The measure of a mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  November 14, 2006

With the corruption cloud hanging over him, even after his narrow victory, White went into his third term feeling drained and unappreciated.  SO drained, in fact, that he was virtually invisible for months, and rumors began to circulate that he was considering resignation.  They proved groundless: indeed, behind the scenes, the mayor had begun to come up with his response to the near-defeat:  a political machine that he hoped would make him unbeatable.  Suddenly, a mayor who had once appeared to be imitating John Lindsay was seeking to emulate the Boss, Chicago’s Richard Daley, a version of whose machine-style government he wished to preside over in Boston.  He created a mechanism to set this in motion – a cabinet of eight of his top-flight aides.  Recalled one:  “We used to meet thress times a week, and you had to be on time – that was very important.  There were only two things he wanted to talk about at those sessions:  how to get a fourth term and patronage.  He used to have (patronage chief) Jack Murphy come in with a torridly long list (of names for jobs), and we were supposed to approve them or reject them, one by one.”

All this was, of course, conducted behind closed doors.  On the public front, the mayor surfaced in a big way in time for the Bicentennial celebrations, highlighted by the arrival of the tall ships and the Queen of England.  Her visit in particular seemed to buoy his spirits.  (“He was at the top of his form when she was here,” recalled Andy Olins, “and part of it was a personal thing.  You know, “Here’s the Queen of England, with 5000 years of history behind her, and here I am, an Irish man, the grandson of Irish immigrants” There’s that streak of him.”)

Thus fortified, he plunged ahead with an ingenious strategy that he hoped, in combination with the budding machine, would get him that fourth term: a plan to “reform” the city charter.  While the plan contained a number of provisions that were genuine reforms, its key provision, as far as White was concerned, was the once calling for partisan mayoral elections, which would have made an incumbent Democratic mayor virtually unbeatable in heavily Democratic Boston.  The charger plan came to the fore by late 1976  and became the all-consuming mission at City Hall through the next February, when it died at the hands of the state legislature.  With charter reform, White’s machine obsession died too, apparently because he needed someone to blame for the defeat, and chose Kirk O’Donnell, its operator.  Once again, the barometric pressure dropped, but this time not for particularly long: by July, he was up and about again, his Richard Daley mask peeled off and – surprise! – the John Lindsay image back on.  He toured the neighborhoods in a big way and significantly expanded his publicity apparatus, which cranked out press releases and sophisticated media events at a rapid pace (see “The Mayor’s New Media Blitz,” December 13, 1977).  “He’s long believed,” said and ex-aide of the mayor,” the press is indifferent and lazy wand that the proper packaging will get you what you want.”  Now, White tested the theory fully offering the media a string of evens the very little substance and the campaign met with excellent results, particularly in television coverage. 

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    This article originally appeared in the July 24, 1973 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

 See all articles by: TOM SHEEHAN