When Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino left office last Monday after 20 years, The New York Times proclaimed that he “presided over and facilitated one of the most successful urban renaissance stories in modern American history.” The story, headlined TWO DECADES OF CHANGE HAVE BOSTON SPARKLING, was graced by a photo of a fireworks display over Boston Harbor. The only thing missing was the sound of the cannon blasts of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. By contrast, when Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor of 12 years, departed office a week earlier, the media send-off was of a decidedly lower register and muted to the point of ambivalence. “New York City’s departing mayor will leave the city largely improved, but inequality, racial tension and political fatigue” have residents “looking for a different kind of leader,” Time declared in a typically qualified assessment.
The sharply divergent treatment is puzzling. After all, both mayors followed similar policies, including an emphasis on public-health issues such as smoking. In 2006, they even co-hosted a summit, in New York, to galvanize action against gun violence. Both promoted a business-friendly atmosphere for developers and both can claim meaningful civic improvements—and similar unmet challenges. Income inequality, for example, is a glaring issue in Boston, too—as can be readily confirmed by a stroll down opulent Newbury Street, the city’s “Fifth Avenue,” which tends to be lined by panhandlers. Brooklyn-style gentrification has priced working-class homebuyers out of once-unfashionable neighborhoods like South Boston. The media has been grudging in acknowledging Bloomberg’s achievements while eagerly crediting Menino, in some cases for betterments not of his doing. The Times piece, written by Boston correspondent Katherine Q. Seeyle, highlighted the cleanup of Boston Harbor, which was compelled by a federal judge in response to lawsuits demanding a halt to the dumping of sewage there. Menino had nothing to do with making it happen. Why the disparity in the way the two mayors have been sent off?
The simplest explanation is that Michael Bloomberg is rich—make that “filthy rich.” He made his billions peddling expensive trading terminals to Wall Street; Tom Menino, by contrast, is an Everyman guy who lives in a postage-stamp house in the middle-class Boston enclave of Hyde Park. In other words, the Menino/Bloomberg disparity may be rooted in envy. The logic here is difficult to discern: it seems silly to consider a person’s wealth or lack of wealth as a signifier of moral character. With apologies to Balzac, it doesn’t have to be the case that “behind every great fortune there is a crime.” What crime did Bloomberg commit in amassing his?
Nevertheless, the public (with media encouragement) seems prone to feel that if it can’t have Bloomberg’s dough, then it may as well belittle him for being loaded. With his ubiquitous public presence, he was conveniently available as a metaphor for the nation’s widening wealth gap, especially after Americans suffered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Bloomberg’s “crime” was not to have suffered. Hence the endless coverage during his tenure of his $10-million, “custom-built,” 6,000-square-foot “massive mansion” on Stokes Bay in Bermuda, with its “personal putt-putt course” among the “highlights of his sweet crib in paradise”—portrayed, with close-up pictures, by New York magazine in 2010. Bloomberg’s vigorous philanthropy didn’t do much to change his public image. It was the least he could do, many felt, considering his immense wealth.
Of course, this leveling impulse is a venerable national reflex. It figured prominently in Tocqueville’s observations of life in Jacksonian America. Class prejudice, if directed from the bottom up, is permissible. If there is to be fanfare in American public life, then it must be a Fanfare for the Common Man. (The instinct is not exclusively American; a Russian folk saying declares that the tall blade of grass needs to be shorn to the same height as all others.)
This resonant if crude sentiment also accounts for the celebration of Menino, who is considered “common” in a favorable sense of the word. His education was the street and the political backroom; he didn’t even attend college, at UMass Boston, until he was in his forties. (Bloomberg has an MBA from Harvard.) Many voters in urban elections haven’t gone to college, much less grad school. Menino mingled easily with everyone; he schmoozed tirelessly at community events, from Christmas tree-lighting ceremonies to wakes. His mangled-word garrulousness, with malapropisms worthy of Yogi Berra, suggested approachability. He had a paternal, even grandfatherly aspect, accentuated in his later years by a succession of serious health problems that inspired widespread public sympathy. Last year, I watched him hobble his way up to a Faneuil Hall podium—cane in hand and wife Angela by his side—to announce that he wouldn’t run again for mayor. Many in the crowd watched in tears.
“I am just Tommy Menino from Hyde Park,” he once said. “I can’t tell you how humbled I am and how lucky I feel.”
Bloomberg projected a colder presence and far from a humble one. The one time I shared a space with him, at a small gathering of journalists in Washington, D.C., I felt the presence of an agile, incisive, efficient mind—no surprise he was an Eagle Scout—but not necessarily a warm spirit. It was easy enough to sense how Bloomberg could be admired for his smarts and executive competence without being embraced. People (journalists included) seldom fall for such daunting figures. (To be fair, Menino was well-known for his autocratic handling of developers and others who bid for his favor. His professed humility was at least partly a put-on.)
The raves for Menino and mixed appraisals of Bloomberg probably also reflect differences between Boston and New York. I mean no offense to the Big Apple (full disclosure: I’m a Massachusetts native and—alas—a lifelong Red Sox fan), but smaller-scale Beantown, with its narrow, winding roads forged (legend has it) from cow paths, has a cozier, more intimate feel. If one is accepted as authentically part of Boston, as born-and-bred-there Menino was unreservedly, then the fan base will root for you. Boston is parochial that way. The city has no term-limit law for the occupant of City Hall, and Menino was dubbed Mayor for Life, a la Chicago’s Richard J. Daley, with only a small gaggle of critics carping about his lock on the office. Menino’s liberal social policies brought him mostly adulatory coverage from the Boston Globe.
New Yorkers may be harder to please—perhaps because they are more insistent on keeping their city world-class. The city cuts no one any slack, especially the mayor. To its detriment, Boston seems to reserve its highest standards of excellence mostly for its sports teams. (The Red Sox won the World Series three times during Menino’s tenure, compared with the Yankees’ one during the Bloomberg era.) While New Yorkers, like Bostonians, will embrace a native son, Bloomberg came to the city only as a post-graduate adult, after growing up in a Boston suburb and attending college in Baltimore and business school in the Boston area. He had to steamroll the city council to pass a bill waiving term limits and allowing him to run for his third term, and though he got his way and won reelection, the episode left a bitter aftertaste.
Results, of course, should be the key criterion by which any mayor’s performance is judged, but the Menino and Bloomberg farewells remind us that we evaluate our leaders with something less than pure objectivity. Perhaps history, years down the road, will render a more dispassionate judgment of these two mayors. For now, Menino goes out a hero, while Bloomberg departs as something less. For future mayors, the moral would be the same in either case: do the best job you can. If you do really well, you might hear the sound of trumpets on the exit ramp—or maybe not. Life is unfair, after all.