Au Contraire, Mayor Nutter: The Pope Panic Does Make Sense

Our tone-deaf mayor doesn't understand: It's not everybody else's fault.


Mayor Nutter’s op-ed in the Daily News — defending planning for Pope Francis’ visit and saying, in essence, “I got this” — would’ve been mighty reassuring if not for one thing: It came within a day of reports that the city’s rank-and-file police officers have no idea what their assignments will be during the visit.

“The [Fraternal Order of Police] has repeatedly inquired as to the plans for the Papal visit as it relates to our members and their working conditions,” FOP President John McNesby said in a Monday letter to his membership. “The FOP is concerned about an apparent lack of planning and notice to our members.”

Can’t anyone here play this game?

Reading Nutter’s op-ed this morning, I think I figured out why the mayor has struggled with his personal popularity even at a time of growth and renewal for the city. Simply put: He can be tone deaf, in the way wonks-turned-politicians often are.

Take this section from today’s op-ed, refuting the notion that Philadelphia is about to endure a replay of the 1976 bicentennial, when then-Mayor Frank Rizzo‘s warnings about security ultimately kept visitors away from the city’s celebration.

The mayor’s response: “We have not issued any warnings of domestic terrorism, not one. Some members of the news media are scaring people though. But, the world has changed a great deal since 1976 and we think being prepared for any circumstance is vitally important.”

Emphasis mine. Nutter’s response here is both entirely correct — nope, no terror warnings — and also completely irrelevant. Everything we know about the event so far — Secret Service involvement, the closure of bridges and highways, the cordoning off of Central City — screams to the public that this is a Major Security Event, and people are reacting accordingly. Signaling matters, not just what you say. That’s not irrational, no matter how much the mayor apparently thinks otherwise. (And if those measures are more about crowd control than security, as my colleague Patrick Kerkstra suggests, well, we only have that idea because Patrick’s pretty smart. We certainly didn’t hear it from the mayor.)

Nutter’s attempt to cast blame on the media, too, speaks to what he doesn’t get. He seems to think the public is getting enough information: “The city and its partners have held a series of news conferences to date,” he harrumphs. “Another is slated for later this week.”

Great. Problem is, there’s so much we still don’t know yet. This is  a significant enough event — disrupting Philadelphians’ lives, business, homes and classrooms — that people are clamoring for as much information as they can get, as far ahead of time as possible. What they’ve been told, essentially is this: “Wait. We’ll get to you.

That’s an information vacuum, friends. And nature abhors a vacuum.

Mayor Nutter doesn’t like how that vacuum has been filled? With speculation and rumor and educated guesses? There’s one way he could’ve gotten ahead of all that: He could’ve told us himself.

Granted, there are things that even yet probably aren’t entirely known about the pope’s visit. But about six months ago, Mayor Nutter could’ve put out an agenda: Here are the things we think the public will need and want to know about the pope’s visit. We anticipate being able to answer these specific questions on these specific dates. Maybe — almost certainly — there would’ve been adjustments on the fly. But if the public had confidence it would get answers to its questions — and when it could expect to get those answers — perhaps the mayor would’ve earned a little of the patience he seems to expect by right.

There is still time for the pope’s visit to be a real highlight of modern Philadelphia history. There’s still a chance we can wow both the world and our neighbors. But the mayor seems to think he’s doing all the right things. That’s not the way the panic will get fixed.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.