Mayor needs to get meaner

R.T. Rybak has been mayor for four months now, and as yet he provokes no terror, no awe. For awhile he was being assertive as he considered talking to the city council into letting him fire the police chief. Yet he still lacks a "larger than life" presence that would make particular disagreements seem trivial in comparison to an overwhelming, devastating scariness that causes lesser mortals to feel unsure and afraid and drool uncontrollably.

Okay, maybe not drool uncontrollably. But I've lived around power like that, in 1960s Chicago. Not right around it. I was no confidant. I was eight. But that just underscores the point: that I, a barely conscious suburban eight-year-old would be so alert to Richard J. Daley. His face and voice were everywhere. He was rumpled, gravelly, inscrutable, a terrifying force that emerged from raw Chicago pre-history. The hatred of his enemies was immaterial. He knew what he wanted and he usually got it.

This does not describe our mayor yet. People say, "Well, we have a weak mayor system. He has to try to get along." Come on. A weak man, trying feebly to get along? I might want a guy like that to do my siding, but not to be my mayor. In fact I suspect our system in Minneapolis means that a mayor must strive to be nice only very rarely.

To get R.T. started, I've researched the tics and habits of several awe-inspiring leaders, looking for some steps he could take in order to be just a little weirder and more sinister.

  • RAMBLE INCOMPREHENSIBLY: Daley was known for his low, confusing "mumbles," as Chicago columnist Mike Royko termed his speeches and press conferences. You could pick out words here and there, but the important thing was the attitude emanating from that big face. Was he gloating? Angry? Amused? Menacing?

    In sharp contrast, when our Mayor speaks I usually know what he's talking about. Why? There's absolutely no reason he couldn't say unintelligible things. In his own style, of course - Daley's barely audible rumbling wouldn't be right. This Mayor talks fast, so he could use that. He could talk real fast, non-stop, never pausing, hardly breathing, making no sense. Then, stop suddenly, chuckle bitterly, slam his hand against the wall hard and stalk back into his office.

  • DESTROY SOMETHING NICE: Any style improvement must be matched with some terrifying substance, and this is a tactic popularized by the "Iron Lady," Margaret Thatcher. She shut down the Greater London Council, an organization beloved by left-leaning types in England. That enraged people and signaled she was not to be trifled with. There are plenty of potential targets in Minneapolis; why not obliterate the League of Women Voters? I'm sure it could be done. Go after the funders, in secret. Find things out. There must be things to find out. Threaten. Talk fast and chuckle. Women voters and their allies would object, but that's the whole idea.

  • EXHIBIT UNPREDICTABLE CRUELTY: Saddam Hussein once presided over a huge meeting at which, reading from a list, he had random minions selected one by one and taken away. They were never seen again.

    The mayor could easily emulate this with his own cringing underlings, all except for that the last part about them never being seen again. But if he started ordering MCDA officials or anti-crime block workers taken out of meetings and held for even a couple of weeks, forcing them to listen to presentations about each other's programs or develop citywide scorecards on excellent community-based results, no trembling today would ever defy him again.

  • GREET FUNCTIONARIES IN THE BATHROOM. Crass? You bet. But this sure worked for Lyndon Johnson. He'd cow anybody this way, from ambassadors to economic advisors. And I haven't even mentioned the intriguing episode where a Secret Service agent felt "something warm" running down his leg while accompanying the president on a hike.

    Actually, maybe something like that could happen with R.T. Only I'll bet the warm liquid would be a spilled latte. And it would be an accident.