We Ought Not Overlook a Hard Truth at Core of Menino's Fabulous Record

Friday, November 14, 2014

After Tom Menino died on Thursday, Oct. 30, he was justly lionized for his leadership abilities and his accomplishments as Mayor of Boston for 20 years.  It’s hard to see how anyone will ever be able to do as good a job as mayor as Menino did, never mind better, for as long as he did it, never mind longer.

I especially admired the way Menino built his power from the bottom up, meeting with and listening to as many Bostonians as he could, from as many walks of life and as many life situations as possible.  By always spending time with average Bostonians and by always listening, truly listening, Menino built an incredibly large and durable foundation of trust among the electorate.   With that trust, he was able to take the city where he thought it should go.  That’s leadership.
Now Menino has undergone a kind of secular canonization.  He’s become our new Saint Thomas, the patron of aspiring urban mechanics. 
Those who hope to follow in his footsteps, here and elsewhere, should remember one thing:  Every day, Tom Menino was purposely trying to scare the daylights out of city employees and political opponents alike even as he was trying with equal foresight and fervor to wrap every Bostonian he met in the cocoon of his care and concern.
“Fear is power.  I owed it to my city to keep fear alive,” Menino wrote in his recently published memoir, “Mayor for a New America.”

It’s one of the oldest maxims of governance, but you’ll never see it on a candidate’s bumper sticker or lawn sign --  although I for one would follow anywhere the would-be office holder or incumbent who blithely declared in public, “I owe it to my city to keep fear alive.”
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), perhaps the greatest political strategist of all time, had this to say about fear in his classic work “The Prince":
“It is much safer to be feared than loved because…love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Despite what many of his foes believed, Menino was highly intelligent.  I suspect that he was quite familiar with “The Prince.”  I also suspect that he grasped the value of fear naturally, and viscerally.  The man had impeccable political instincts.
Because of fear, Menino was good at a difficult job: running a big city.  Due to his managerial skills and fundamental decency, he earned the love of the people, accomplishing what Machiavelli said was almost impossible: to make love and fear flourish in the same fief.

“And here comes the question, whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved,” Machiavelli wrote.  “It might be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
…Speaking of love, there’s a school of thought that Charlie Baker will always keep the memory of Tom Menino in a special place in his heart. 
I keep hearing people say that Menino’s  wake and funeral in the days just before the Nov. 4 election  kept the electorate distracted from the burgeoning controversy over the truthfulness of Baker’s encounter with a fisherman who told him he’d ruined his sons’ lives by forcing them to be fishermen, and how that tale of bitter disappointment made Baker cry during his last debate with Martha Coakley on Oct. 28.
By exploiting doubts about the truthfulness of Baker’s fisherman story and the genuineness of Baker’s emotional response to it, Coakley was gaining ground on him in the final days of the campaign, this theory goes, and would have been able to overtake Baker if voters were not preoccupied with Menino’s passing; thus, Baker owes his governorship to Menino, or, more precisely, to the death of Menino.

In support of this argument, some political observers are saying:

Baker was ahead of Coakley by seven points in the last Boston Globe poll, published Friday, Oct. 31, and he ends up winning by less than two points.  What was the major event in the campaign, the only event that could have swung the numbers that much in a few days? The controversy over the fisherman is the obvious answer.  Coakley was suddenly on the move.  If she'd had the voters’ undivided attention or another week to campaign, she could have squeaked by.

Interesting hypothesis, but I'm not ready to buy.  It seems too facile, too flip.  And it conveniently ignores every other serious poll in the final days of the campaign, which had the race a dead heat.

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