BOSTON — If you weren’t alive when Kevin White strode out of Boston City Hall and off the stage as mayor, you’re under 28 years old. I envy your youth, but you missed a hell of a show. He was the political version of watching the Boston Bruins’ legendary No. 4, Bobby Orr.
“Pound for pound, he was the best politician I ever saw,” remembers longtime Boston Herald reporter Peter Lucas. No wonder why the Kennedys saw him as a contender. The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy spiked White’s title shot to become vice president under George McGovern in 1972, not that it mattered in the end.
He was 38 when he got elected mayor of Boston (31 when he got elected to the first of three terms as Massachusetts secretary of state). He spent his 40s at the top of a city he kept building taller. His hair turned white prematurely, but it added to his grandeur. So too did the bushy eyebrows he carefully cultivated, according to friends. They made him look like Atlas. He had Muhammad Ali’s talent for admiring his own handiwork, which gave rise to the name “Kevin from Heaven.”
“I haven’t had anyone to talk to since [General Charles] de Gaulle died,” Lucas once quoted from his imagination of White’s secret diaries.
He was grand and he grew grander. But he knew every name from every ward in the city. “The best I ever saw,” says Ron Wysocki, a Boston Globe reporter and one of the best of his day. “The best politician I ever saw standing on his own two feet.” Sad to think that his demise involved a disease — Alzheimer’s — that would delete his memory.
First came the hand thrust forward, the hearty shake and then the touch, the follow-through of his hand to your back or shoulder. When Queen Elizabeth II came to Boston for the bicentennial, the protocol people told him not to touch her, which was like telling water not to flow. Watching the live TV coverage turned into a soap opera: would he or wouldn’t he? His right hand twitched in a state of agitation: extended, retracted, extended, retracted. In the end, White couldn’t keep his hands off the Royal Highness. He put the touch on everyone.
Walk downtown, past Quincy Market, feel the wind through the tunnel of towers, look up at the skyline, and chances are you’re looking at Kevin White’s Boston. Offices and edifices went up at a record clip. He vowed to create a city where people could “walk down to the sea,” a vision which eventually brought down the elevated Central Artery and reconnected downtown with the North End and the Waterfront.
The custodian of Boston’s Customs House, when it was a derelict building, once told me White had his own key to the place. He used to let himself in and take the slow elevator to the top of what was once Boston’s tallest building. He would stand out on the narrow parapet, a self-profile of the loner, and admire his work. Like the Imperial Romans looked out at the Mediterranean and called it Mare Nostrum, Kevin looked out and saw Urbs Mea — my city.
He loved to go to the top floor of the Boston Redevelopment Authority to gaze at the big scale model of downtown Boston with its buildings represented by wooden blocks. Wysocki once found him “standing in the goddamn sand-box moving the pieces!”
A dispute at the time pitted two sides and two competing sites for the offices of a cable TV operation. “‘Before they get it where they want it, I’ll show them,’ Kevin says, and then with the back of his hand he knocks down two blocks to show where it’s going.”
He wanted to be governor and entered the race in 1970 after just two years as mayor, only to have his clock cleaned by Frank Sargent, who even beat him in Boston, where the voters gave the overly ambitious young mayor his comeuppance. Sargent lasted four years and faded. But White, who showed true grit and proved to be one of the longest survivors in Massachusetts politics, came back to win re-election as mayor three times.
He renovated the city-owned Parkman House and turned the old stable behind it into a posh conference center and clubhouse. His events were catered by the best restaurants in town, at taxpayer expense. Lucas remembers city councilors sneaking out the printed menus and wine lists. He was “Kevin Deluxe.” He had style. He had the elusive and rare quality that the late and elegant newspaper columnist George Frazier called duende.
As a reform-minded liberal, White invented the concept of “Little City Halls” to attend to the needs of the neighborhoods. But Raymond Flynn, who bought his first suit to run for mayor and wore it every day, would prove the real Mayor of the Neighborhoods. Soon enough White was better known as Mayor Downtown.
