The measure of a mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  November 14, 2006

The essential details of the Ford incident are these: on October 9, in the midst of a routine Rose Garden press conference, the then-president was asked his thoughts on Boston’s busing situation.  After deploring violence (who doesn’t?), Ford called Judge Garrity’s order “not the best solution to quality education,” adding that that he had “consistently opposed forced busing to achieve racial balance.”  On October 10, an angry White answered the president’s remarks at a press conference of his own.  No doubt moticated in part by a desire to gain the national spotlight in a confrontation with Ford (on which level he succeeded, at least in the network coverage that evening), White blasted Ford for “impeding the enforcement of a federal court order…jeopardizing the civil and human rights of the citizens of this city…(and) challenging the rule of law throughout this land.”  But then, to dramatize his anger at the federal government (and perhaps again to avoid the image of a gung-ho pro-buser), White continued: “I will not publicly support on my own volition the implementation of the second phase of the plan,: scheduled for the fall of 1975, until he got some assurances of support from the feds.  (That he was talking about the upcoming Phase Two, as opposed to the then-current plan, was one of the little subtleties that escaped many people.)  Former aide Kiley feels that the mayor had another, more basic motivation.  “I think he felt,” Kiley told us, “that every other actor had covered his ass at Kevin White’s expense.”

In retrospect, White’s feelings of isolation and abandonment are understandable: the busing plan that had begun that September was enormously unpopular in town, met with militant resistance (and occasional incidents of violence), particularly in South Boston, and was accomplished only through a massive police presence.  With other politicians were gleefully jumping on the anti-busing bandwagon (and liberal pols scurried for cover), White was left smack in the middle of things, trying to keep the peace and thus appearing – to the anti-busers as a friend of the hated Garrity.  (He had been forced, much against his wishes, to play a more visible television role in busing’s early days than he had planned).  And so after the Ford run-in he pulled back, pretty much leaving the mess in the hands of Kiley and his task force.  He would emerge again forcefully only in the spring of 1976, when a severed wave of racial violence threatened to engulf the city.  (It was the time when a white, Richard Poleet, was dragged from his car and left paralyzed fro life by a gang of black youths, and a black, Theodore Landsmark, was assaulted by flag-bearing white youths on City Hall Plaza.  White led a massive March Against Violence, and the ugliness soon passed.)

If busing severely damaged his local political base, the national media coverage of a city gripped by racial violence and presided over by Kevin White essentially crushed his national political hopes. “Busing was the issue which derailed his chances of pursuing national office,” said a former aide, “and there was nothing he could do about it.  That was the start of the tragic Greek period in Kevin’s career.  There was some force out there, and – lo and behold – it kept falling on Kevin White.”  Alan Lupo, the former Globe columnist and WGBH-TV reporter who chronicled the city’s busing crisis (and a great deal of its ethnic history) in his book Liberty’s Chosen Home, describes this same phenomenon as White’s “siege mentality.”  Said Lupo:  “Whoever built that City Hall built it as a fortress, and Kevin was the perfect first occupant.”

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 See all articles by: TOM SHEEHAN