The measure of a mayor

By TOM SHEEHAN  |  November 14, 2006

One need look no further than White’s first inaugural address for evidence on this score.  In the midst of his Dick Goodwin-penned remarked, White announced a four-point program for the city, only half of which – the search for top-quality talent and the creation of the Little City Halls – came to fruition.  The other two points were the creation of a form of metropolitan government for Boston and its suburbs (“We are part of one human settlement,” he said) and the creation of a Home Rule Commission to try to come up with ways to improve city government (because “the manifold complexities of a great city…cannot be met with the institutions and methods of an earlier time”).  Early in his first term, he did indeed produce a fairly high-powered commission, packed with prestigious academics, to do just that.” But after the blush was off the rose,” recalled ex-aide Colin Diver,  “the commission found it was getting no reinforcement from the mayor at all.  They submitted proposals (including one to combine several city departments) which he paid no attention to at all.  I think maybe a handful of their recommendations were submitted to the city council, but even those weren’t pushed.”

Driver experienced some personal frustration on the metropolitan government idea: it was he who was assigned to work out its details.  “I worked very hard to put together such a program, sort of a council of governments idea, and it got a fair amount of media play,” he said.  “But no sooner had we done the thing than Kevin just walked away, and he showed, little interest on the subject after that.”

But the metropolitan-government concept and the idea of a Home Rule Commission studying reorganization are hardly isolated cases of White plans that were ceremoniously announced and later unceremoniously dropped; the history of the White administration is filled with such cases – tax packages that were submitted once to the legislature, then never resubmitted, or clean air zones, or wars on arson. 

White has never been reluctant to scrap ideas, whether they originated with himself or one of his subordinates; he apparently has utter confidence in his ability to come up with new ones.  He has told aides that he is an idea man and needs them around simply to work out his notions.  Once, when he saw the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, about the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was particularly impressed that, once the diea had occurred to them, the Japanese sent one man into virtual seclusion for months to plot out the details  of the surprise attack.  Recalled a former White staffer: “The mayor used to say, ‘That’s what I need around here, somebody who’ll go down in the bunker for six months and work my ideas out.’”  There is little wrong with this method of operation, but problems arise when no one is assigned to ride herd on those ideas as they grow into detailed plans.  Such apparently is the case today.  Said Andrew Olins, White’s long-time housing adviser: “The management process is not a terribly orderly one.  I wish he had a chief of operations who handled the day-to-day functions of the government.”  Echoed a city councilman:  “The real problem with this current administration is that there is no strongman, or –woman, in it.”  In his first term in office this role was more than adequately filled by the energetic Barney Frank.  While the precise extent of his power is today debated by some White loyalists (one said, “Barney’s a lot like your uncle jIm who played for Princeton in the ‘30s – his fame grows with each passing year”). Frank undoubtedly held more delegated authority from the mayor than anyone since, in part because White was preoccupied with running for governor during much of that term.  After Frank came Robert Kiley, who rose to the position of deputy mayor before departing in 1975.  Yet even he did not have the enormous freedom White allowed Frank.  That he didn’t was deliberate.  “After Barney left,” said one former aide, “the mayor used to say that he never wanted anyone in that position again.  I think part of it was fear he had that since barney was perceived as so powerful, he – Kevin – was seen as a “lightweight.”    Said another ex-aide:  “When Barney left, (White) didn’t want anyone on that level arguing policy and politics.”  Former aide Ann Lewis who is Barney Frank’s sister, put it this way:  “If Kevin were to draw a model of what his administration looked like, it would be a quartz crystal, and he’ be the only focus.”

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

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