A feud that has festered for three decades - one deeply embedded in the folklore of Boston political journalism and city politics - erupted into a verbal brawl Monday night on the set of the public affairs television show, “Greater Boston.’’
It was a blowout that centered on the late Kevin White, the sort of political flare-up that the former mayor seemed to relish, evoking the rough-and-tumble quality of Boston politics in that era.
The anger broke out when Emily Rooney, the host of “Greater Boston’’ on WGBH (Channel 2), opened the final segment of her show by holding up the Boston Herald front page from May, 26, 1983, that blares the infamously erroneous headline, “White Will Run.’’
It was a scoop that Peter Lucas, then a Herald columnist, thought the mayor had given him a night earlier, only to learn 24 hours later that White would not seek a fifth term.
For a brief time, the Herald seemed to have beaten all of its competitors among the Boston news media in the feeding frenzy to get the hottest political story of the year.
Rooney’s display of the incorrect headline on Monday - and, with it, her assertion that White had purposely deceived Lucas - touched off a full frontal attackon the former Herald columnist by her second guest, George Regan, a Boston public relations heavyweight.
At the time of the 1983 incident, Regan was White’s press secretary.
Exactly what was said during the segment, which was recorded, is being kept under wraps by Rooney and her producers. They declined a request by the Globe for a copy of the segment that never aired.
But the screaming match appears to have centered on whether White intentionally misled Lucas about his plan to run again, causing the erroneous headline and story or whether Lucas misinterpreted what White told him. The verbal exchange was intense enough that Rooney was forced to junk the take, calm down her guests, and reshoot the segment so it was suitable for television.
Interviews yesterday with both Lucas and Regan confirmed the essential facts and the bitter tone that engulfed what is usually a collegial public affairs show.
Regan was indignant, holding back little in denouncing Lucas for perpetuating what he said was a myth. Even Rooney, a seasoned television interviewer and host, was seemingly unable to redirect the conversation.
Yesterday, Regan showed no signs of regret over the scuffle.
“On the evening before Kevin’s wake, I was going to make sure the record was set straight,’’ said Regan who helped arrange White’s funeral.
“I’ve had a very draining week,’’ Regan said. “Kevin White was like a second father to me. I needed to rebut what Lucas has been saying. . . . Kevin would have haunted me the rest of my life if I hadn’t.’’
When Regan refused to let up on his attacks on Lucas, the columnist, who now writes for The Sun in Lowell, said he forcefully defended himself.
By that time, the segment had just about ended. As it did, producers emerged from the control room and asked that the show be redone, promising to keep the focus on light stories about White and the media.
Lucas said he reluctantly agreed, still seething over what he believed was a bushwhacking from Regan and WGBH’s failure to control it.
Lucas, who covered White from 1963 when he was secretary of state until he left City Hall in January, 1984, said he was at first shocked at Regan’s assault and then angered.
Lucas said that White himself on several occasions acknowledged he had deliberately misled him on the reelection story, though now, he said, he has fond memories of the former mayor.
“He’s delusional,’’ Lucas said yesterday of Regan.
He also blamed the show’s producers and Rooney for provoking a fight over an incident that took place decades ago. Regan and Lucas had not talked since.
“Here we are, supposed to talk about Kevin White and some media stories about him, but then suddenly I was under attack for a 29-year-old story,’’ he said.
In 1983 Lucas, then a gruff, hard-hitting columnist, was at the height of his influence in Massachusetts politics, and White was often the target of his barbs. Lucas dubbed White Mayor Deluxe for his lavish refurbishing of the Parkman House.
But what particularly got under White’s skin was when Lucas called him the “China Clipper.’’ The mayor had barred Lucas from traveling with him on an official trip to China in 1982. That prompted the new nickname, which Lucas admits was coined in spite, a vague allusion to the federal investigation into allegations that White strong-armed political donors for a birthday party bash.
The mayor was never charged with wrongdoing.
As Boston awaited the mayor’s decision on whether to run for a fifth term the next year, Lucas reached White in New York and told him he was convinced he would run again. He said the mayor never said he was running, but told him he would not be wrong to write that.
Regan recalls another version of events. He said he was at White’s side that night. He contended that Lucas asked if he would be fired if he wrote that the mayor was running, and White assured him he would not be, but gave no indication of his decision.
Whatever happened, the incident became legend.