Under normal circumstances, Boston Mayor Tom Menino would be making his annual speech this morning to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. But these are not normal times for Boston’s longest serving mayor, and the Chamber merely notes on its website that the breakfast has been postponed. In fact, much of life has been postponed for Hizzonah since he became ill this fall. You know that, in these days of drive-through medical care, if anyone is kept in the hospital for six weeks (and counting), the person is very very sick.
Since his hospitalization October 26, it was more than a month before the media were allowed to see him, and what Channel 5 showed last week in Susan Wornick’s exclusive video showed a man with slurred speech (yes, speech has never been his strong suite), slowed response and generally weakened demeanor. One can only begin to imagine what his condition was in the early weeks of his hospitalization. This morning, we learned the Mayor’s office had released a letter from Menino to President Obama about the “fiscal cliff.” While it was good to picture him as a participant in the public dialogue, it still seems a lame, staff-driven way specifically designed to portray the Mayor getting back into the game.
So, here’s the thing. None of Menino’s ailments (type 2 diabetes, Krohn’s disease, respiratory illness, viral infection, blood clot, bad knees, and who knows what else) would – in and of themselves – disqualify him from continuing in office, even at the age of 70. If he’s physically and mentally able to run, no ageist speculation should stop him from running. But, after 20 years in office and being elected to an astonishing fifth term, it may be time for him to make way for someone else. To take a well deserved victory tour, and quit while he is ahead. As Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh has written, if he runs again, and loses, he could well squander his sterling legacy. If he runs, wins and is then unable to serve, the city loses.
He should do it the Ted Williams way, still batting .316 in 1960 and hitting a home run in his very last at bat. There’s something to be said for leaving when you’re at the top.
Yes, Williams was followed by Yaz. And it seems there’s not much of a bench in Boston today. But names like Peter Meade and Paul Grogan come immediately to mind. And there are undoubtedly others, especially among councillors and others of color in this now majority-minority city, who could grow into the office as Menino did. Remember, Menino at the beginning was hardly great mayoral material. I remember him when he was a young staffer the State House, working for then Senator Joe Timilty on the Urban Affairs Committee, helping Timilty respond to problems emerging from the 1973 Chelsea fire. Elected to the Boston City Council, he was a compromise candidate for Council President and then, when then-Mayor Ray Flynn was named Vatican ambassador, suddenly became mayor.
Initially, he was a joke. Mayor Mumbles, they called him. But the self-described urban mechanic took care of business, showed up anytime more than three constitutents gathered at a corner to wait for a pedestrian light, and developed a vision. Gradually his speech foibles became part of his charm. He declared himself the education mayor, brought in Superintendent Carol Johnson, and the schools moved ahead. He saw the potential in developing the seaport area, the greenway, and the innovation district, and he embarked on creative initiatives in health, including green buildings, tree planting and biking. He stood up to excessive union demands and backed neighborhood economic development. In short, a clever – sometimes “cute” politician – he has been an outstanding municipal leader.
And he has earned the right to enter that third age of life, the opportunity to enjoy his children and grandchildren, the chance to travel with his stalwart and devoted wife, Angela, the time to impart his wisdom to new generations of emerging leaders. If Menino retires now, he enshrines his accomplishments forever, joining the most fabled mayors of Boston, like Honey Fitz, James Michael Curley, John Collins, and Kevin White in a pantheon of people who have left their mark on the city forever. There really is life after celebrity, even after power. He can still make a contribution to civic life, and he can reap the rewards of a job well done.
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