Despite Sargent's potent Jimmy Stewart quotient, the man knew how to wield a stiletto. In the closing days of the race, Sargent, playing to suburban voters, repeatedly shivved White with six simple words: "I am not a Boston politician."
In the months following his defeat, White cultivated the national press, earning himself a raft of favorable notices redefining what it meant to be a dynamic urban leader.
In 1972, White came close to winning the vice-presidential slot on South Dakota Democratic senator George McGovern's ticket. Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith nixed the move.
Galbraith reportedly informed the McGovern camp that since White had backed the hapless candidacy of Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, it would be an insult to Bay State McGovernites to choose White.
A less high-minded interpretation held that Galbraith was carrying a spear for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who had presidential designs of his own.
In 1974, White's national ambitions — no matter how fanciful they remained — were irrecoverably shattered when US District Court Judge Joseph Garrity ordered Boston to desegregate its public schools.
Garrity's chosen instrument was mandated busing — "forced busing" in the idiom of the day.
Most Boston schools — then as now — were second rate. But whether the quality of education was good, bad, or indifferent, the then-elected School Committee shamefully gave schools serving African-American students only a fraction of the support enjoyed by white schools.
Making the situation even worse was the blatant racism of some School Committee members, who openly called blacks "niggers" and "monkeys."
For three years, Boston, the home of abolition and the city where Martin Luther King Jr. received his theological training, was consumed by racial hatred and street violence.
Boston's newfound reputation for sophistication boomeranged on White. The bloody encounters, the seething anger, scotched the mayor's hopes of political transcendence. They also broke his heart.
I am a product of blue-collar Dorchester. As I young reporter, I covered aspects of this dispiriting scene. At the time, I — like many— was critical of White for not doing more to save the city from its itself.
But now, from the perspective of someone who has chosen to live in the city and send his children to the Boston Public Schools, I can't imagine any elected official who could have done better than White — or could even have measured up.
The architects of school busing dismissed predictions that the resulting white flight would make it impossible to racially balance Boston schools. The experts were wrong. Today the schools are predominantly non-white and the political dialogue is primarily about a return to neighborhood schools.
The irony of the busing years is that the heated and often hateful rhetoric of the anti-busing movement accelerated white flight, decimating the blue-collar, Catholic, and predominantly Irish ranks from which both White and his opponents drew their support.
When another Irish-American, Raymond Flynn, moved into City Hall, the Boston that White knew was melting away. Flynn, a busing opponent, defied expectations and launched a healing process that has not altogether abated.
And when Thomas Menino, the city's first Italian-American mayor, succeeded Flynn, he made the neighborhoods — rather than downtown — his priority.
This is not to say that White has been reduced to footnote status. Nothing could be farther from the truth. White will forever own a chapter of Boston's history, pages that are both grim and glorious.