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Mornings with the mayor

Saying farewell to Tom Menino on the Red Line

Hand-lettered farewell on the Red Line. Photo by Dan Meade.

Almost 10 years ago, I took a position as a newscast writer for WBUR. Mine was the early morning shift, and my job was to arrive at 4 in the morning and start putting together the local news portion of Morning Edition. The other part of my job was to call some of the people about whom I was writing - local lawmakers, state officials, an occasional bereaved relative, and get "tape" (what most non-journalists call soundbites). I'd often wince while the phone rang, imagining it jangling in someone's bedroom. Then I'd plunge forward: "I'm sorry to call you so early, but we'd love to get your take on this latest report that..." [insert local issue here.]

By far, the person I called the most was Mayor Tom Menino. When I first began, one of the first bits of information I was handed was the mayor's phone number at his home in Hyde Park. I was instructed that whenever there was a Boston-specific story he was worth a call, and the best time to get him was between 5:45 and 6:30 in the morning. Any time before 5:45 a.m. was indecently early; after 6:30 he'd be off on his typical whirlwind day.

So I'd call. Snowstorm? Phone the mayor about his snow-removal and emergency plan. A reported spike in gang violence in the city? Ask the mayor about policing strategy. Red Sox in the World Series? Let's hear from the mayor.

Often his wife, Angela, would answer. She was always friendly. Often, she'd ask me to call back. "He's in the shower," she'd explain, in her thick Boston accent. It seemed like such an intimate thing, especially for someone as low in the newsroom chain of command as I was, to know exactly the moment when the mayor of one of the world's most cosmopolitan, internationally renowned cities was washing up for the day.

I'd call back a few minutes later, and he would almost always make himself available. "He's out of the shower," Angela would say and hand him the phone and I'd hear her say, "It's Abby." And he'd take the phone and begin with, "Hi Abby..." It was the kind of familiarity I would expect from a small town, and it typified, for me, what made Boston under Mayor Menino so unique: it was a big city and a small town, all rolled into one.

"Good Morning Mayor," I'd always start, after introducing myself, and telling him that I was rolling tape. Then I'd ask him about - well, whatever the headline was that morning. He almost always gave me something I could use, to make our news that much richer.

Every once in awhile I would get the chance to do a story in the field, and if the mayor was there I would eagerly re-introduce myself. "I'm Abby from WBUR! I'm the one who always calls you early in the morning!"

One time, one of my colleagues returned from an interview with the mayor and told me that the mayor had told him I was his favorite WBUR interviewer. I cringed. Good journalists are supposed to be dreaded by their sources. What kind of journalist did it make me if the mayor of Boston actually liked being interviewed by me? My colleague sent me an MP3 of the mayor talking about me, and I never listened to it.

Until about five years later, when I first heard that Mayor Menino was ill. I was living in New York by then, and no longer interviewing newsmakers before sunrise. So I opened up iTunes, and listened to the clip.

There is his unmistakable voice, the way of talking that earned him the moniker "Mumbles."

"Abby's my favorite person. She calls me in the morning. Abby. This is Abby. Mayor, what do you think about this? I don't think anything about it. I give her a hard time sometimes. But, you know, she's a good person," he says. "She's a very good person."

The truth is, I always thought the same about him, a big-city mayor always willing to take calls and graciously answer questions from an early-morning news writer just trying to gather some tape to make newscasts a little more interesting for listeners. If the mayor really liked taking my calls, maybe it means I wasn't a very good journalist, but I'm glad that for a couple years, our lives intersected in those pre-dawn days.

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Thanks for sharing.

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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Abby, I enjoyed your post. May Tom Menino rest in peace. In the future though, do you think the media should keep a better distance from the people they cover? When former "journalists" land six figure, full benefit packages at almost every city department, it seems unethical. Even Harry Reid's U.S. Senate has a two-year ban on former Senators lobbying. In Boston, it's two seconds. Who's watching the watchers?

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Taking this lovely story and twisting it into some weird allegation that "high-paid journalists" inhabit "every city department" is laughable.

Journalism is based on human relationships, in which people are friendly toward each other and exchange pleasantries. You need to build trust with your sources (and, in this case, Menino was serving as a source -- for information, for quotes, for background). Having a good relationship is perfectly appropriate and ethical. It's a huge leap to imply that Menino was "neutering the media" by being accessible in the mornings or that Abby's professional interactions with the mayor were even remotely unethical.

(On a separate note, Abby, thanks for posting this story. Really enjoyed it.)

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... NOT act like a total schmuck?

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You must really be a lot of fun at funerals.

Interesting points, all of which might be entirely appropriate to any of the books or articles about Boston politics under Menino that will surely be written.

But.... this week? Seriously?

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Yes--please tell us all about these liberal journos who are landing all these plum city positions!! Can't wait to hear more. Did Abby herself end up this comfortably employed? If not then please for once stfu.

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I'm guessing the nickname is due to a deep rooted tendency to fish until he finds something "objectionable" in any situation. Who's your favorite media person, Fish, Joe Battenfeld?
"Uh, Mayor Menino!!! it snowed overnight, and I hear that some of the city streets haven't been completely plowed yet, your comments?!?! Part of every day journalism, if you want to be able to interview people, you've got to get through to them. Much of the time when I hear "so and so declined to comment" on the radio and TV, I think to myself, "yah, I wouldn't want to talk to you either..." It seems Abby found a way to get more flies with honey, and, of course, that's just awful, particularly if you view everybody in public office as an enemy in need of interrogation, even if the topic is the Sox winning the World Series, or snow removal.

Thanks for sharing, Abby, it's good to get the human side of leaders -

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