The measure of a mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  November 14, 2006

Whether White is currently presiding over his final days at Boston City Hall or not, he’s already served as mayor for full ten years, and by the standard he borrowed from Henry Kissinger, it’s not too soon to attempt to evaluate his contribution to the city.  Just what has Kevin White done for Boston, and where has he failed?  To what extent has this contribution been shaped by the man’s personality, and to what extent by his political ambitions?  White is a complex man, enormously talented and intelligent, and he can be extremely persuasive when he chooses to turn on the charm.  Yet he is also given to powerful moods; one aide describes him as “a man of compulsive cycles who gets obsessed with a person or idea or project, embraces it completely for a while, then rejects it utterly.”  A former aide observed: “His has been such a frenetic, idiosyncratic performance.  The barometric pressure is always rising and falling.  But how have White’s peaks and valleys affected the city and its inhabitants?  For more than a month, in an effort to get a better sense of the man and his accomplishments, we spoke to many of those who once worked closely with him in key roles at his City Hall, as well as many of those who still do.  We posed these questions, and the assessment that follows is assembled from the answers.

“I honestly believe,” candidate White told a TV audience in November of 1967, “that the kind of mayor this city has during the next fours years is going to be critically important….If we have a mayor that plays on the frictions, then this city is going to tear itself apart.  But if we have a mayor who can work to bring our city together, to smooth over the frictions and heal the sores, then there is great hope that these problems can eventually be worked out.”

Four months into White’s first term, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in Memphis.  For several days thereafter, while many of the nation’s great cities burned, Boston teetered on the brink of violence.  White and his staff worked around the clock to prevent it; the new mayor himself did not sleep for 30 straight hours.  “I am your mayor no less than another’s,” he told the city’s black population.  “I am Doctor King’s disciple no less than you.”  And they seemed to believe him; this was, after all, the enlightened mayor who just a month earlier had termed the Kerner Report on the causes of violence in the cities “required reading for every conscientious thoughtful citizen,” and who coupled this judgment with the announcement that a thousand low-income housing units would soon be scattered throughout the city under a new program he had devised.  (The program, called Infill Housing, proved to be a disaster, and few of the promised units were ever completed.  “The notion that we could build housing for welfare families in East Boston and West Roxbury seems incredibly naïve,” mused one of White’s former aides in a recent Phoenix interview.  “Where the hell did we get a notion like that?”)  After the King assassination, though, White appeared remarkably savvy for a white Boston politician dealing with the city’s black community, and there can be little doubt that his calming influence contributed to the relative peace there, as scattered incidents of violence remained just that.  In retrospect, the new mayor’s behavior in that crisis may have been less important than his very presence at City Hall after all, when he suggested during the ’67 campaign that the police should consider using “non-lethal weapons” to put down disturbances , his opponent, School Committeewoman Louise Day Hicks, responded: “I guess I’m not familiar with these non-lethal weapons.  When I send the Boston police force in to quell a riot, I want (them) to quell I with the weapons (they) have.”  What such a policy might have been translated into, in April of 1968, is left, fortunately, to the imagination.

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

 See all articles by: TOM SHEEHAN