October 30th, 2014

Tom Lehrer is Smug

Our Mumbles

He wasn't my mayor--Joe Curtatone is, and has been for over ten years now--but he was Our Mayor.

Upon reading the news that Tom Menino had passed away only a few days after deciding to stop his cancer treatments, I wrote a quick little Twitter thingy what said this:
We may have called him Mumbles but he was Our Mumbles, dammit, and we knew full well he Gave A Damn. Plenty of them. Goodbye #MayorMenino
This side of New England has known its share of colorful and legendary holders of public office. Boston's history especially is full of 'em, from Honey Fitz to James M. Curley to Kevin White, who had the unfortunate job (but the strength to handle it) of dealing with the extremely violent racial conflicts of the late 60s and early 70s, including calming a city ready to riot after hearing the news of Martin Luther King's assassination--and doing so from the stage of a James Brown concert at the Garden. Providence gives us a run for our money considering they elected Buddy Cianci both before and after his nolo contendre assault conviction and subsequent forced resignation in 1984 (and who have the chance next week to re-elect him again after his 2002 conviction and subsequent imprisonment on racketeering charges[1]) but that's another story from another city besides.

Mayor Tom, Boston's longest-serving mayor of twenty-two years, easily ascends to this pantheon. He wasn't a flamboyantly corrupt public official (corruption often providing lots of the color) though he did share one trait with guys like Curley and Cianci: he was sincerely invested in the well-being and prosperity of his city. Not the city he ran. His city. He considered himself "everybody's neighbor", among other things ("urban mechanic" was another favorite) and he meant it.

Twitter is happily remembering Menino's LGBT support (judging from the pictures he sure enjoyed marching in Pride) and how one of his first projects upon taking office in 1993 was to start providing a better way of life for AIDS/HIV patients as well as extensive public outreach, needle exchanges, and other ways to fully educate the public about the diseases. He wanted his healthy citizens safe and well-educated; he wanted his suffering citizens to be treated as human beings. The Glob and other outlets are remarking on his plans, many of which proved fruitful, to improve disquietly blighted sections of the city. When he saw something that needed change he didn't just loudly pipe up about it; he went out and did something about it, even if "it" was just some trash blowing about on the street. He promoted bike lanes and alternative transportation options. He defended the Downtown Crossing pushcart vendors in the face of gentrifyin' corporations who didn't want "Those People" around the ground floor of their beautiful new fancypants condos. And according to a 2008 Boston Globe poll, over half the respondents said they had personally met him at one point or another. How many mayors can make the claim that they've reached out and shook the hands of so many?

And he was colorful, oh, indeed. He was Our Mumbles because sometimes the intricacies of public speaking got the best of him, his speeches needing subtitles. And if he got your name wrong on the second or third time you met, at least he remembered you. Albeit under a different name. He got extremely angry after that whole Mooninite incident in 2007 which in retrospect can seem very silly (okay, it was silly even then) but when Boston was bombed for reals last year, he showed that anger again and more besides. With his cancer already at a severe stage he defied his doctor's orders, stood from his wheelchair, mumbled eloquently and reverently, then oversaw the subsequent investigation's manhunt. When we finally got the surviving brother, that's what Menino announced: "We got him". Sent it to Twitter directly from Watertown. He'd been right there on the front lines. I can't see Bloomberg doing that. The anger over the Mooninite hoax came into sharper focus for me after that: Menino wasn't angry cause we'd been chumped by Adult Swim, he was angry because it had appeared Boston had been threatened. And you don't threaten Boston. Not on his watch.

While condensing so many thoughts into 140 characters I made do with the phrase "gave a damn". Now that I think about it, that's the highest compliment I can pay an elected official: One who gave a damn. We've had our share of career politicians all over, those who believe whatever office they're in is merely a rung on their professional ladder (and how's that working out for you, Mitt?) and those who are glad to have a nice title next to their names. Rare are the politicians who, indeed, actually give a damn. The loss of one certainly makes it painfully apparent that we need more.

Menino had a long-standing obsession to turn Boston in what he liked to call a "world-class city". It became a cynical shibboleth for those of us who did not agree that, say, bringing the Olympics to Boston would fulfill the nebulous requirements of "world-class", whatever the requirements may be. ("There he goes again," we'd say, using the first-person royal, when learning of a new proposed venture. "World-class, here we come!") I suppose the requirements involved elevating Boston out of the Brahmin Provincial or whatever New Yorkers like to call us when they're feeling frisky, but honestly, these requirements were unnecessary. While Thomas M. Menino never gave up his obsession, he still must have known full well that he already had made Boston not only world-class, but first-class as well. We'll find it difficult to live up to his legacy, but we will somehow. He showed us how it could be done; he proved it could be done. With a damn or two.

[1]. The legal technicalities behind this involve quite a long story but suffice it to say that the 1986 Rhode Island constitutional amendment permitting convicted felons to run for public office three years after the end of their parole or probation is known as the "Buddy Amendment". Oh, Cianci. How can you not like such gumption.