It was trouble in the neighborhoods, the poor neighborhoods, which roiled his administration as racial tensions exploded when the era of court-ordered busing began. He had promoted diversity in government, but he also commanded the police, and to protect the buses and black students from stone-throwers and mobs, the police turned to billy clubs.
Fear, anger and rumors ran riot. In Southie, where state Sen. William Bulger was a hardline voice in opposition to forced busing, White feared assassination by Bulger’s mobster brother “Whitey.” In a recorded off-the-cuff, post-interview remark to my colleague Christopher Lydon at WGBH’s Ten O’Clock News, White once said, “I was never more scared in my life. … Whitey would be crazy enough to do it. And if they shoot me, they win all the marbles.”
Many saw White as a stabilizing force during those brutal and divisive years; others saw him as lacking leadership in what would be seen as a failed experiment that failed all the city’s neighborhoods without ever desegregating the affluent liberal suburbs.
Liberal, young and dynamic, at the high-water mark of 20th-century liberalism, he was becoming the Mayor of America, but — “Motha of Gawd,” as he used to exclaim — Kevin from Heaven built a machine that sometimes seemed like that of big boss Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago.
Looking to raise cash, or, as Wysocki tells it, to launder cash donations on hand to the tune of a hundred thousand dollars, the White machine announced a birthday party for his wife, Kathryn, in 1981. City employees were all invited — and told to bring something green.
“All the pols were watching to see if he got away with it,” Wysocki remembers, “because this was a new way of fundraising.”
If Wysocki’s story is right, the employees were given the money to buy their tickets, thereby laundering the money already on hand. But there were enough complaints from employees feeling the squeeze that soon enough wags were calling it the “Kathryn White Shakedown Ball.”
The party got called off, though the money wasn’t returned, and it became one of many targets for seven and a half years of criminal investigation by federal agents, led by U.S. Attorney William Weld. “They’re like children, mere children,” White dismissively observed to an associate.
But to a point the children were dangerous. They arrested and charged a number of people who worked for White, if not White himself.
“We were amateurs,” Weld once acknowledged to me. “The best we got was a utility player” — otherwise known as White’s fundraiser.
White’s attitude to dealing with the long investigation was reflected in an incident several years later. By then he was out of power and his friend, the former state Attorney General Edward McCormack, was under the scope of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team for real estate dealings connected to the downtown boom.
McCormack later told me of meeting White on the street. “He says, ‘You’re a lucky bastard.’ ”
“And I says, ‘I’m a lucky bastard? What you mean, Kevin? I’ve got the spotlight team after me. Why am I a lucky bastard?’ ”
“And Kevin says, ‘Did you read the story?’ And I says, ‘I started to, but I didn’t finish reading it.’ And Kevin says, ‘That’s what I mean, (it’s unreadable).’ ”
As another election approached in 1983, White, who was retreating more and more time into the drawing room of Parkman House, played Hamlet. Lucas took to calling him the “Yankee Clipper,” after White refused to bring him along on a trip to China and he was now tweaking him about his resemblance to Mao. From those fictional diaries of White, Lucas quoted this one: “I wish Mao was alive when I visited China, we could have learned from each other.”
“We had colluded on other stories,” Lucas recalled. “He was a terrific source for me.”
Lucas says he told White that he would like to break the story when White made his decision whether to run or leave office. Sure enough, he got a call from White the night before White went public.
“‘I’m running,’ he said. And I said to him, ‘Kevin, you’re not going to screw me, are you?’ And he said, ‘Oh, no. You’re all set.’ ”
The front page of the next morning’s Herald blared: “White Will Run.”
Later that day, when local TV stations went live to the mayor for his much-anticipated announcement, White announced he wasn’t running. In the Herald newsroom, reporters saw Lucas turn gunmetal gray. He walked to his typewriter and banged out his letter of resignation.
“I was stunned,” he remembers. When he handed the resignation over, the publisher said, “Oh forget it. This is great for circulation.”
As was Kevin White, out of circulation at 82, but everywhere in the heavens of the Boston skyline.