Fire, flood and gridlock: mayor's reputation at stake

Michael Olesker

IN THE LEXICON of all big-city mayors, a cautionary tale attaches to a name: John V. Lindsay. He was the mayor of New York who couldn't take care of the basics. Handsome as a movie star, articulate as a college professor, he caused people to dream of a municipal Camelot. But the chump couldn't get the streets shoveled when it snowed.

Nearly four decades after Lindsay's catastrophe, his name does not go away. Kurt L. Schmoke remembered it that first winter he was elected mayor of Baltimore and the snow fell. He mentioned Lindsay's name as he ran around making sure the public works guys were cleaning the streets. And now it becomes Martin O'Malley's turn, when his streets have been clogged with cars, and with water, and just below the surface there are freight trains burning in a fire that will not go out.

These are the times when reputations are made or broken. Nobody wants to be Lindsayed. O'Malley remembers the name, and so do the people around him. The fires will eventually go out, and those who worked bravely (and anonymously) in the dark will have our sincere gratitude. But the mayor is the front man for all things, good and bad. Even for such a young man as O'Malley, being mayor means being municipal father figure. When we look at him, we want to see a man making things better.

"Oh, he's very much aware of it," O'Malley's press secretary, Tony White, was saying toward week's end. "A lot of how this is perceived depends on people's level of inconvenience - getting to work and back, stuff like that. There's a certain level of tolerance today. Tomorrow, there's less."

White leaned back against a concrete slab outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Nearby was a line of fire trucks and emergency vehicles, and on the side of a highway ramp looking down on one end of the infamous train tunnel were nearly a dozen television camera crews hoping for a few seconds of dramatic movement at the tunnel's opening, something to be seen in living rooms when all those commuters finally made it home in the evening.

On the TV news, it is all train wreck, all the time. Even the disgrace at Johns Hopkins becomes an afterthought. Even the closing of five library branches is minimized. Even citizens whose lives are untouched by the tunnel fire, or the disruption of rail service, or the burst water main, or the clotted downtown traffic - all are watching the television coverage, and absorbing the drama, and measuring the official response.

"Something like this, you can never prepare for it," Department of Public Works Director George L. Winfield was saying now, between conversations on his cellular phone. He stepped around a long stretch of cable on the ground. He said he'd gotten two hours' sleep the night before, which was the first night of the trouble.

"All you can do," said Winfield, "is have a plan and hope that the plan works. The plan is working. There's a coordinated effort. But the fires are still burning, and we're concerned about the integrity of the tunnel."

Such things are beyond the power of a mayor - but no matter. He's the one out front; it is his city. So, since the moment he learned of the trouble - as he drove back to the city late Wednesday afternoon from the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab & Clambake in Crisfield and took a phone call in his car - O'Malley knew he needed information and knew he had to transmit it to citizens as the voice of authority.

"When he got down here," Tony White was saying now, outside Oriole Park, "that smoke was getting blacker and blacker. And you see that and, you know, everybody was getting pretty paranoid. The unknown. That's when [Police Commissioner Ed] Norris gave the order to close off the interstates.

"The firemen had gone into the tunnel, but then they came out. The mayor wanted to go on television with something concrete to tell people. He wanted to say, 'They went in and got that baby out.' But he couldn't. Those first firemen came out and said, 'We can't see.' And they were covered with soot."

So O'Malley went to the Mount Royal end of the tunnel, where the firemen emerged with stories of intense heat - and burning on their necks. And no one knew whether that burning was strictly from the heat, or from chemicals.

And so the mayor, wanting to go on television to calm people's fears, wanting to assure them that progress was being made, wanting to show them a mayor who was on top of the crisis and was not a John V. Lindsay - this mayor had to cool his heels.

"It was vital for people to see his face and put them at ease," Tony White said. "But what was there to say? I mean, it's a really complicated emergency. There's the fire itself, the smoke, the water-main break, and a tunnel full of water with electricity running through it. Those are not favorable conditions for a Homo sapien. But you want to be able to say more than that when you stand in front of a TV camera."

It's the dilemma of every big-city mayor in crisis. You show your face to symbolize a government taking a crisis in stride. And you hope the people behind you really can come to grips with it. The alternative is John V. Lindsay, whose name remains attached to a cautionary tale.

BLOGS

Jump to a blog