Hours after two bombs apparently packed with ball bearings and shrapnel ripped apart the celebratory conclusion of the Boston Marathon, the press gathered for a grim and familiar ritual. Elected officials and civic leaders were updating the public on body counts and appealing for calm. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was there, as was the Boston police commissioner. Noticeably absent, however, was a ubiquitous presence at city press briefings over the last two decades: Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
At a second news conference two hours later, Menino, who is now in his sixth term and the longest-serving mayor in city history, finally appeared, having been wheeled up in a wheelchair, his shirt untucked, a hospital bracelet on his wrist. Menino spoke for less than a minute before turning the press conference over to Patrick and his police chief. The mayor had been escorted there from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he had been recovering from surgery to repair a leg broken the week before. Menino sounded groggy, though it was unclear if that was a lingering effect of being laid up or just the verbal tics of someone affectionately known as Mayor Mumbles.
Either way, for people used to city leaders projecting calm and resolve at moments of crisis—think Rudy Giuliani ducking debris at the nation’s last major urban terrorist attack—Menino was at last irrelevant.
“Knowing Mayor Menino, he was probably chewing at the bedsheets while all of this was going on,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a local political media consultant. “He is a very hands-on mayor. For someone like Tom Menino to not be out and about during a tragedy like this must have been heart wrenching for him.”
After Monday evening’s press conference, the mayor was wheeled back to the hospital.
It has been a difficult stretch for Menino, a politician so garrulous and so entrenched that a 2009 poll found that half of the city’s residents say they have met him. Last month he announced he wouldn’t seek reelection. Last year he cut short a vacation to Italy because of an upper respiratory infection and a blood clot in his lungs. He stayed for eight weeks in the hospital, where he suffered a compression fracture in his lower spine and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He has for years been living with Crohn’s disease.
“Seeing him now in a wheelchair, it’s hard not to think, God, this must be tough.”
As the marathon tragedy has unfolded this week, Menino has been receiving updates from his staff and visiting victims and their families recovering at his hospital.
“Medically, he is fine,” said Menino spokesman Dot Joyce, who added that the mayor can walk in his cast, but is using the wheelchair to move more quickly down long corridors. “It was more carpentry work than plumbing work.
“The mayor has been the mayor for 20 years,” Joyce said. “He is an active, engaged mayor, as he has always been. He has been meeting with victims and their families, and he has a great team and has full confidence in their abilities. And he continues to monitor the situation and to be briefed by them regularly.”
Still a remarkably beloved figure in Boston, Menino has approval ratings floating above 70 percent. He won reelection in 2009 with 57 percent of the vote, and Bostonians say that local affection for him has grown, if anything, since he announced his retirement. And while he remains a throwback, one of the last old-school provincial mayors to symbolize a hometown, like Ed Koch in New York or Richard Daley in Chicago, Menino also has turned Boston into a global capital.
But there are some whispers around City Hall that it perhaps would have been better if Menino had stepped down earlier, before his health worsened, in case a city emergency like Monday’s struck.
“Knowing when to step down is never a politician’s strong suit, and he is no exception,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a professor of politics at Tufts University. “But the bottom line is, the city is fantastic shape. It seems like every part of the city is a construction zone.”
Barry noted that both Menino and Patrick have taken a more low-key approach than Guiliani did in 2001, preferring to let the various city and state agencies and the FBI speak for themselves and handle the investigation. And the presence of Menino is felt everywhere in the aftermath, since he has overseen the police, first responders, and medical system over the past 20 years.
“He doesn’t have the energy level to participate in this as he would like, and I am sure it is very humbling and very frustrating, but in fairness to Menino, the response to this tragedy is much bigger than what the city government could contend with,” Berry said.
Were it not for his injuries, Bostonians say, it is easy to imagine Menino out on the town, urging the city on toward renewal. The marathon is the unofficial start of spring in Boston, a kickoff to a season of outdoor street fairs and music festivals. City residents will likely be reluctant to rejoin the party this year, especially without Menino as a presence showing that normalcy has returned.
“He would be out there, showing up,” said Paul Grogan, the president of the Boston Foundation, after returning from a press conference with the mayor. “He is a guy who would come to Little League opening days. It lifts everyone’s morale as we move on from here. Seeing him now in a wheelchair, it’s hard not to think, God, this must be tough.”
It is unclear when the mayor will be able to leave the hospital, but he is expected to remain on crutches for several months. So in perhaps the most significant moment of his two-decade mayoralty, he will be absent, even as he recovers alongside the city itself.
“He is of course frustrated that he has a broken leg,” said Joyce. “He was frustrated about that when it happened. But this isn’t about him at this point. This is about people who have lost limbs and lives.”
“It is unfortunate that one of the last impressions people will have of his mayoralty is him in a wheelchair, almost sidelined at a time of a crisis,” said Berry. “This is an unfitting epitaph to a very successful reign.”