Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Kevin White: the mayor who wanted more

No matter how much he accomplished, the late Boston Mayor Kevin White always wanted something more. His legacy is huge, from having kept the city from going up in flames following the Martin Luther King assassination, to continuing dramatically the urban renewal started under his predecessor John Collins. Look at the Quincy Market, Copley Place, Park Plaza, the Charlestown Navy Yard and more.

From a journalist’s perspective, he was very good copy, especially because in those days the Boston City Council and its colorful cast of characters were more assertive than today’s lot. And the Council and he were always at odds (except for councilor Larry DiCara.) Orchestrating big events like the Bicentennial, he wanted  people to think of Boston as a world class city, and always saw himself playing on a larger stage.

In 1970, he ran unsuccessfully for governor and stayed on as mayor. He contracted Potomac Fever in July of 1972 when George McGovern toyed with putting White on the ticket as Vice President. While White was kept hanging by a telephone, the idea was scotched by the Massachusetts delegation and Senator Ted Kennedy. Among those denying White the prize were the late Harvard economist J. Kenneth Galbraith and Congressman Bob Drinan, pictured here at the convention, who conveyed to their presidential nominee the strong anti-Kevin White feelings of his home state delegation.

The longing didn’t go away. And let’s face it: White looked even better for not having been tarnished by being part of the disastrous McGovern ticket in 1972. In 1974, He was named one of three co-chairmen of a Democratic National Committee Election Committee, a national platform and an opportunity to travel the country. (The committee included lame duck Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, whom White dismissed as an intellectual and politically savvy inferior.) But then came White’s own albatross: busing, and the question of whether he could even win reelection as mayor.

For a while in 1975, White considered running not just as a favorite son in Massachusetts, but as a credible candidate in the New Hampshire primary. He hosted the national media at the Parkman House. He courted the presidential contenders right up to the New York nominating convention. How it must have stuck in his craw that Carter won the nomination and the Presidency!

In a 1976 article written for the Boston Phoenix by Jim Barron and me, a close aide to White observed, “The presidential bug is like syphilis. It’s a social disease. Once you contract it, you can’t get it out of your blood.” After he was passed over for vice president in 1972, and passed up opportunities to organize and run for president in 1976, he still angled for a spot for vice-president. But with Carter the outsider atop the ticket, there was no way that a mayor was going to be selected for number two.

Reporters covering him during the ‘70’s noted his restlessness, his seemingly preferring Parkman House dinners with national figures to meetings in Boston’s troubled neighborhoods. By 1980, they were calling him “Kevin Deluxe” and describing his “Olympian lifestyle.” According to writer Michael Ryan, late City Councilman Fred Langone likened him to Julius Caesar. But, from the Tall Ships to entertainment in neighborhood parks, he made the people dream larger as well and even to feel better about themselves.

In my last formal interview with him, in the plush Oriental-carpeted office at Boston University where BU President John Silber had provided him a post-mayoral home, he was still Hamlet on the Charles. Standing before the window, gazing out at the Charles River, with a furrowed brow, pondering that unnamed something more.

In 1994, at an overflow reception in the Copley Plaza ballroom for the First International Congress on the Atlantic Rim, celebrating Boston’s emerging leadership as an international city, White stood quietly to the side, an attendee, a spiritual father perhaps of the idea, but no longer an active player.

In the end, Kevin Hagan White will be remembered not only by how he changed the physical landscape of downtown Boston but by the generation of young, idealistic activists who worked for him in City Hall and went on to become the next generation of political and business leaders, leaving their own imprint locally and nationally. People like BRA chief Peter Meade, p.r. powerhouses Micho Spring and George Regan, Revenue Commission Ira Jackson (who left his mark on BankBoston and across academia), Congressman Barney Frank, Transportation Secretary and father of The Big Dig Fred Salvucci, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan and many others. His legacy is huge, even if he never got to move from the Charles to the Potomac.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
1972 convention photo by Jim Barron

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