The measure of a mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  November 14, 2006

For White, though, Mrs. Hicks’s presence in the ’67 race meant that Boston’s deep racial problems were being uncapped just as he was making his entrance on the local political scene.  In the short run, it may have worked to his political advantage: the hardcore that supported Mrs. Hicks was never enough to put her over in a one-on-one race, and White was to beat her in two such campaigns, in ’67 and again in 1971.  But after having acted to cool racial tensions following the King assassination, and then directing perhaps more municipal attention toward Roxbury than it had ever received in the past, White turned to other matters, not the least of which was an unsuccessful attempt at the governor’s chair in 1970.  He recovered from that to win re-election over Mrs. Hicks the next year, and in ’72 came very close to being named George McGovern’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket.  His interest in national politics piqued by this near-miss, White began concentrating much of his time and energy on selling himself as a candidate for national office. 

Then, in 1974, Boston’s racial animosities rose again to deal White’s political ambitions a crippling blow.  It came courtesy of federal judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who ordered a massive busing plan aimed at desegregating the city’s school system.  As far as the mayor was concerned, the long-feared court order couldn’t have arrived at a worse time, because he was meeting with considerable success in his self-promotion efforts for national office, a campaign which he conducted largely through dinners with Democratic bigwigs and opinion makers at the Parkman House, the city-owned mansion on Beacon Hill.

“The Parkman House was really humming,” recalled one of White’s top aides from that period. “We had Bob Byrd (the Democratic senator from West Virginia) in, and Jimmy Carter, and a whole bunch of others – (Texas Senator) Lloyd Bensten, (then-Senator from Minnesota) Fritz Mondale.  We thought those dinners would put people in a trance, and they did.  We were reaping such enormous dividends with such a small investment of time.  Suddenly people like (New York Times columnist James) Reston were writing about him seriously, at least as a vice-presidential candidate.  He had youth, good black ties, he could talk with Harvard, he was Irish Catholic, with a young family, five kids, a handsome wife – he was looking very good.

“But by the summer of ’74 it had all come crashing down,” the ex-aide continued.”  And when the busing order came down (in June of ’74), we said to Kevin, “You’ve gotta start to have coffee klatches or else you’re gonna have dead kids on your hands.’  It was pretty sobering.  So the political people all of a sudden stopped doing profiles of Iowa and turned instead to East Boston.”

And so that summer White had the coffee klatches, meeting with community leaders on both sides of the busing issue.  He did it quietly, without publicity, in order to develop genuine contacts in both the black and white communities and also to avoid appearing a pro-buser.  At the same time, he assumed responsibility for the public safety during busing, creating a task force under the direction of aide Robert Kiley.  Today chairman of the MBTA, Kiley in a recent interview gave his old boss’s busing performance a largely favorable evaluation.  “He leapt into it in the late spring of ’74,” said Kiley,  “and did those coffee klatches at an incredible rate, often as many as six or seven a week, staying with it very well right up through October.  Then there was that famous Gerry Ford press conference, and things began to come apart.” 

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 See all articles by: TOM SHEEHAN