As terrorists struck his city, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino was no Rudy Giuliani, leading citizens to safety amid the chaos and offering wrenchingly articulate sound bites to the television cameras.
When explosions tore through the finish of the Boston Marathon last month, Menino was in the hospital, recovering from surgery for a broken leg, the latest in a series of health setbacks that had helped persuade the 70-year-old mayor to announce in March that he would not run again.
He immediately checked himself out of the hospital. In the days that followed, as he moved across the city in a wheelchair, Menino's famously heavy Boston accent seemed, at times, even more slurred than usual, perhaps a result of painkillers. At one early morning news briefing in Watertown, Menino clutched a blanket, looking small as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis towered over him.
But Menino, a Democrat, was responding in his own way. The day after the bombings, he called Patrick and together they created the One Fund, the charity that has already raised millions of dollars for victims and their families. During the interfaith memorial service that week at Cathedral of the Holy Cross, he pulled himself up from his wheelchair to the loudest applause heard that day.
"Nothing can defeat the heart of this city. Nothing," he said. "Nothing will take us down, because we take care of one another."
Long-serving ethnic mayors like Menino, who is of Italian descent and is stepping down after two decades in office, are becoming a rare breed. In their place are smooth young politicians such as Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., or Julian Castro of San Antonio, who often have ambitions of higher office and a national presence to hone.
It would seem that Boston would favor the new diversity as it has moved from being dominated by Irish and Italian immigrants into a far more global city. But Menino, who has never expressed interest in higher office and is often gently mocked for his gaffes, is still wildly popular here.
In some ways, the mayor has become a potent symbol as a wounded Boston tries to heal.
"He can't even walk and he's here to comfort all of us, and I'm just so appreciative of that," said Georgia Yeomans, 23, a Boston transplant who was visiting the memorial to victims of the bombings recently. "It shows how strong our leaders are here -- how strong the people are -- that if anything were to happen, it doesn't matter if you're recovering in the hospital. You'll drop what you're doing and we'll take care of each other."
When he announced in March that he would not run for a sixth term, Menino enjoyed a 74% approval rating in famously finicky Boston, according to a Boston Globe poll. Business owners cited the city's building boom as part of Menino's accomplishments; others praised the lack of corruption or scandal during his time in office.
Stunningly, nearly half of Boston residents said they had met him at some point, a reflection of Menino's zeal for attending multiple pancake breakfasts, tree-lighting ceremonies and ribbon-cutting events each day. His is pothole charisma, rather than glamour.
"It's the old thing -- are you a show horse or a workhorse?" said Tobe Berkowitz, a Boston-based political media consultant. "Menino's that guy in your neighborhood who you can depend on. He's a neighborhood mayor, a guy who really knows the city ... part of the fabric of traditional Boston."
Many in the city say that Boston's in its best shape in years because of Menino. Its unemployment rate of 5.8% is lower than that of most major cities. Buildings are going up around the city, while the crime rate has gone down. Its bond rating is one of the best of any major city in the country.
Bostonians seem to accept Menino's legendary gaffes as part of his appeal, affectionately referring to him as "Mayor Mumbles." He once said he had an Alcatraz around his neck, rather than an albatross. He flubbed the names of some of Boston's most popular athletes, calling the Celtics' Rajon Rondo "Hondo" and Kevin Garnett, known to fans as K.G., "K.J." He referred to the Boston Bruins, a hockey team, as ball players.
If anything, that has humanized him, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. "He comes across -- because he's so inarticulate and bumbling -- as an Everyman," Berry said.
To be sure, some Bostonians see Menino's health problems as a sign his tenure should be ending. Before breaking his leg, Menino was hospitalized for eight weeks last year with blood clots and a respiratory infection, and then was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. He also broke his toe.
"Mumbles? He was a great mayor. But his age has caught up to him," said Donald Wozniak, 47, a South Boston resident who says the streets in his neighborhood are in the worst shape they've been in for a long time.
But Menino's response to the bombings, and how that response is perceived in Boston, indicate that Wozniak may be in the minority.
On a recent morning, business owners from Back Bay, the Boston neighborhood where the bombings occurred, assembled in a hotel ballroom for an annual meeting where Menino was a featured speaker. Though even company chief executives and influential developers sat in the hotel's chairs, Menino had his own wooden Harvard-style chair, a plaque attached to the back with his name on it. Moving about the room on arm crutches, Menino won praise from all sides.
In a speech, Four Seasons executive Bill Taylor called Menino's words at the post-bombing interfaith service "the moment that was the most profound and the most moving."
"There were no other words uttered that day anywhere that were said with such emotion and conviction," Taylor said. "Mr. Mayor, thank you for your extraordinary leadership during this tumultuous time."
The Back Bay audience rose for a lengthy standing ovation. But Menino being Menino, he didn't grandstand, even when given the opportunity.
"People give me all kinds of credit," he said in an interview afterward. "But if you're a public servant and you take an oath of office to serve the public, that's what you should be doing. That's my job. You have to serve the public, no matter what it costs you."