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Snow Response Blindsides Many A Political Career


Here's a reminder of a word to listen for in news coverage of winter storms. It's the word could.


As in the storm now striking the Northeast could be the worst in history.

INSKEEP: Phrasing that also means it could be a little less. But we are able to bring you a few facts such as this.

MONTAGNE: Leaders across the Northeast have declared states of emergency. Thousands of flights have been canceled.

INSKEEP: Train service has been suspended, and drivers were banned from hitting the roads overnight.

MONTAGNE: Many people are preparing for possible devastation, and that includes politicians. Big storms have sometimes been devastating to political careers. Local governments are forever judged by how well the streets are plowed.

INSKEEP: Here's some history. In 1969, New York City was hit with 15 inches of snow. Nearly half the city's snow removal equipment was out of order. And that storm became known as Lindsay's Storm for Mayor John Lindsay.


MAYOR JOHN LINDSAY: I guessed wrong on the weather before the city's biggest snowfall. And that was a mistake. But I put 6,000 more cops on the streets, and that was no mistake.

MONTAGNE: When Mayor Lindsay visited Queens, he was booed by residents who'd been stuck in their homes for days. He won re-election, but the storm loomed over the rest of his political career.

INSKEEP: Then there was the snowstorm in Chicago in 1979. Mayor Michael Bilandic was on his way to re-election when that storm hit. Nineteen inches of snow fell. Road crews did not keep up. Many streets were impassable. And a little-known candidate for mayor began criticizing Bilandic for the unplowed roads.


MAYOR JANE BYRNE: No one could stop the snow, but good planning can prevent the collapse of public transportation and clean the city up fast. I'm Jane Byrne. I think it's time working again for you.

MONTAGNE: Jane Byrne defeated Bilandic in the Democratic primary and became Chicago's first female mayor.

INSKEEP: Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry had no trouble getting around when a blizzard hit Washington in the 1980s. That's because he was in CA for the Superbowl.

MONTAGNE: Meanwhile, streets in the nation's capital went untouched for days. When Washington, D.C., TV reporter Tom Sherwood asked Barry what he was going to do, the mayor told him he was going to get a manicure and play some tennis.

TOM SHERWOOD: Marion Barry was a very smart politician. But like so many smart politicians, he didn't understand snow and the angst and the aggravation that accompanies snow. But of course, he didn't have to drive in it.

INSKEEP: Sherwood says he has seen local governments across this country repeatedly blindsided by snow.

SHERWOOD: Snow is a toxic subject for any mayor anywhere in the country. And then here in the Washington area, it's kind of like the third rail of our Metro system. It's always hot, and you're probably going to get burned no matter what you do. But you better not be caught doing nothing.

MONTAGNE: Which brings us back to New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered streets shut down indefinitely.

INSKEEP: The satirical newspaper "The Onion" quoted de Blasio as telling residents they're all going to die but that subway service will resume as normal on Wednesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.