Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's State of the City address, delivered last week at Faneuil Hall, was the political event of the season. Not since the late Senator Edward Kennedy debated then-political novice Mitt Romney in the same historic setting have the local chattering classes awaited a public performance with such speculative intensity.
As Kennedy did in 1994, Menino wowed the crowd. The mayor exceeded expectations. Even tough-minded insiders generously allowed that it may have been the most powerful of Menino's 20 annual addresses.
The context supplied the electricity. After a long bout of serious illness that included hospitalization and rehabilitation, the 70-year-old, five-term Menino was back, walking to the podium under his own steam with only a cane for assistance. The mayor was, perhaps, a touch slower than usual, but he was as sure and as determined as ever.
By conventional standards, Menino is not a great orator. Still, he is often an exceedingly effective one — especially when speaking from the heart. That's what the mayor did in Faneuil Hall, tapping into his deep and undeniable affection for the city and his even deeper love of his job. The effect was impressive, commanding, and reassuring — as intended.
Menino's State of the City addresses are less political speeches and more civic homilies — big-hearted sermons aimed at keeping a healthy majority of voters firmly in the mayor's pews. These speeches are about consolidating and renewing power, rather than promoting actionable policy.
There is, however, always a raft of legitimate promises. This year: saying no to guns, helping women level the economic playing field, and earmarking $30 million for the most underperforming of Boston's generally substandard schools. These are bulletproof initiatives that only a crack-addled radio-talk-show host could rail against.
As Globe columnist Adrian Walker, a shrewd Menino watcher, pointed out in his post–State of the City wrap-up, these speeches rarely contain measurable proposals.
That is because the essence of the mayor's method is an unconventional mix of behind-the-scenes micro-management adorned by healthy doses of public indirection. The result is political rope-a-dope, so that things — especially big important things — stay fluid and in flux until Menino gets as close as possible to what he wants. You need to take a couple of steps back to see how this works.
There's an interesting parallel to be drawn between Menino's push for a casino at Suffolk Downs today and for a convention center in South Boston 20 years ago. From an economic-development point of view, both are solid ideas.
But the reality of the waterfront doesn't live up to its initial billing. The number of hotel rooms and the nature of the development have not panned out as promised. It's hard to imagine that happening in Chicago or Atlanta. But the average person in the street, if asked, would still say that Boston's waterfront is a swimming success.
So it is with the still-fallow crosstown site on and around Melnea Cass Boulevard, and the BU medical center where a sports megaplex could have gone. The mayor's "I know-best-and-I-don't have-to-explain-myself" approach killed those plans.
It's reasonable to assume that the same sort of behind-closed-doors, zero-public-transparency approach is being applied to the wrangling to build a casino either at Suffolk Downs or in Everett.