Nutter Weathers Irene

If only City Council would blow away

So it turns out Michael Nutter looks as good in a windbreaker as he does a snow parka. As the last winds from Irene petered out and the sun came out Sunday afternoon, Nutter—along with Gov. Corbett and a host of other pols—stood on the newly drawn banks of the swollen Schuylkill River for a post-game news conference.

Most of the Mayor’s entourage looked like shit on a stick, haggard and exhausted from a stressful night of little to no sleep. Not Nutter. He appeared rested and in command, with a bigger bounce in his step than usual.

There’s something about sudden calamities, natural and otherwise, that brings out the best in the Mayor. Part of it is that he’s mastered the optics of catastrophe, which boil down to being omnipresent and looking like you’re doing something. Part of it is that the city takes disaster prep very seriously, and has some really solid public servants on that job.

But there’s more to Nutter’s solid disaster performance than that. When he’s surveying flood waters, symbolically shoveling sidewalks or finding just the right pitch in the aftermath of a police shooting, you get the sense that Nutter feels like the mayor he always imagined he would be. He clearly gets a charge out of it all. He’s in control. Telegenic. Issuing orders that are promptly followed. No City Council to worry about. The usually carping press in a compliant mood. In other words, no messy politics to spoil the act of governing.

The Mayor’s competence in a catastrophe wasn’t a given. We had no real reason to expect a wonky councilman like Nutter would prove so effective at this part of the job. But he has. And not just in the disasters. Nutter is a fantastic ambassador for Philadelphia nationally, particularly on the cable networks and in organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The trouble, of course, is that disaster management and MSNBC appearances are a tiny fraction of a mayor’s job. When the jobs are messier, or more political, or longer-term and more boring, Nutter’s performance is less impressive. The nice thing about Irene is that flood waters recede on their own pretty quickly, so none of us have to worry that the city’s efforts will suddenly flag, like snow removal has so often in this administration 24 hours or so after the big storm.