Top of Mind: Mike Barnicle
THE BARNICLE INTERVIEW: FULL VERSION
James Burnett: For a Boston guy, you spend a lot time in New York.
Mike Barnicle: New York is about success. Boston is about resentment. In New York, there is only one question asked, “Can you get it done?” Then it’s up to you. But it’s a magnificent city. Just walking around Central Park, which I try to do every day that I’m down there, do 4 or 5 miles in the park, walking briskly, and the treasure that is Central Park—lots of cities have different treasures. Boston has its own treasures, but it’s pretty hard to beat Central Park.
Burnett: There’s an emerging debate about what to do with the Common, what role it should serve…Seems to me it’s good that people are talking about it at all. We take it for granted, but it seems like a good comparison.
Barnicle: Well yeah, if you look at the Common, that’s a good comparison. If you look at the Common, I think you’d find a lot of people that say the problem with the Common isn’t the Common, it’s downtown. Specifically Downtown Crossing, which despite every effort that’s been made over 30 or 40 years, has never really clicked. So you have one end, the Commonwealth Avenue, Newbury Street, Boylston Street end, that is attractive and has enormous appeal, both for people with money, looking to live in town as well as commercial appeal for people looking to shop. You look at the other end, and it’s pretty tough to look at, despite years of spending money and thinking the big thoughts about it. It’s not the Common’s fault. It’s that area of Downtown Crossing.
Burnett: One thing I found surprising…. Is how hard it is to get anything done.
Barnicle: Yeah, it’s a unique area. I mean, I’ve lived here all my life. I love it. I don’t want to “live,” in quotation marks, anywhere else, but it’s nearly impossible to get anything done as quickly as things ought to go get done in this particular state, in this particular area. There’s always another obstacle. There’s always someone with another obstacle once you’ve made that hurdle.
Burnett: Going back to the various things you’re working on these days. Which of them is most gratifying for you?
Barnicle: Writing. I’m working on a piece for Time magazine. I write occasionally for the Herald. Newsweek, written some stuff for them. Huffington Post, they call and ask for stuff. The writing is obviously the most rewarding.
Burnett: Given your background, and the work you did early in your career, tell us something most people miss, or misperceive, or get wrong about Obama’s speeches, as he’s considered the great orator of this moment.
Barnicle: I don’t know that they get anything wrong about his speeches. I think, you know, perhaps, given the past eight years in this country, they might have a little too much optimism when they hear him, which is not a bad thing. I mean, when you hear him speak, when you see him in person, when you see the crowds, he sort of puts a smile on the face of the country that hasn’t been there for quite some time.
I first noticed it in Iowa last summer, not the summer of ’08, the summer of ’07. When you would see people who would show up at his rallies, and if you looked at their feet, they’re all leaning forward, even though some of them were quite close to him. They didn’t have huge Secret Service protection. But people were leaning forward, and the metaphor back then would be: they’re leaning into this change; they’re looking for the door to open. The sense of optimism that that he brought to the campaign, the sense of promise, the sense of potential, I don’t think those are bad things, but we live in a culture that is so geared toward instant gratification. I mean, the TV clickers, and the drive-thru windows.
We teach history so poorly in this country, I just hope that a lot of people aren’t disappointed that the stock market isn’t up around 12,000 by Valentine’s Day. Oh my God, you know he’s a failure. What’s this thing about change? You know, he hasn’t changed it. Change will come, but it’s going to take a while, and I don’t know that enough people in this country, especially young people, are prepared to wait for the change.
Burnett: Are you going to the inaugural?
Barnicle: Yeah, as one of 500 million people.
Burnett: You mention the Dow and the financial crisis. What are your conversations about that topic like with your wife [Bank of America marketing chief Anne Finucane], given your role and perspective, and person ideology, if you will.
Barnicle: I don’t speak to my wife about her business. I don’t understand her business. My wife is so much smarter than I am that, you know, I don’t go there. She gives me an allowance every week that I’m very grateful for, and that’s about it. I think I might understand a bit of the social and cultural appendages that spring off of the financial system, but everything else is way beyond me.
Burnett: You combine some of your comments on Obama, and the thought there… It doesn’t sound like you’re particularly hopeful for a quick or easy turnaround.
Barnicle: Actually, I kind of am. I am, if nothing else, an optimist. I think my optimism, along with a lot of other people’s optimism has already been rewarded, you know, in the sense that here we have a President of the United States, who, four years ago, the day after he gave his speech at the Democratic National Convention here in Boston, was pulled out of the line over at Logan Airport, going back to Chicago to continue his campaign for re-election, because of what he looked like and his name. Barack Hussein Obama. And now he’s President of the United States. And that’s a hell of a tribute to this country. It’s an amazing statement both about him and about us as voters. So I am optimistic. I’m not entirely optimistic that things are going to be terrific by Memorial Day, but I think he’ll slowly but surely, and the people around him, will turn the country in a direction that it needed to be turned for quite some time.
Burnett: Interesting contrast, perhaps, with some of the things in the headlines here locally. Couple of questions about local political scene. Who impresses you right now at the state or local level?
Barnicle: Sam Yoon, he impresses me. He’s young. He’s got energy. He’s smart. He looks to me not to be a career guy, in terms of, among the City Council, “What else can I run for?”, although I’m sure that’s within him. I met him once or twice. I like Michael Flaherty. I think he’s bigger than a lot of people think he is, and this is in no way to diminish Tommy Menino, who I think has done a pretty good job, given the increasingly meager circumstances that he has to deal with.
At the state level, I don’t see a whole lot there. Something has happened slowly of the course of 25-30 years to diminish the industry, if you will, of politics. It’s no longer the profession that it used to be. You’d have to be out of your mind to run for public office today. Say you’re 32, 35 years of age. Say you were fortunate, you lucked out, you made a little money, or maybe not, but you have this great interest in public service. You want to be able to get a fire hydrant or a crosswalk, or a little league field in your neighborhood. So you run for City Council or State Rep., you know, but then two or three months over the course of your campaign or maybe after you win, someone like me, or someone like you, is going to come knock at your door, and say “James, we heard you smoked a joint when you were 19 years of age down at Duke University. Can you explain that?” And instead of having the wherewithal to tell people like us, “Hey, go fuck yourself, it’s none of your business,” you know, these poor people stand there and get hounded by us.
So I’ve got to assume there are a lot of other people out there with reasonable IQs who say, “I don’t want any part of that. I don’t want my kids reading about me in the front page of the paper that I smoked a joint when I was at Duke University. What has that got to do with anything?” So I think for that and a lot of other reasons, the level of talent in government is much lower than it has been, for a while. I think in too many cases, both in the State House and in various city councils, not just Boston, various city councils, you have a bunch of people serving, and they are holding the best job they’ll ever have. They’re not going to leave the legislature or the council and take the vice presidency of Google. That ain’t going to happen. And you can see the results. I think some of the results are obvious. The histrionics that we go through to get things done, and the other aspect of it is, once you are in public life today… everything and everyone is part of an interest group. There’s nothing you can say that won’t offend someone. There’s nothing you can try doing that won’t be attempted to be blocked by someone.