used Boston as a base from which to murder thousands of people. One alleged bad guy worked at the Boston Cab Company, just two blocks from the offices of the Phoenix, and others stayed in Chestnut Hill’s Park Inn and Brighton’s Days Inn.
Menino’s behavior looks particularly out of step when contrasted with the way other political leaders are bearing up. President Bush and New York mayor Rudy Giuliani have had their finest political moments in response to the crisis. After several shaky days, Bush found his sea legs and now has an approval rating of 90 percent, the highest polling numbers ever recorded in the modern era. Bush won the public’s confidence with his address last Thursday by weaving realistic statements into the optimistic rhetoric: " This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with its decisive liberation of territory and its swift conclusion. " Compare that to Menino’s comments for Sunday’s Boston Herald about how city residents were dealing with the possibility of a terrorist threat: " I’ve been all around the city today, " he said on Saturday. " People are out shopping. They are out there walking on the streets and doing all sorts of other events. There is no trepidation at all. "
There may have been no trepidation among the brave — or possibly foolish — souls traipsing around the city last weekend, but what about all those people who stayed out of Boston? The Globe reported Saturday that downtown was deserted. To claim that all was well with the city that day was to ignore reality. (Herald columnist Wayne Woodlief noted the disparities between Bush’s and Menino’s performances in a September 23 column. " President Bush was calm, commanding and very realistic about terrorism’s continuing threat in last week’s address to the nation. Too bad Mayor Thomas M. Menino [wasn’t] as empathetic in the Hub. " )
In short, Menino has failed to address our crisis of confidence.
Issue Date: September 27 - October 4, 2001