Thanks to the initiative of journalism-advocacy group MuckRock, 500 pages of raw and redacted FBI files focusing on allegations of corruption during the 1970s in the administration of the late Boston mayor Kevin White are now available to the public.
Globe staffer Peter Schworm wrote the story, stitching together vibrant facts with shadowy allegations, whispered hearsay with official records. It is difficult to recapture the political feel of those days, but Schworm provides a clear picture of low jinks in high places.
The White FBI files contain clear suggestions that contracts for municipal waste removal may have been fixed (shock!); that bribes disguised as campaign contributions might have changed hands (horror!!); and that even lowly cops on the beat were subject to petty persecution if they canvassed for candidates seeking to oust the mayor (outrage!!!).
The choicest nugget was the news that White facilitated — translation: extorted — a $4.5 million charitable contribution from the insurance giant John Hancock for Boston University.
Footnote: when White exited the mayoralty, he established himself at BU in a lush suite of offices with a magnificent view of the Charles River. There, he practiced the occult art of acting as a lavishly paid campus Bigfoot and shadowy in-house political fixer.
For White, living well was truly the best revenge.
Okay, freeze-frame the narrative.
It is not that the story as recounted is false. But neither is it precisely true.
Context is everything.
To understand the truth about the White years, you have to understand that the shenanigans and skullduggery that the FBI shaped into those damning little turdlets were from a long time ago. The action took place in a political galaxy that today is far, far away.
Could this happen in the administration of Mayor Thomas Menino?
Doubtful. Too much has changed.
I'll concede that White probably pocketed something or gained favor from his mayoralty — most likely from big downtown-real-estate-development deals.
There is, of course, no proof of this. And let's not forget, that try as the Feds might have to indict White, they never did.
No sophisticate would say White was an innocent. But neither can anyone say that White was guilty of anything other than playing the sleazy and hard-nosed game of municipal politics by the rules as they were then understood.
Those rules were simple:
1) Don't be stupid.
2) Don't get caught.
One of the principal cultural differences between then and now is that in the mid-20th century, it was almost shameful for a politician to expect campaign contributions from a certain class of person.
Rich folks gave to Republicans, trade unions gave to Democrats, and civil servants tithed a portion of their salary to the "outfit" just as Mormons give to their church.
Today — for better or for worse — political contributions are merely a business cost.
And then there was the practice of awarding no-show jobs, an ancient accommodation whereby someone got a check for doing nothing and kicked some of it back to their political sponsor, who — in turn — kicked some back to their political godfather.
Then, two things changed.
Beacon Hill reformed procurement practices, making the act of spending tax dollars more expensive, more complicated, and — paradoxically — more transparent.