Politics & Policy

The Democrats Are Coming! The Democrats Are Coming!

Bostonians brace for the onslaught.

–Most Bostonians are looking forward to the July 26-29 Democratic National Convention with all the enthusiasm normally reserved for root canals.

What Boston Mayor Thomas Menino had billed as an unqualified bonanza–the political equivalent of found money–now looks like a weeklong siege, as residents and commuters alike contemplate unprecedented road closures and draconian security measures, not to mention mounting costs for taxpayers ($95 million and rising, double initial estimates) and huge expected losses for local businesses.

Mayor Menino also famously promised that the influx of 35,000 delegates, reporters, and assorted hangers-on would pose no more inconvenience for residents than a Red Sox or Bruins game. But that was before some eagle-eyed security expert noticed that the Fleet Center–the sleek and soulless replacement for the venerable Boston Garden where the convention will be held–happens to sit atop subway and commuter-rail stations, just 40 feet from Route 93, the region’s major north-south artery that normally handles 200,000 cars per day.

This belated discovery will result in some 40 miles of daily road closures (some all day, more from 4 P.M. until midnight), forcing rush-hour commuters from the North and South Shores onto secondary roads in surrounding towns that local mayors are now threatening to close to forestall gridlock. Some 25,000 rail commuters from north of Boston also face being shunted on buses en route, since the rail terminus at North Station (located under the Fleet Center) will be closed (along with the adjacent subway stop), together with a second bridge and tunnel. What’s more, the closure of feeder roads along the Charles River will greatly worsen the already hellacious commute from the western suburbs. Nothing, it seems, will be spared, except perhaps the city’s far eastern exurbs, namely Counties Mayo, Galway, and Clare (see below).

All this comes on top of the usual post-9/11 security measures: a “hard security zone” ringing the Fleet Center; random passenger searches on the subway; removal of mailboxes, trash bins, and newspaper boxes; and a 29,000-square-foot “free speech zone,” where fenced-in protesters in turtle suits and tin-foil hats will rub shoulders with irate off-duty Boston cops vexed over working without a contract for the past two years. (Indeed, the Boston police have inadvertently supplied some much-needed humor by running up more than $100,000 in overtime bills just for policing their fellow officers’ picket lines.) Some additional inconveniences: postponement of all elective surgery at local hospitals, along with jury trials in Boston and Cambridge for want of police witnesses (otherwise occupied) and jurors (altogether immobilized).

Little wonder that the local mood is one of sullen apoplexy–apart from state and local employees for whom this spectacle means paid vacation with an open bar. To the mayor’s ill-considered suggestion that commuters simply work from home, take vacation (on Menino’s schedule) or just lighten up, the Boston Herald tartly responded with an editorial aptly headlined DNC to commuters: shut up, stay home. Howie Carr, the most irreverent local political columnist, greeted last week’s addition of Sen. John Edwards to the Democratic ticket with this puzzler: “For this dynamic duo”–helpfully identified as “the gigolo and the ambulance chaser”–”all of Boston is to be placed under house arrest for four days later this month?”

Amid rising outrage over the impending shutdown, Mayor Menino has sought refuge in the small-town boosterism associated with flyover cities lacking the considerable pretensions of the Hub of the Universe. Hence the “most extensive makeover of the core city in 20 years, repaving major roads, festooning Boylston Street with lampposts and flowers, restoring historic paintings and monuments, hanging banners, and laying new bricks.” And glossy ads have been commissioned to celebrate supposedly endearing local quirks, like the distinctive accent (featuring broad As and dropped Rs) and use of “wicked” in place of the superlative “very.” (“Wicked” used alone without a modifier–”the traffic was wicked”–means utterly indescribable.)

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the city’s extreme makeover is the officially sponsored attitude-adjustment program for certain local residents and public employees. Several thousand official volunteers–essentially gofers for delegates–underwent instruction this past weekend in grip-and-grin by Dale Carnegie trainers. More ambitious still is an emergency charm school for the famously surly employees of the “T”–the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, an institution best known from the Kingston Trio’s delightful ditty, “Charlie of the MTA.”

What’s most striking is the distinct lack of enthusiasm–compared with, say, the 1976 bicentennial celebrations–for an event originally conceived as a Last Hurrah for the state’s senior senator but now slated as the coronation of another native son (of sorts). Notwithstanding the expected network story line, Sen. John Kerry’s nomination has not generated much excitement locally. His much-vaunted “electablity” has served him as well here in Massachusetts as it has nationally in the absence of any particularly strong attraction (much less affection) on the part of voters. In four Senate campaigns against a series of weak opponents, Kerry’s chief assets have been endlessly repeated references to his four-month Vietnam tour of duty and the undeniable advantage–at least in these parts–of a recognizably Irish name.

Bear in mind that one in four Massachusetts residents–fully twice the national average–claims Irish ancestry. It’s but a wee exaggeration to suggest that every other person answers to Sully, Murph, or Fitz; and that invocations of the Trinity are routinely addressed to Jaysus, Mary, and Patrick. Yet recent revelations that Kerry is no more Irish than Rudy Giuliani (see here) merely drew a collective shrug, as if already discounted by the market. After all, prominent local pol had long joked that Kerry is only Irish once every six years, despite earnest efforts to pretend otherwise:

As some of you may know, I am part-English and part-Irish. And when my Kerry ancestors first came over to Massachusetts from the old country to find work in the New World, it was my English ancestors who refused to hire them.

Among Irish Americans, there was much merriment that the Boston Globe’s crack investigative reporters had finally figured out (22 years after Kerry was elected lieutenant-governor) what was always there in plain sight–that Kerry is no homegrown corner boy in the mold of the late Tip O’Neill or Joe Moakley. But there was also perverse admiration for the sheer audacity of this exotic hybrid (Mayflower meets Marienbad) just for setting his sights so high and pretending to be one of us. Ah, Johnny, we hardly knew ye!

As the convention approaches, the only bit of good news for locals is that the state–which oversees the banks of the Charles River–nixed Kerry’s harebrained scheme to add insult to injury by scheduling a free July 28 public concert featuring the Boston Pops and the senator’s new best friends from Hollywood. Ed Flynn, the state public-safety director, claims to have made his July 8 “decision strictly and narrowly on public safety grounds.” If Flynn had waited just one more day, he could have bolstered an already solid case by citing the threat to public morals posed by a reprise of the lewd and disgraceful hatefest staged by Kerry’s celebrity pals the previous day in New York (see here and here).

Flynn himself admits to having more pressing issues to worry about: “I’m too much a fatalist and an Irish Catholic to say we are ready for anything at any time. We’ve tried to anticipate as many scenarios as possible.”

While Flynn and others like him prepare for Armageddon, the rest of us are left to follow the time-honored Irish practice of simply offering it up.

John Fitzgerald Cullinan, a native Bostonian and sometime Washingtonian, usually writes for NRO on foreign affairs.


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