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EDWARD L. GLAESER

Kevin White’s best legacy

Barney Frank’s exit highlights long list of leaders discovered by Boston mayor

Mayoral aide Barney Frank, left, confers with Mayor Kevin White, right. White was mayor of Boston for 16 years.

FILE 1968/THE BOSTON GLOBE

Mayoral aide Barney Frank, left, confers with Mayor Kevin White, right. White was mayor of Boston for 16 years.

BARNEY FRANK’S impending exit from Congress is a milestone for the remarkable set of civic leaders who came of age working with Boston Mayor Kevin White. This roster included not just Frank, who served as White’s chief of staff, but Frank’s sister Ann Lewis, Paul Grogan, Robert Kiley, Peter Meade, Lowell Richards, Fred Salvucci, Micho Spring, and Bob Weinberg. Whether you agree with Frank’s politics, you cannot doubt his abilities, or that the civic engagement of the Kevin White generation helped rebuild Greater Boston. As they begin to retire, Boston must look to a new generation of civic leaders endowed with similar competence and idealism.

During White’s 16 years as mayor, his collection of talent reshaped the city, rebuilding Quincy Market, integrating the schools, and transforming Boston from a decaying industrial town into an information-age metropolis. After his term, they built the Big Dig (Salvucci) and beautified Post Office Square (Weinberg); they ran public transit in Boston and New York and brought congestion pricing to London (Kiley); they helped lead Massport (Richards, Weinberg) and the Democratic National Committee (Lewis); they headed the Boston Redevelopment Authority (Meade) and the Boston Foundation (Grogan)

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I have been lucky to know many of these people - Kiley and Spring serve on the advisory board of the Taubman Center, a research unit I direct - and have often asked how White attracted able young people to public service. The answer seems to be a potent cocktail of the times, the city, the leader, and the strength and depth of the talent cluster itself. Some of the forces that encouraged public service remain; others, like the idealistic times in which White became mayor, are long gone.

White was elected in 1967, during a hopeful period between James Michael Curley and Richard Nixon. Government service seemed to have moved past old-style corruption and was not yet clouded with modern cynicism. In 1968, 54 percent of Americans said that they trusted the federal government most of the time. That figure dropped to 23 percent by 1980 and it remains similarly low today. I understand that distrust well; I was born in 1967, and Watergate remains my earliest political memory.

But while our age may be less optimistic about national government, the capacity of city governments to improve people’s lives remains. They still oversee the public services, from schools to safety, that affect citizens’ lives most directly.

White combined two characteristics that made him particularly attractive to brilliant, ambitious idealists: high-minded, charismatic leadership and a loose style of management. Working for White meant meant joining a mission with moral meaning - and without tight bureaucratic constraints. You could quickly do big things. His decentralized approach helped his team become a self-sustaining cluster. The essence of any cluster - whether in Silicon Valley or on the fifth floor of City Hall- is that groups strengthen themselves by attracting new talent and exchanging ideas. Frank, as chief of staff, was often the recruiter, bringing people like the young Peter Meade into City Hall. I’ve heard many of White’s generation reminisce about the everyday collaboration and competition that brought out the best in all.

None of today’s best mayors speak the soaring rhetoric that was commonplace in the age of Kennedyesque mayors like White or New York’s John Lindsay. Today’s voters, including me, look for mayors who do the ordinary work of city government well, rather than for high-fliers who promise to right the world’s many wrongs. Yet while it is wiser for politicians to limit their promises to the possible, such realism is usually less inspiring.

Still, Tom Menino, who has now been mayor longer than White, can fairly claim that his “urban mechanic’’ approach has matched the achievements of his more glamorous predecessors. Despite our more cynical era, Menino has managed to attract remarkable people to government, like Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob, who were among Governing Magazine’s “Public Officials of the Year.” Smart, idealistic people still enjoy participating in a city government that seems so much more productive than the fractious partisanship of Washington.

I know some of them through the Rappaport Institute, which funds interns in city government and occasionally tries to offer free advice. Menino’s chief of staff, Mitchell Weiss, forgoes the cigars that fueled Frank when he had the same job, but still marshals remarkable intellectual firepower.

Will Menino’s protégés provide as much long-term leadership as the Kevin White generation? Let’s hope.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is author of “The Triumph of the City.’’ His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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