The measure of a mayor

What have ten years of Kevin White meant for Boston?
By TOM SHEEHAN  |  November 14, 2006

This article originally appeared in the May 2, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

“Permanence in office tends to stagnation… I’ll stay in politics as long as I have something to contribute.  As Kissinger said, ‘ Ten years is basically the maximum time for you to make a contribution.’” --Kevin H. White, then Massachusetts Secretary of State, in 1966.

A decade ago, on New Year’s Day, as nearly a thousand enthusiastic supporters crowded into tiny Faneuil Hall, Kevin H. White was sworn in as Boston’s 45th  mayor.  “For me this ceremony is a beginning,” the 38-year-old White began.  “For Boston it is a reaffirmation of a legacy of progress.”

It was a fine speech, written by former Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin, peppered with lines like, “The issue is whether change will be our master or whether we will master change.”  The crowd loved it, loved the handsome young mayor and his pretty young wife, and three times interrupted the proceedings with standing ovations.  Next morning the papers loved it, too: “The style and surroundings of the first Faneuil Hall mayoral inaugural in 50 years,” said the Herald Traveler’s lead story,” suggested (to some of the crowd)…that a new Kennedy-type administration might be in the offing at City Hall.”

Or at least Lindsay-type.  It was, after all, the mayoral age of the Big Apple’s John Lindsay, and White was cut in that mold – young, articulate, energetic, a man on the move with rolled-up shirtsleeves, loosened tie, jacket slung over his shoulder.  “Boston’s New Image,” blared a Globe headline after one of the new mayor’s frequent neighborhood walking tours.  And then, in larger print: “Man on Move, Kevin White Tours Domain, Charms all.”  Indeed.  A public opinion poll five months into his first term showed him with an astonishing 74 percent favorable rating with the electorate, and a mere four percent negative.

Today, a decade later, with John Lindsay all but forgotten and the Kennedy administration merely a fond memory for most New Englanders, Kevin White remains very much with us, midway through his unprecedented third term as mayor of Boston.  But time and the city’s political wars have not treated him kindly; today his public image is badly tarnished and his political fortunes are at an ebb.  The 74 percent favorable rating of ten years ago has become, in the most recent publicly available poll, 26 percent, while the unfavorable reading has jumped to a devastating 27.  With his political ambitions for higher office – state or national – apparently shattered, a mayor who once seemed so purposeful now appears almost uninterested in his job; certainly this third term in office lacks the direction so evident in the early days.

“The third term has been disappointing,” said state Rep. Barney Frank (D-Back Bay), who served as the mayor’s right-hand man during his first four years at City Hall.  “There’s a lack of focus, a sense of drift.  The mayor doesn’t seem to be providing the coordination.  The impression you get is that he’s kinda bored.”  So bored, some say, and cognizant of his low popularity that he may not even seek re-election when his current term expires next year.  (He has, however, bounced back from adversity frequently in the past, and he may be spurred to run again because he has no other attractive career options come ’79; in fact, he has already begun fundraising so he clearly hasn’t closed out any options.)

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