Conventional Wisdom Wrong Again: Mayor Menino Is a Master of Verbal Jujitsu

Friday, September 27, 2013

When you think of how cunningly Boston Mayor Tom Menino can send a message, you have to wonder why any supposedly intelligent person would think of him as verbally challenged.

Consider his oft-quoted comment to the effect that he would remain neutral in the race to choose his successor -- as long as none of the candidates “attack” the City of Boston.

Menino knew when he said it that no serious candidate thought he could win votes by attacking the city.

The candidate who said something like “anyone who says Boston is in good shape now ought to have his head examined” was the candidate headed to oblivion.

This wasn’t about attacking the city, and it wasn’t about attacking Menino. 

Because of the special status Menino enjoys after 20 very successful years in office, no candidate would dare risk a frontal assault on him.

Rather, it was a case of the mayor reminding his would-be replacements that he’s sensitive to criticism and slights of any kind.  Even implied criticism will get you on my bad side, the mayor was hinting. 

Hell, faint praise will get you in trouble with this guy.

The state of the mayor’s feelings is particularly relevant now that we’ve moved from the preliminary election to the final. The last thing either finalist, John Connolly or Martin Walsh, needs is to have a miffed mayor putting the word out to his superb campaign organization that he’s against him.

This could be a close election; every little thing matters.  

With that brief “attack” comment, Menino guaranteed there will be nothing even remotely critical of his tenure coming from the Connolly and Walsh camps.  He thus made progress toward the only major goal left in his public life: protecting and enhancing his legacy.

Menino’s ability to get inside other people’s heads has always been a key to his effectiveness. 

Everyone knows there’s a penalty for letting the man down, never mind crossing him.  This has worked to Menino’s advantage, as it does to every boss’s.   Last year we saw the proof of that again when the mayor was unable to come to work for many weeks due to illness and the city operated just fine in his absence.

An effective leader doesn’t have to be physically at his post when he resides permanently in the mind of every underling and inferior. 

Make no mistake.  No matter who is elected mayor of Boston on November 5, that person will remain Menino’s inferior in the political pecking order for a long time to come, maybe even forever, depending on what he’s able to get done in office.

That’s why you’ll see the new mayor being very solicitous of the former mayor.  The new mayor will desperately need the former mayor for expanding and securing his base.  The former mayor will deign to accept the blandishments of the new mayor. 

That is how icons keep their glow.

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