The Missing Menino

Boston Globe columnist Lawrence Harmon isn’t too impressed by former Boston mayor Thomas Menino’s new memoir, Mayor For A New America:

Menino, Boston’s longest serving mayor at 20 years, did a good job of providing high quality city services while keeping a lid on residential property taxes. But that’s not the main reason why he left office with a 74 percent approval rating. He is beloved in Boston because he’s the kind of man who puts his granddaughter’s feelings — and the well-being of others, in general — above his own needs. If the book tanks, Menino won’t lose an ounce of popularity in Boston.

Writing a memoir, even with the help of author Jack Beatty, had to be a stretch for Menino. No one would describe the 71-year-old former mayor as self-revelatory. He’s a lot better at doing things than describing why he does things. Surgeons have a saying: You can name it and cut it. Or just cut it. Menino is in the latter category.

Still, Menino worried during the writing stage that his “voice” was missing from the memoir — not his signature mumbling, but the voice that pertains to a writer’s distinctive way of looking at the world. It was a valid concern. The reader gets a good sense of the growth of the city under Menino as he reshaped the city’s skyline, revitalized outlying neighborhoods, invested in successful crime fighting tactics, and gathered in political exiles, including new immigrants. Missing is a sense of Menino’s personal passage from an inconspicuous political aide to a great urban mayor.

In particular, Harmon takes aim at Menino’s chapter on issues affecting the city’s schools, which became infamous during the 1970s busing crisis:

Literarily, Menino loses his voice in an overlong chapter on his efforts to overhaul Boston’s school system. There is too much about mayorally-appointed school boards and superintendent searches and too little about the lives and challenges of Boston’s schoolchildren. Like so many of them, he struggled in school and received painful messages at an early age that he wasn’t destined for success. Menino has maintained contact with many Boston students over the years. It would have been nice to get to know some of them in his autobiography.

Reading Menino’s 250-page book, I find it interesting that with regard to the schools, Menino didn’t mention his courageous effort to defend diversity in the city’s elite examination schools
in the face of two right-wing lawsuits that challenged such diversity efforts. Menino showed uncommon valor in his efforts to maintain the diversity of the city’s exam schools, and it’s odd that he chose not to write about those efforts. It wasn’t his fault that the courts ultimately went against him.

In 2005, a decade after the first of those right-wing lawsuits was filed, the Boston Globe noted the consequences of the legal assault on the diversity efforts at the exam schools. These were the consequences Menino courageously tried to avoid. He should have given himself some credit for not knuckling under to the right-wing forces that regard diversity as just so much political correctness. By fighting for diversity, he indeed showed that he was the mayor for a new America.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.